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!

You all know how much I love Kazuo Ishiguro, right? Especially The Remains of the Day which is a sublime novel of repressed emotions and mistaken notions of duty. So I was really looking forward to reading A Pale View of Hills for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 4. It’s a well written story which addresses some interesting themes, but can someone tell me what it’s all about??? Because I finished it completely confused with a big question mark hanging over my head.

The cover says it’s ‘a story of betrayal and survival amidst the wasteland of Nagasaki‘. There is a supernatural and almost gothic flavour to Ishiguro’s tale, yet I finished the book with a feeling of ambiguity, almost like when I finished Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. If you’ve read it, you’ll probably understand what I mean. I’m not really sure what happened there.

The story is essentially that of Etsuko, a Japanese widow living in the UK who has just lost her eldest daughter Keiko to suicide. Niki, Keiko’s half-British sister, is visiting from London. As the two bicker and pass the days together, avoiding Keiko’s old room, Etsuko is reminded of post-war Nagasaki when, pregnant with Keiko, she befriends the enigmatic Sachiko and her daughter Mariko who lived in a cottage across from her new flat.

The tale is a collage of Etsuko’s life in Britain after her daughter’s suicide, her earlier home life in Japan, with her first husband Jiro and her father-in-law who is visiting, and her strange, fragile friendship with Sachiko. Ishiguro brilliantly conveys the tension and the strict patriarchal family life where the husband is the king of his domain. And Sachiko is sufficiently selfish with an agenda of her own to better her life abroad. And you feel sorry for Mariko, unsure about Sachiko’s love for her, and traumatised by the war. I liked Ishiguro’s treatment of contemporary British life shown through Niki, yet there seems to be a real absence of companionship and familial love in this novel.

In some ways I was reminded of the translations of Tanizaki and Endo which I have been reading the last few years. It’s as if Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki but brought up in the UK since he was a child and writes in English, is trying to write a novel as though it is written by a Japanese writer and translated into English. It has that same sparseness and abruptness that we have all become familiar with. It’s very different from the rich and beautiful prose of The Remains of the Day and I was rather surprised by it. In some ways Ishiguro has created THE Japanese novel but the sharp contrast of the chapters based on Etsuko’s later life in England (which I rather liked) plus the gothic/supernatural element in the story lifts it from what is expected.

The ending which meshed Etsuko’s earlier memories with her present circumstances reveals the unreliability of the main character. Who is the story really about? Did Sachiko really exist? I’m no longer sure. Ishiguro leaves a lot to your imagination (for instance we never find out how Etsuko came to leave Japan) and makes you want to re-read the book again just to check whether you have missed anything. Come to think of it, it’s quite a spectacular book, if not something I expected.

I’m currently half way through Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s Picking Bones from Ash which I’m finding enchanting and quite different to what I expected as well. Can you see I’m trying to squeeze in one final book for this challenge which ends on January 31st?

Second hand book loot

10 October, 2009

I know, I know, I just stocked up on Persephones last week and here I am again, writing another list of books I acquired. That’s the problem with running into second hand bookshops. This time it was the Oxfam bookshop on Marylebone High Street. When I was working near there, I used to pop in every few weeks just to see what there was, but these days I rarely go near there, so when I had the chance last Saturday, I scooted right in. And look what I found.

The Tenderness of Wolves by Steff Penney
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt
Maharanis by Lucy Moore
Kapitza in Cambridge and Moscow edited by J.W. Boag, P.E. Rubinin and D. Shoenberg

In the book blogging world, people’s thoughts and prospective reading material have slowly turned towards Autumn and the slightly chilly. Considering how much I read, it’s never crossed my mind to read seasonally before. And so many people do so, which surprised me at first, yet makes so much sense. And all of a sudden I felt like searching out Steff Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves which has had so many great reviews and won the 2006 Costa Book of the Year. And the day after I put it on my wish list, I spy it in the Oxfam bookshop. Once again, I cry fate! And David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk about the Indian mathematician Ramanujan together with the book on Russian physicist Kapitza is a no brainer, both early twentieth century history of science related books (that includes fiction too!) And the Ishiguro is one I haven’t read but have heard good things about, and Maharanis because I like reading about the Indian Sub-continent and if it’s about the 1930s even better. Pretty good selection and all for £13.

Kazuo Ishiguro

21 August, 2009


When I posted my favourite general/literary fiction favourites, I forgot to include one of my favourite writers: Kazuo Ishiguro! Only after reading a review of Never Let Her Go on Stuck In A Book did it hit me that I had made an error and so I’m quickly typing away trying to make amends to the great Ishiguro and rectifying my mistake.

Initially I was drawn to Ishiguro because of his Japanese name. I thought, ‘Aha, here is a Japanese author who is a literary great in Britain.’ This was years before Haruki Murakami became a byword amongst the western literary crowd and around the time that Remains of the Day won Anthony Hopkins his Oscar nomination.

I began with An Artist of the Floating World in which Ishiguro explores the impact of Japan’s imperialism and its effects post-war on collaborators while also writing about life as an artist during this period. I then moved on to When We Were Orphans because I am drawn to anything relating to the interwar period and this was set in Shanghai in the 1930s and was also a mystery. I liked them both, but it wasn’t until I read Remains of the Day that I trully felt what a great writer Ishiguro is. It is the epitome of a tightly constructed novel where every word is chosen with such care that they could not possibly belong anywhere else. It is a study in sparsity, conciseness and understated prose and I read the book eagerly, but with real care. I normally tend to skim-read my books (because I’m a fast reader and also because I want to know what happens next) but with this book Ishiguro made me take my time.

I think with any great book that you read, you will always measure the writer’s other works against it. Like Stuck in a Book, Never Let Me Go left me with an impression of the story rather than a full picture. It was eerie and creepy and different, although I have come across stories about organ donors/clones in Japanese manga (for example Kaguyahime by Reiko Shimizu).

Of Granta’s Best of the Young British Novelists: 1983, such as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro is probably my favourite (but I have yet to read Pat Barker’s Life Class which is on my TBR bookshelf, so who knows?)