Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber and Faber; 240 pages; 2009.
The only Kazuo Ishiguro book I have read is Never Let Me Go, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2005. While I found it a slightly frustrating experience, I was intrigued enough to add a few more of his books to my TBR, where they have steadfastly remained for about five years. When Ishiguro’s latest book, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, was chosen by my book group, I was delighted to have the opportunity to finally read more of his work.
As the name suggests, the book is a collection of short stories, each of which is themed around music and/or nightfall. The choice of the word nocturne is a clever one, given that it means a musical composition that is “appropriate to the night or evening”. Its other meaning — “an instrumental composition of a dreamy or pensive character” — would also be a good description of Ishiguro’s prose style, which is languid and dream-like throughout.
All five stories are lovely, entertaining reads, punctuated with great wit, and all are told by male protagonists not quite at home in the world or their own skin.
In Crooner, which is set in Venice, Janeck, from an unspecified Communist country, meets a childhood hero — an old American crooner, Tony Gardner. Janeck is a musician who plays guitar as part of an orchestra that performs for tourists in Piazza San Marco. He spots Tony in the crowd and introduces himself, and before he knows it he gets to meet Tony’s good-looking wife, Lindy, who appears brash and argumentative. From the outside it would seem their marriage is on the rocks, so when Tony enlists Janek to help him perform a moonlight serenade it seems like the right thing to do… but all is not as it seems.
In Come Rain or Come Shine, the narrator, 47-year-old Raymond, lives in Spain and is a bit of a drifter. He is invited to spend the weekend with his London-based friends, Emily and Charlie, with whom he went to university (Emily and Ray share a love of American show tunes). But this is not your average weekend away, because when he arrives, Charlie announces that his marriage to Emily is floundering and he wants Raymond to patch it up while Charlie goes to Frankfurt “on business”. The story is pretty much a farce, in which Raymond, out of his depth, tries to cover up the fact he stole a peek at Emily’s diary while she was at work. It is by far the funniest story in the collection.
In Malvern Hills, a young, struggling musician decamps to his sister’s house in the Malvern Hills for the summer. He hopes to spend some down time, working on his music, but finds himself having to help his sister, Maggie, and her husband, Geoff, run their busy cafe. Even though he’s not paying board or contributing to the household bills, he resents having to help Maggie in this way — and there are some hilarious moments when she politely calls him to task, but he never seems to get it. When he meets a middle-aged Austrian couple on holiday in the area, he befriends them — and is intrigued by the ways in which they present one face to the outer world and a different one to each other.
In Nocturnes, probably my favourite of the collection, a failed jazz musician, Bill, tries to revive his career by undergoing (illegal) plastic surgery. While recovering in the penthouse of a swanky hotel, he finds that his neighbour is Lindy Gardner, the ex-wife of crooner Tony Gardner (whom we met in the first story). Lindy is also recovering from surgery, but bored with lying in her room, she prowls the hotel at night, stealing food from the kitchen, and when she convinces Bill to join her one evening you know trouble is brewing…
In Cellists, the weakest story in the collection, a young Hungarian cellist, Tibor, accidentally finds himself a mentor and patron in the form of a mysterious older woman, whom watches him perform in a Venetian square. She introduces herself as Eloise McCormack, an American cellist, whom Tibor assumes is a distinguished musician. She criticises his performance, but wants to put him “on the correct path”, so offers to tutor him. He reluctantly accepts, but Miss McCormack isn’t all she’s cracked up to be…
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is not a particularly memorable read, probably because the “voice” in each story is too similar and there’s little to distinguish one character from the other. There are too many lone male musicians, older American woman and unhappy couples in it for a start. And theming the book around night and music seems like a marketing pitch that doesn’t quite come off.
But as a whole, it is a gentle, effortless read — I consumed the book in one sitting — and a perfectly pleasant way to while away a few hours.