Bridging Passages: Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Nocturnes”

Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro

One of the first things we learned about each other was that we both had a fondness for Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Controlled, subtle and heart-breaking, it is (probably rightly) Ishiguro’s most famous novel. His latest work, published a few months ago, is Nocturnes, isn’t a novel at all, but a collection of five short stories. Anna finished reading it some time ago, and Dan closed the covers on it on Friday. So this weekend we’ve been thinking aloud to each other about it; we thought we’d let you in on the conversation.

In music, which these stories use as their primary leitmotif, the nocturne is a single-movement character piece which is very often tranquil, expressive and gloomy: classic Ishiguro territory. The stories aren’t really so lyrical – even by Ishiguro’s unadorned standards – but they do have a sort of dreamy evocativeness. The narration, always in the first-person by the story’s protagonist (here Ishiguro does not stray too far from the guileless narrators he has always favoured), is throughout Nocturnes wilfully plain, and the reader is lulled into a bit of a false sense of security. Reading these stories is almost too easy; they’re almost too light.

But where they have real cleverness is the way in which they interlink. Only two of the stories share a character; by and large these stories take place in different places to different people. But images and situations recur: the couple observed by the outsider; disappointment and disillusion; windows and physical space.  Music is less the glue that holds the stories together (as you might think from the collection’s subtitle, Five Stories of Music and Nightfall!), and more the lines by which these dots are joined. Each of the characters has a strong relationship with music, which very often defines how they see the world; but usually Ishiguro’s interest lies in that perspective, not in the music itself.

This is clear from his chosen genre: most of his characters enjoy old-fashioned easy listening, not modern rock and certainly not pop. The universality, almost the banality, of easy listening allows Ishiguro a lot of room, and his examination of how humans choose to explain their failings, and choose to fix them (or not), have the light touch of an arrangement by Chet Baker (who is often mentioned). Still, this slightness leads each of the stories to feel less than complete – “Come Rain or Come Shine” too farcical, “Nocturne” too broad. In part, this is a function of a veering tone – to his credit, whilst he returns frequently to recurring plot points and motifs, Ishiguro writes each of the stories in a subtly different register. But none are given quite long enough to bed down.

Nevertheless, the collection is fun and the stories finely written when taken on their own terms. The best story is the opener, “Crooner”, in which a wise but unworldly musician in Venetian cafe bands meets his mother’s favourite singer. It is little more than a vignette, but without the pressure of plot it accomplishes more than it might. The most complex and final story, “Cellists”, strains against its miserly page count, but loops right back to “Crooners” and, in common with the three which sit between them, touches on the communication between individuals and cultures, on disappointment and comebacks, on fashion and fad, on the nature of talent and the virtue of chasing it, and most of all on “bridging passages”, those moments of change and stretch which are so difficult to perfect.

The book is worth reading for the many subtle variations upon these concerns which Ishiguro so modestly conjures. Indeed, different people seem to choose different stories as their favourites, which alone suggests that the collection will reveal more layers on re-reads. Still, as a statement it feels less complete than his novels – it’s cleverness is arch rather than wise. In short? We enjoyed Nocturnes, but doubt it will stay with us in the same way that The Remains of the Day has.

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