Ishiguro's Nocturnes

TALK to anyone in the publishing industry and they’ll tell you about their frustration with short stories. Everyone wants to write them, it seems, but no one wants to read them and in these times of economic hardship, short story collections are a big no-no.

TALK to anyone in the publishing industry and they’ll tell you about their frustration with short stories. Everyone wants to write them, it seems, but no one wants to read them and in these times of economic hardship, short story collections are a big no-no.

The British writer Kazuo Ishiguro is an exception to most every literary rule including, just recently, the short story prohibition. Still probably best known for his masterful novel The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize and was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins, Ishiguro is among the most successful contemporary literary talents, both in terms of critical acclaim and bottom-line popularity. So much so that while we wait for a follow up to 2005’s Never Let Me Go, Faber and Faber has released Nocturnes, a collection of five loosely linked short stories, centring (with varying degrees of tenuousness) on the theme of music. The hardback came out in 2009, but Nocturnes is now in paperback too. Like anything by Ishiguro, it has sold in heaps and is immediately accessible, while remaining reliably highbrow.

Of course the very subject of Nocturnes also represents a flight in the face of convention. Writing about music has been famously dismissed as the equivalent of dancing about architecture (i.e. impossible and pointless) but Ishiguro does not fall into the trap of attempting to bring sounds to the page. Despite carrying the sub-heading “Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” Nocturnes could more accurately be described as five stories of musicians and their troubles with mediocrity. “Nightfall” in Ishiguro’s world so often represents the death of a dream or the end of an illusion and his musicians here – like his pianist in The Unconsoled or painter in An Artist of the Floating World – are at once fragile and confused, yet deluded too. Only one of them, the aging singer Tony Gardner in the first story of the collection, Crooner, could be considered a commercial success, but his tale is one of loneliness and loss, flavoured by the melancholy and regret of a man who put career ahead of love.

This theme alone is nothing remarkably unique, but Ishiguro’s fluency and tone is itself almost musical. Crooner, which is by some measure the best story in the collection, is narrated by a jobbing Polish musician in a café band in Venice. “I remember once last summer going from band to band and playing ‘The Godfather’ nine times in one afternoon”, he says, but for the time we share with him, he is enlisted in a less generic role. He is to provide musical accompaniment to Gardner’s final, aching act of romance to a sweetheart he must leave. We are taken aboard a gondola, piped the sounds of guitar and baritone, backed by a woman’s tears. In Ishiguro’s hands, the components come together to form something lush and tragic but also uplifting. It is also short and fleeting but complete. This is the recipe for both brilliant song-writing and the short story and represents a winning marriage of style and subject.

While this “single” is a triumph, however, the “album” of Nocturnes does not necessarily hold together so well. In Come Rain or Shine, an underachieving, jazz-obsessed middle-ager visits former university friends and finds himself farcically humiliated. The laughs are awkward and the plot contrived; it is a discordant whole. The narrator of Malvern Hills, meanwhile, is a familiar breed of self-important song-smith, a match for Dylan in his own head, yet useful to the wider world only as a short order cook in his sister’s greasy spoon. I’m not sure he warranted even the uneasy redemption he finds.

Ishiguro’s characters rarely have an accurate idea of their own worth: some, like Tibor in Cellists, begin to believe their own hype, but others seem to regard “potential” as an immaculate virtue, which can only be sullied by the attempt to fulfil it. They take jobs in hotels, undergo plastic surgery, or live a life of bitterness. It is perhaps an accurate depiction of real-life, struggling musicianship, but what happened to heroes we can get behind, even if they are out of tune?

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