Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Nocturnes - Kazuo Ishiguro

Nocturnes in one sentence:
The most easy to read, beautiful, and simply presented collection of short stories you are likely to read.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing has become increasingly interested in music over the years. He seems particularly interested in the idea of music as a expression of humanity. It is there in The Unconsoled with the lost pianist who haunts the plot, and most notably in Never Let Me Go, where the awful spectre of scientific inhumanity is given heartbreaking significance by the repeated image of Kathy H dancing alone to a loved record.

And now we have Nocturnes, a collection of five short stories all centred around the humanising, unifying power of music. Each of the characters is affected in some way by music, and through their music they are able to bring people together, or ease the process of separation. In ‘Crooner’ we encounter Tony Gardener, a famous old crooner holidaying in Venice who hires a young cafĂ© performer to help him serenade his wife from a gondola. But this is not a simple romantic story, for Tony Gardener is on the verge of launching a comeback, and for this to succeed, sacrifices have to be made. In ‘Come Rain of Come Shine’ we meet an English language teacher named Ray who is visiting the house of two university friends who he no longer really knows, and whose marriage is on the rocks. Here the music may not solve anyone’s problems, but it offers a moment of respite from the outside world, a moment of intimacy which cannot last long enough. And these themes continue into the rest of the stories. In ‘Malvern Hills’ a young songwriter offers a couple of old musicians a moment of togetherness on the quietly green and sloping hills of Worcestershire. ‘Nocturne’ follows the strange story of Steve, a talented saxophonist recovering from a face lift which he hopes will give his career the impetus it needs to reach the big time. But while he is recovering from surgery, he meets a famous celebrity named Lindy Gardener, and the two of them embark on a nocturnal adventure. Finally we come to ‘Cellists’, a story of a young cellist who is taken under the wing of a virtuoso cellist and finds new ideas and ways of playing in her strange methods of teaching.

Each of these stories is impossibly simple and straight forward. They are gentle and undramatic. They are tales of everyday life in which music plays some consoling role, brings people together for a transient moment, or allows the characters to cling onto romance for just a second longer. Characters reappear in different stories, themes repeat, the tone of growing older and struggling to hold onto the joy of youth is omnipresent.

Despite these stories being centred around music and nightfall, it is the unspoken which makes them powerful. As with a good musician, the beauty in these stories is in what is not said, in the gaps between the notes, in imagining all that is going on around the stories. Ishiguro is a master of understatement, of letting scenarios speak for themselves, and reading him is a sorrowful pleasure. Every book he has written, culminating most gloriously in the Booker Prize winning Remains of the Day is characterised by an almost impossible degree of this silent noise. Despite its central theme of music, Nocturnes is silent too. It is his most easy to read work. At times it is difficult to understand why you have been sucked into such a simple story with so little promise of resolution. And yet you have. The stories fly by in the blink of an eye, you cannot put them down.

Nocturnes will leave you emotionally spent, quietly reflective, hushed. It may be a good idea to read it while listening to some music you love, for this is what the stories are about. Everything Ishiguro writes is worth reading. Nocturnes is a fascinating collection of short stories which sits happily alongside anything he has ever written.

7 out of 10

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