Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thoughts on Ishiguro's Nocturnes

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]


  1. umm , didn't get the hendrix part I am afraid , care to elucidate ?

  2. Bala: the dog is named Hendrix - should have clarified that.

  3. was fortunate enough to go for a talk by ishiguro in south bank in london last month, and he read some extracts from the book - and it seemed really good, tho i'm not a big fan of readings generally.
    from what i'm reading here, it's probably all that and more. i was surprised, though, that you didn't mention 'never let me go' when you were talking about his earlier work, which is probably my fav of his books.
    nice review :)

  4. "i was surprised, though, that you didn't mention 'never let me go' when you were talking about his earlier work"

    Abhinav: well, seeing that I linked to my 1600-word review of that book at the end, I thought it was adequately represented in this post :) And that really is lucky, getting to hear him read!

  5. I started reading Ishiguro after going through one of your reviews, and since then I have always been drawn by the Ishiguro style of writing and view of the world.

    I heard about Nocturnes last year, but have not been able to get a copy in Bombay. Your review, as usual, points out the best of his writings. Did you get a chance to see the movie based on 'Remains of the day'?

  6. Jai,

    Got introduced to Ishiguro through your blog only and have absolutely his work. Thanks.

    Have been looking for Nocturnes, checked with Crossword at Saket -- it wasn't available. Has it hit stores?

    - Puneet

  7. Saurabh: yes, in fact I saw Remains of the Day before I read the book - it was when the film first came out (1993?) and I wasn't reading much contemporary fiction at the time.

    Do you have a favourite Ishiguro, btw? I recently reread A Pale View of Hills and was freshly impressed by it. Such a good debut.

    Puneet: I saw it at The Book Shop in Jorbagh recently. Should definitely be available (it's in paperback, and reasonably priced for a non-Indian book).

  8. It is very difficult to choose a favorite Ishiguro, considering I still have to read Nocturnes and A Pale View of the Hills. And you mentioned the latter as a good read!

    Amongst those I have read, I would say The Unconsoled ranks the highest. I loved Never Let Me Go, the last that I read, in fact Remains of the Day scores the lowest points in all his books for me.

    Now I have got to see the movie, as well as read both the other books.

  9. Well, I am going through the book and decided to get a breath of internet air - and revisited this wonderful video on Nocturnes. Now I do not know anything of music but I do love Ishiguro and hence had found this video when the book was released in May; it makes more sense now after reading two of the stories. It somehow reinforces my ideas of Ishiguros characters. Well, I guess you might enjoy it as well:

  10. I've read only Remains of the Day. My god the prose is so light on the surface that a slightly uninformed reader can totally miss the whole point. I had to ask a friend who knows more about history of Europe post world war 1. Even though, it wasn't the main theme of the book, but the way that lord became the victim of time and the way Ishiguro actually avoided using heavy prose to over-explain it left me imagining.

  11. I was reading Nocturnes. In the last two years, I tried reading, ‘When We Were Orphans’, ‘Never Let Me Go’ and ‘The Unconsoled’. I found those books really boring and I had a very typical complaint, “Not much happening”, with those books and something, which I can’t pinpoint, resulted me in not able to develop any interest in the mysterious inner-worlds of those protagonists. So, when I picked up Nocturnes from a second-hand book-shop, it was simply because I got it for just 150 bucks.

    I read ‘Crooner’, which had its moments. Then I read, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, which was superb. I think it may just be among the best stories I have read on friendships and of course the way Ishiguro wrote it, I almost felt being in surreal kind of state of mind myself.

    That moment when he reads that diary and figures that a lot of shit was written about him was both unnerving and funny. And, then he screwed up the “offending page”. Priceless. Rarely ever, I feel I was so much with the protagonist. Feel like reading ‘Remains of the Day’ and ‘A Pale View of Hills’. But, I guess in the case of Remains…the character is too distant to feel “with him” as a reader, might just pick up A Pale View.

    Jai- Would like to know what you think of ‘The Buried Giant’, in case you have read it.