Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Pictured: The library copy of Ishiguro’s Nocturnes with its beautiful blue cover and beside it, my favourite bookmark.

After really enjoying An Artist of the Floating World and recently, Never Let Me Go, I had certain expectations from this book. In a way, it’s very typically Ishiguro and in another, it’s really not what I had in mind.

Nocturnes is a collection of short stories, as the title says: five short stories of music and nightfall. I loved two, fairly liked another two, and was entirely confused and disappointed by one. The book has a nostalgic, almost silly romantic air to it and shows the way music intensely affects people and relationships. The stories are tied together by a sense of lingering regret. There are some recurring characters.
Crooner: This is the first story in the collection and one that I really loved. A Polish guitar player meets the once famous musician Tony Gardner at a piazza where he spends time playing for various groups, bored by the monotony of his life. After spending a day with Tony Gardner, our narrator realizes that his idol and inspiration is like every other man, lost and desperate. The musician is not really his music, just the way an author, I suppose, isn’t necessarily his book. In that one encounter the guitar player learns a lot, perhaps more than he wants to, about Mr. Gardner, his wife Lindy and the world they live in. He is surprised, shocked, touched and awed, but by the end, unsurprisingly, the encounter hardly affects his idea of the singer. The build up to the tragi-comic ending is nice and what could have been a rather wordy narration is delightfully conversational. The story is beautiful in its simplicity.

“..his voice came out just the way I remembered it – gentle, almost husky, but with a huge amount of body, like it was coming through an invisible mike. And like all the best American singers, there was that weariness in his voice, even a hint of hesitation, like he’s not a man accustomed to laying open his heart this way. That’s how all the greats do it.”

Come Rain Or Come Shine: This story was very weird and I don’t know, maybe I just didn’t understand it well, because if I did, then I don’t know why the hell it was part of this collection. A man visits his old friends and realizes that their marriage is falling apart, that he is meant to patch things up between them by making the wife see how miserable he is and how happy they are in comparison. I don’t like to watch physical comedy and even less to read it. So the scene where the woman walks in on the friend wrecking her house and chewing paper, while staging a fake dog attack was very awkward. And I get that the story was more than that: it was about the pathetic idea that the only thing this man’s friends appreciated in him was his taste in music and how, even though they had bonded over it so well, they didn’t think it mattered. That’s all I can think of. So I’m assuming I didn’t understand this story or why it was humorous: I do welcome explanations.

Malvern Hills: This is another story in the collection that I thought was just fabulous. It’s written in a lazy, meandering tone and lets on a lot more about the narrator than the narrator perhaps intends, which reminded me of Never Let Me Go. The book jacket describes this as the story of “a struggling singer-songwriter unwittingly involved in the failing marriage of a couple he’s only just met.” It’s about being a struggling artist and having to deal with people who don’t value art or understand why you want to be a artist, it’s about that odd connection and sense of belonging between complete strangers, who only having in common that shared passion, about music transporting you to a different place, about being cruelly snatched back to reality every time. Ishiguro has this knack of focusing on the little moments and making them big, vivid.

“A power cyclist, kitted out in what looked like a black wetsuit, went speeding by us, and for the next few moments, we all watched his frantic receding shape.”

Nocturne: The title story is odd, nice, though not my favourite. The characters are pitiable and funny; the story features Lindy Gardner from Crooner, in a hotel room with her face wrapped in bandages following a plastic surgery. Starring alongside her, in the room next-door, is our narrator, a talented but underrated jazz musician, who has convinced himself that plastic surgery will bring him the fame he deserves. It’s a sad story about shallow artificiality, about groping blindly in the dark, about jealousy and all those little emotions that blur out the rest of the world and make us do the craziest of things. It drags on a bit, though, and gets confusingly, abruptly surreal in the middle. What I liked was seeing Lindy Gardner through another perspective.

“Maybe it was because I’d become so bored by this point; or just that my mood was on the up again; or that the thought of having a fellow prisoner to swap stories with was extremely appealing. Or maybe I wasn’t so immune myself to the glamor thing. In any case, despite everything I felt about Lindy Gardner, when I read this, I felt a tinge of excitement, and I found myself telling Gracie to let Lindy know I’d be over at five.”

Cellists: This was perhaps the most wittily crafted story of the five and being the last, it did have the most lasting impression. Had the book ended with the second story, I wouldn’t have liked it. This was a good ending and it was almost as if it completed the point the writer was trying to make throughout the book, and quite perfectly, I must add. According to the book jacket, this story is about ‘a young cellist whose tutor promises to “unwrap” his talent.’ That tells very little about the actual story, which is about the innate aptitude for music, the need for recognition, the ego and its inability to deal with failure, about the metaphorical muse and about being scared even, and well, I think from the whole collection, this is one story that is truly unique and that could stir something in you. It should be read not summarized, so I’ll leave you with this last quote:

“He resolved, out of politeness, to endure this uninvited tutorial for at most another five minutes. But he found himself staying a little longer, then longer again. He played some more, she talked again. Her words would always strike him initially as pretentious and far too abstract, but when he tried to accommodate their thrust into his playing, he was surprised by the effect.  Before he realized, another  hour had gone by.”

Overall, this isn’t a book I would normally read. It’s about music, art and life; none of which I quite understand. It’s something to enjoy and be sad about on a quiet afternoon and wonder about late into the night. I’m not completely done wondering just yet. Meanwhile, I need to get The Remains of the Day from the library, I have heard far too much about the book in the past couple of days and while some stories from this collection did puzzle me, I’m starting to develop a kind of vague fondness for Ishiguro’s writing.

 This wasn’t read specifically for the Japanese Literature Challenge, but it fits, so why not.

2 thoughts on “Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. I love these lines in your post: "The book has a nostalgic, almost silly romantic air to it and shows the way music intensely affects people and relationships. The stories are tied together by a sense of lingering regret." What a wonderful way to describe what I feel applies to a lot of Japanese literature, although I'm sure it's specific to this collection. I think the Japanese are such experts at writing 'story' with mood. I can't wait to read this as I own a copy myself. Still unread… 😦


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