Kazuo Ishiguro, Nocturnes: Five stories of music and nightfall

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
ISBN: 9780571244997