As a long-time enthusiast of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work, I thought his new short-story collection Nocturnes showed a subtly different side to his writing. Ishiguro is one of the most elegant prose writers around, each of his six novels marked by a simple, immediately recognisable style – so unobtrusive that it doesn’t even appear to be a “style” at first glance - and this continues to be the case in the Nocturne stories. But I felt that the narratives here were, generally speaking, more informal in tone than the mannered, emotionally reticent voices of his earlier protagonists (such as the self-deceiving butler Stevens in Remains of the Day and the elderly Japanese painter trying to deal with changing social attitudes in post-WWII Japan in An Artist of the Floating World).
No doubt some of the casualness in the new collection comes from the fact that the narrators in this story cycle are relatively young people who are passionate about music, with interests ranging from old American Broadway songs by Irving Berlin to folk music to jazz. There’s the guitar player who performs in a Venice piazza, the hopeful songwriter taking a break from the city by helping out his sister who runs a café in the hills, the saxophonist who realises that his “loser ugly” face may be keeping him from stardom. There is a contemporariness, an accessibility, in all these voices, but Ishiguro’s old strengths as a writer are in place – notably the delicacy with which he makes the reader aware of things that even the narrator seems oblivious to, and his ability to show (rather than tell) us that life-altering moments don’t have to be dramatic (or accompanied by a musical crescendo) but can slip in and out of our hands before we realise it.
Like many great artists, Ishiguro obsessively reworks the themes he finds interesting, using new prisms and perspectives through which to examine them. Music is a binding force in Nocturnes and we see how it can create common ground between people (witness the transformation of the ill-tempered Sonja in the story “Malvern Hills”), but these short pieces aren’t really about music. They are about (professional and personal) successes and failures, fading relationships, attempts to maintain a hold on the past, and the different ways in which people deal with life’s disappointments.
In “Crooner”, a young guitarist encounters the aging singer Tony Gardner – an old favourite of his mother, who managed to procure American pop records despite living in a communist country – and is drafted into the crooner’s plan to serenade his wife Lindy. In “Come Rain or Come Shine”, the narrator Ray is invited to stay with an old friend and his wife in London, only to discover that the couple are barely on speaking terms with each other and that his own visit is an awkward ploy by the husband to rectify matters. “Cellists” gives us a moving relationship between two very different kinds of music-lovers. And when a middle-aged musician couple talk about their uncommunicative son in “Malvern Hills”, it feels like an extension of the strained filial relationships in Ishiguro’s most ambitious novel The Unconsoled (a book in which music frequently creates barriers between people).
One of the things I thought notable about this collection is that it contains some very amusing passages. Ishiguro’s sense of humour tends to be under-appreciated, perhaps because it’s usually very subtle or morbid or both – The Unconsoled, which is the most obviously funny of his books with its many surreal interludes, is also the most emotionally exhausting, and its funniness is never de-linked from the essentially weary state of its narrator, a celebrated pianist whose life has turned into a circular Kafka-esque nightmare. The humour isn’t the sort that allows you to laugh out loud, or even chuckle to yourself; it permits only sad smiles of recognition. But in at least two of the stories in Nocturnes, Ishiguro gives freer rein to his talent for the absurd, even allowing it to tip over into slapstick. In “Come Rain or Come Shine”, unfortunate circumstances lead the narrator to put an old boot to boil on the kitchen stove while waiting for his host to return home; his attempt to see the world through the eyes of a paper-masticating dog results in one of the drollest sentences in Ishiguro’s oeuvre: “I’d fallen into my earlier error again; I’d not merged sufficiently with Hendrix”. And in the story “Nocturne”, a midnight outing in the bowels of a five-star hospital where celebrities recuperate after plastic surgery ends with the concealment of a prize trophy in a turkey’s interiors.
In these passages, bordering on low farce, one gets the impression that Ishiguro is exploring ways to offset the poignancy of his themes – almost like a musician moving between registers to keep a piece from becoming repetitive or too intense. Unlike many other "thematic" short-story collections that give the impression of bringing together discrete pieces simply to make up the numbers, Nocturnes has the rigour of a carefully composed and balanced symphony.
[An earlier review of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go here]