Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, by Kazuo Ishiguro

ishiguroI have included the subtitle of this book in the headline above because I think it is particularly important. Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book consists of five stories in a short story cycle — the music part of the subtitle is obvious in each story, the nightfall portion perhaps less so. Without in any way overlooking the broader themes of the book, this review will concentrate on that “nightfall” portion.

Ishiguro described this phenomenon himself in a Guardian interview (thanks to John Self at the asylum for pointing me to it):

There comes a point when you can more or less count the number of books you’re going to write before you die. And you think, hmm, God, there’s only four left, and so you start,” he laughs, “well – it’s a bit alarming. So I thought I’d better adopt a less leisurely attitude.”

The nocturnes and music part of the title and subtitle serve as a consistent framing device in the story cycle — each of the five stories features music or a musician and explores that relationship with the subject. The “nightfall” part is more carefully developed, reflecting on Ishiguro’s quote. As we come to the end of middle age, we start to experience the challenge of making large decisions that, at a younger age, represented a chance to broaden our experience. Now, as nightfall approaches, they represent one of the decreasing number of chances that we will have (only four books left!) to define what it is we will finally be — and increasingly that represents making our world smaller, not bigger.

It is perhaps best expressed directly in the first story of the book, Crooner. An itinerant guitarist in Venice has been retained by a once famous American singer, Tony Gardner, to help serenade his wife from a gondola that will lurk below their suite in a canal. It is only as this Romeo and Juliet moment unfolds that the narrator discovers it is a farewell, not a love concert. Tony Gardner explains:

Fact is, I’m no longer the major name I once was. Protest all you like, but where we come from there’s no getting around that. I’m no longer a major name. Now I could just accept that and fade away. Live on past glories. Or I could say, no, I’m not finished yet. In other words, my friend, I could make a comeback. Plenty have from my position and worse. But a comeback’s no easy game. You have to be prepared to make a lot of changes, some of them hard ones.

One of the hard changes that Tony is willing to make, in this chance for a last, life-changing decision, is dumping his wife of many years, Lindy, and looking for a younger model. Turns out that that was the reason for the concert.

I will admit to a personal fondness for Ishiguro’s writing style and the way that he frames his plots. His language is cool and straightforward — the world that he describes is normal for about 90 per cent of the time, and totally abnormal for the other 10. That is a formula that works very well in the short story cycle that this book represents.

While the “nightfall” moment is present in each story, it never involves the narrator. In each story, that is a younger individual who is witness to what is going on. In Crooner, he is a guitarist, in Come Rain or Come Shine he is an old university friend of a couple who are having trouble remembering what they have in common.

This story in some ways marches to a different drum than the others in the book as it is more about the hapless narrator (who ends up pretending he is a dog, messing up a tony London apartment — but you’ll have to read the actual story to get to that). Even here, however, his behavior is influenced by the nightfall moment that his hosts are going through.

The serenaded woman in Crooner reappears later on in Nocturne (I won’t call it the title story — there is a difference between “nocturne” and “nocturnes”), now divorced from Tony and in the process of recovering from her third plastic surgery before going out to find her next husband. The narrator in this story is a middle-aged saxaphonist whose own surgery has been financed by his wife’s new lover, based on her premise that his lack of success relates to his looks, not his musical ability. It is quite a touching story as the two head-bandaged figures wander around the Beverly Hills hotel where they are recovering.

If you are of the right age (and I am) or willing to contemplate arriving there, this collection has some intriguing messages — how do we cope with arriving at the point of making a major decision, when we know that there are not that many left? And how, after a lifetime of making decisions that were supposed to make our world bigger, do we start making decisions about making it smaller? Ishiguro’s style — that perception of distance perhaps best realized in The Remains of the Day — is very well-suited to posing these questions. He doesn’t really answer them, but he does explore the consequences.

I do view this book as an exploration of the author’s depth, rather than width. It doesn’t have the scope of The Unconsoled; the plot of Never Let Me Go or the retrospective angst of The Remains of the Day. What it does have, to quote the author, is a “less leisurely attitude” — a contemplation of what it is like, or will be like, to make some of those difficult decisions that are bound to arise later in life. As is true of Ishiguro’s other work, his central characters sometimes make a mess of those decisions — that is part of what makes this intriguing book so valuable.

I certainly look forward to his next major novel. I am equally glad he explored this side road along the way.

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9 Responses to “Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, by Kazuo Ishiguro”

  1. Isabel Says:

    I am glad that he writes short stories so well, as well as novels.

    Maybe it’s the Japanese in him?

    Murakami alternates between novels and short stories also.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think that like a lot of novelists, he felt that the story format fitted these ideas — the cycle does fit together in a way that a conventional novel would not. His writing style is certainly conducive to the format.

  3. Candy Schultz Says:

    I am at that point in life as well and it is certainly bittersweet. This was a lovely book and I still love the humor immensely. Humor is one of the things I’m not willing to compromise on however old I get.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I did recall from one of your responses somewhere that your household was coming up to one of those major changes. I too like the way that Ishiguro uses a dry humor around these things — since we can’t stop them from happening, we should at least approach them in the right frame of mind, even if it means crawling around a carpet trying to imitate a dog.

  5. Candy Schultz Says:

    That was one of the scenes which had me falling off the couch laughing. And yes my kids are now both gone and it has been more bittersweet than I imagined. Like Ishiguro I am now asking myself ‘how many more’? In my case it is how many more races can I run. Can I really finish another marathon, etc. I can’t say I particularly like this part of life but the alternative is worse.

    Happy Sunday.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    A fascinating take, Candy’s final comment there reminds me of my grandfather when he learned he might have to stop driving due to declining eyesight. Rather stupidly, I asked him if he minded, his comment was that getting old wasn’t great, but it was better than the alternative.

    In this vein, his An Artist of the Floating World has a lot to say about age, but from another perspective. There it’s about finding yourself out of touch with the world you now inhabit, redundant, surplus and perhaps no longer wholly tasteful – an awkward reminder of a past preferred forgotten. But that of course is a novel about a much older protagonist, one nearing the end of is life.

    Junichiro Tanizaki’s Diary of a Mad Old Man, a novel I adored but which my wife hated (she saw him as irredeemably selfish) is again about choices made at the end of life, but again nearer that end than these characters are. In a sense, that’s about the spirit remaining the same, while the body and more importantly societal perceptions of the aging person change around that spirit.

    Interesting stuff Kevin, it sounds a more rewarding read than so far I had credited it as being.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Your reference to Floating World is appropriate (although it has been so long since I read it that I need to go back). For Ishiguro, that “abnormal” 10 per cent I wrote about often comes about because we find ourselves out of touch or at least needing to get back in touch. I’m also quite intrigued in these stories by his technique of using his narrators as both characters and witnesses — and often it is in that latter role that they are more important. He explores a kind of ripple effect (which he certainly does in his novels) on how one event or choice inevitably provokes others. I may be projecting because I like Ishiguro a lot but I do think there is more to this book than a lot of reviewers have found.

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    You’ve interested me in it more than most reviews I’ve read, certainly.

    The movement of characters between stories is an interesting thing (or can be, where not simply to create a sense of continued reality), particularly where a viewpoint character becomes a supporting character, or where a character moves from observer and narrator to obserrved and narrated. It affords opportunities for a more nuanced form of comment, that move from character to witness allowing a perhaps broader examination of the indiviual in question and the issues they face or represent.

    If he’s playing with that sort of thing, that definitely interests me.

  9. Vicki Says:

    Oooh, intrigued to read your view on Nocturnes and wonder if you’d share with me on my blog – excuse the lack of picture on the page (technical issues – THIS is why computers won’t replace books!!) I’m a fan of his novels but haven’t got around to this collection yet?

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