Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro
3 August, 2011
It’s been a while since I read anything by Ishiguro, except for A Pale View of Hills earlier this year. My favourite of his novels is The Remains of the Day, and although A Pale View of the Hills left me troubled, I couldn’t deny Ishiguro’s mastery of the English Language. And so it is with Nocturnes, Ishiguro’s latest piece, a collection of short stories. I’ve been a long-time lover of short stories. I like picking them up during a bath or just before bed. I like their compactness, their discreteness. They’re like quanta of story-telling floating about that you can just pick up and absorb any time you want, and in any order. So I was kind of a excited about Nocturnes, subtitled Stories of Music and Nightfall, a very loosely linked set of stories all swirling around the locus of music and musicality. But essentially, Ishiguro is writing about people. It’s the characters in his stories that come alive.
Reading his measure and assured prose, Ishiguro makes it look so easy to write well. I slipped into them so easily, and was totally cocooned in the little worlds he created that I surprised myself. I had forgotten how lovely it was to be immersed in good writing.
There are five stories in Nocturnes and I read them in order, although I don’t think it matters too much. In Crooner, a guitarist from the former Soviet Union who is playing in the Piazza San Marco comes upon his mother’s favourite singer, Tony Gardner, and gets talking to him. Tony is there with his wife Lindy but all is not as it seems. In Come Rain or Come Shine, Raymond, who hasn’t fulfilled his potential, returns to London to stay with his successful university friends, Charlie and Emily who treat him like a pitiful loser despite their own problems. Hilarious. Malvern Hills, the gentlest of the five stories, is about a young man trying to stay true to his music who spends the summer away from London where music seems to have lost its way. In the titular story, Nocturnes, a failed jazz saxophonist tries to revive his career by going under the knife to improve his looks. And in Cellists, a young Hungarian classically trained cellist encounters a mentor who brings out a depth to his music yet hides behinds her words.
It’s difficult for me to choose which is my favourite. I liked all of them, and although they differed, they weren’t too different. However, one of the things that surprised me was the inherent humour in the stories that burst out at surprising intervals which made me laugh out loud. Maybe I found them so funny because they were interspersed with glimpses of desolation in ordinary life. The stories are not melancholic in the traditional sense, but they are about growing older, the shattering of fragile dreams, of never quite being confident enough to keep hold of what you really want. Ishiguro’s prose is beautiful and funny and delicate. Yet there is a vitality and robustness to the stories that will catch you by surprise.
I’m not such a big fan of music in my literature and tend to shy away from books that are specifically for music-lovers. It’s ok, but I tend to zone out if there is a lot of stuff of which I’m unfamiliar, just because my listening repertoire is very narrow. I love listening to music, but I don’t listen to it every day (I know, I’m weird). But I liked what Ishiguro did with Nocturnes because is showed me that music is a part of everyday life but that it is different to different people.
So I’m really glad this was chosen for my book group, The Riverside Readers. Our discussion was lively and most of us agreed that although Nocturnes isn’t Ishiguro’s best and that the stories didn’t have enough punch in them to be memorable, it’s still a lovely read that’s relatively easy and fast but leaves you with a fleeting sense of nostalgia and what could have been. And the cover art captures the essence of Ishiguro’s stories perfectly!