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Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes: Five stories of music and nightfall

December 5, 2009
Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005 (Courtesy: Mariusz Kubik CC-BY-SA 3.0)

I like Kazuo Ishiguro – and have read 5 of his 6 novels – so I was looking forward to reading Nocturnes, his first published collection of short stories. Nocturnes, as the subtitle describes, comprises five short stories, each focussing in some way on music, and on a day’s end.

The five stories – a couple of them with overlapping characters – are unmistakably Ishiguro. All have first person narrators, and in all cases the narrator is either unreliable or in some other way not completely across what is going on. This is the Ishiguro stamp … as is the overall tone of things not being quite right, of potential not being quite achieved, of people still looking for an elusive something but not necessarily knowing quite what that is.

When reviewing a short story collection I don’t necessarily feel the need to list each story but with there being so few in this case, I think I will, so here they are:

  • “Crooner”: an aging crooner, with the narrator as his accompanist, serenades his young wife from a gondola at a time when their marriage is breaking down
  • “Come rain or come shine”: a nearly 50-year old ESL teacher visits old university friends, only to find that their relationship is under stress
  • “Malvern Hills”: a not-yet-successful young rock guitarist visits his sister and brother-in-law in the country, and meets some Swiss tourists who are also musicians and whose marriage is a little rocky. (Hmm… see a theme developing here?)
  • “Nocturne”: another not-very-successful musician (this time a saxophonist) finds himself in the same hotel as the (now ex-)wife from the first story, while they are both recuperating from plastic surgery
  • “Cellists”: a cellist with potential is mentored by another cellist who is not quite what she seems

While there is a similarity in the tone of these stories, there are also differences. “Come rain or come shine” and “Nocturne”, for example, are a little reminiscent of When we were orphans in the sense that Ishiguro slowly (even in a short story!) but surely leads his characters (and we readers alongside) into increasingly bizarre, if not almost surreal, behaviours. Moreso than the other stories, these two have a comic, albeit tinged with pathos, edge.

The technique Ishiguro uses to present his notions of failing or missed potential is one common to most of his writing: he explores and exposes the gap between appearance and reality. This gap is given literal expression in “Nocturne” where two would-be stars are both bandaged for most of the story as a result of their plastic surgery, but it is there in all the stories: from the first story’s Tony and Libby Gardner who are separating for the most “superficial” of reasons to the last story’s self-described virtuoso cellist. It is found in Ray Charles’ version of the title song in “Come rain or come shine” “where the words themselves were happy, but the interpretation was pure heartbreak”. This gap is also conveyed through the prevaricative words commonly used by Ishiguro’s narrators, such as “I guess”, “perhaps”, “maybe” and “probably”:

I guess it showed in our music (“Crooner”)

Perhaps it was simply the effect of receiving a clear set of instructions (“Come rain or come shine”)

Maybe they were just tired. For all I know, they might have … All the same, it seemed to me (“Malvern Hills”)

… that probably means … and Maybe it was plain spinelessness. Or maybe I’d taken on board … (“Nocturne”)

Maybe there was a tiny bit if jealousy there … and … well, maybe there’s something in that (“Cellists”)

Ishiguro’s hallmarks of misconceptions and misconstructions, assumptions and self-deceptions are all evident here…sometimes in the narrator, sometimes in the other characters, sometimes in both.

The stories stand alone but, somewhat like Tim Winton‘s The turning, there’s a feeling that these stories go together, not just because of the recurring characters in two of them, and the apparent similarity of setting in the first and last stories, but also because of the recurring musical motif and the consistency in theme. If I were a musical expert rather than dilettante I might have tried to relate the five stories to some sort of musical structure but, fortunately for you, I am just the dilettante! That said there are some neat little links between the first and last stories which round them off nicely, just like a well-conceived piece of music.

There are no twists in the tail or crashing codas in these stories. This may disappoint some readers but, for me, they are deliciously conceived quiet, subtle stories that cleverly draw you into their characters’ lives while at the same time leaving you with the impression that you should keep your distance lest you too suffer from their malaise and disappointments.

Kazuo Ishiguro
Nocturnes: Five stories of music and nightfall
London: Faber and Faber, 2009
221pp.
ISBN: 9780571244997

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2009 8:11 am

    A fine review. I didn’t notice the connections between the first and end stories but can see what you mean. I’ve never heard the word prevaricative but it makes sense – the nearest explanation I found of it was on Wiktionary – “evade shuffle quibble dodge adumbrate” – quite! The whole work is an evasion – Ishiguro evades confrontation and prefers to sidestep. This gives the dream-like quality to his work. I would say this work is typical Ishiguro and contains that disjointed atmosphere that reached a pinnacle in The Unconsoled – my favorite of all his works.

    Its also an attractively produced book – something I always appreciate!

  2. December 7, 2009 8:28 am

    LOL Tom, WordPress’s spell check hadn’t heard of it either but some internet dictionaries knew it…my simple synonym is “beat around the bush”, or not want to actually commit…so evade, shuffle work well.”Disjointed” is a good description. The unconsoled is THE one I haven’t read and I’d like to rectify that. Of the others it’s hard to pick the best but the two that have stuck most in my mind is Remains of the day and When we were orphans. Anyhow, thanks for your comment … I particularly like commenting when I’ve actually read the book being reviewed!

  3. July 26, 2010 12:36 am

    An excellent review. I have yet to read ‘The Unconsoled’ or ‘Remains of the Day’, but I will get round to it eventually. The disjointed approach as you both mention could have worked a lot better, but for me when I read ‘Nocturnes’ it seems like he was bored and just wanted to get it over and done with.

    There just wasn’t the concentration he had in say ‘Pale View of Hills’. That was also quite short, but it had a direction. ‘Nocturnes’ for me felt like a broken melody. Each story has a potential that you can see, but it’s not quite reached. But still, it hasn’t put me off Ishiguro. On the contrary, I look forward to reading more of his work!

    • July 26, 2010 9:32 am

      Glad you liked the review even if not the book! Remains of the day was the first of his that I’ve read . The unconsoled is the only one of his that I haven’t (yet) read. From my point of view the weakest was Never let me go. Not a bad book at all, but it didn’t quite come together for me and I tend to forget he wrote it which seems to suggest that it didn’t sound like him! LOL.

  4. October 21, 2010 3:32 am

    Amazing review! You have brought out so many things that I missed: the intertwining effects between stories, the song lyrics, the inner emotions of characters. I must go and read it again. At first reading, I felt that the five stories were like a song cycle, or like the ‘Trout Quintet’ by Schubert. This could be the reason for my disappointment … for me, a classical music lover, the title Nocturnes evoke the piano music of Chopin. So I was a bit let down to find there’s no connection to what I was expecting in any of the stories.

    Regarding Never Let Me Go, I’d have to say it’s one of my favourite Ishiguro book, maybe second to Remains of the Day. Although I must say, I need to go back and reread all of them. The reason is obvious as I read your review here: I could have missed a few things on first reading 😉

    Thanks for an insightful post!

    • October 21, 2010 9:22 am

      Wow, thanks Arti. Sometimes it is easy to write a good or useful review of a writer who just somehow speaks to you, and for some reason Ishiguro does to me.

      Re the Nocturnes motif – my usual practice in situations like these is not to look for tight metaphorical/symbolic relationships but something looser. I think he liked the word “nocturne” because of its double relationship to music and night/end of day. I love Chopin – and classical music in general – but am not musically trained, which probably helped me take this “looser” interpretation of the word here!

      BTW Being interested in music, you’ve probably read The unconsoled? It’s the only one of his I haven’t read, and must get to it one day.

      • October 21, 2010 4:56 pm

        Yes I have, but that was a long time ago so I don’t quite remember the details except some dream like situation about a classical pianist, what, forgetting his own concert? Something like that. I’ve read all of Ishiguro’s books except A Pale View of Hills. Other than the more recent Nocturnes and Never Let Me Go, I read all the other ones years ago. I’ll have to reread them all!

  5. October 21, 2010 5:06 pm

    Arti, yes, me too – except for those two you mention I read the others a long time ago. The unconsoled had quite mixed reviews as I recollect but it sounds as thought it might have something in common with When we were orphans and that flight into that surreal world. I’d love to reread Artist and Hills again … in particular. And Remains of the day, well, that’s a really great novel isn’t it?

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