Acouple of months ago while on vacation, I picked up a copy of Kazuo Ishiguro’s highly anticipated new work, a collection of short stories entitled “Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. With little anecdotes set in Venice, the English countryside and Beverley Hills, Ishiguro’s book seemed like the perfect vacation read.
I started reading “Nocturnes a couple of days prior to the end of my vacation and finished it on the plane. When I returned home, to my surprise, I wasn’t able to exorcize Ishiguro’s images, settings and characters out of my system.
On first glance, “Nocturnes appear to be a light Ishiguro; a tiny collection of frothy stories written in a straightforward, colloquial and minimal style, worlds apart from the transfixing eloquence and meticulously-crafted sentences of the Booker prize winner’s earlier novels.
By the fourth story though, Ishiguro’s emotional fangs started to dig deep under my skin. By the end, a melancholic infection struck me down; amplified by the delicately sad vibe of these tales.
I opened Ishiguro’s gorgeously-woven album hoping to recapture the excitement, tranquility and sanguinity of being on retreat. Instead, I found myself mingling among struggling musicians, sitting side by side with fellow observers and reminiscing about past lives, chance encounters and unrealized dreams.
Two months later, Ishiguro’s voice still echoes in my head, resonating with all those drifting moments, the bittersweet recollections, the unremitting battle against that unbending enemy called time.
“Nocturnes is no mere transitional project from one of Britain’s greatest contemporary authors; it’s a carefully-structured work of grave beauty, subtlety and depth that carries Ishiguro’s quintessential themes of memory, regret and nostalgia in a new shape.
The Oxford dictionary defines a nocturne as “composition of a dreamy character, expressive of sentiment appropriate to evening or night. Usually taking shape of a single movement, Ishiguro’s stories follows the same format, with recurring motifs and general prevailing themes, images and sets.
All stories are told in the first person, featuring professional musicians, struggling musicians and past ones. All involve perishing romances, dislocated characters in transitionary phases of their lives and observers tangled with other characters. All set in vacation spots or temporary retreats, centering on particular encounters.
And like song cycles, “Nocturnes establishes its main themes with the first story, “Crooner. Young guitarist Janeck, hailing from an unnamed former communist state, glimpses Tony Bennett-like crooner Tony Gardner while playing at St Mark’s Square in Venice. Janeck’s mother was quite fond of Gardner’s music that offered her an escape from the firm clutches of the socialist rule.
Janeck decides to talk to him. Gardner, now passed his prime, promptly takes a liking to Janeck and before long, the latter finds himself embroiled in a performance under a gondola planned by Gardner to serenade his wife in what initially appears to be one final attempt to save his broken marriage.
The real connotation behind this romantic gesture is eventually unveiled to be rather valedictory than consolatory.
Gardner’s wife, Lindy, turns up again in the third story, “Nocturnes, almost unrecognizable under layers of bandages in an LA hospital after undergoing facial plastic surgery. Lindy befriends her neighbor Steve, a down-on-his-luck saxophone player who never made it into the big league due to, according to his manager, a rather unappealing physical appearance.
The unlikely pairing of the two results in a riotous lark that ends with an affecting note as the pair confronts themselves, each other and their failures.
The budding, yet frazzling, ambitions of the younger characters are juxtaposed with the wilting dreams and strained relationships of the older ones. In “Malvern Hills, a young singer/songwriter meets two married Swiss musicians attempting to cope with a flavorless life of compromise while in the last, and arguably, best story, “Cellists, Tibor, a young Hungarian cello prodigy forges a peculiar bond with an enigmatic American cello virtuoso harboring a secret that later explains the loveless, passionless life she has chosen to lead.
There are no happy endings in Ishiguro’s world. The few ephemeral moments of bliss his characters experience are always cloaked with uncertainty, perhaps since they’re quite conscious of their impermanency.
Before taking on writing, Ishiguro spent the larger part of his teen years and early 20s chasing his dream of becoming a singer/songwriter, performing on the Paris underground and submitting demo tapes to indie producers. The stories of his seventh fiction work, the follow-up to 2005’s heartbreaking “Never Let Me Go (currently being adapted into a feature film starring Keira Knightley), were not conceived separately. Ishiguro sat down and wrote all five stories from start to finish. The musical pattern of the collection wasn’t coincidental; it was premeditated.
Each story carries certain thematic threads that fully blossom with the deeply poignant conclusion of the last one. The new format gives way for Ishiguro to stage a number of gags that borders on the slapstick and the surreal, including a man caught with his hands stuffed in a turkey and another cooking a dog-smell soup.
One of the most astounding merits of “Nocturnes is the tightly controlled fluctuation in mood and sentiment. Musical nuances aside; each story resembles, in structure, a trip. It begins with limitless expectations, a possible promise for adventure, proceeds with unexpected encounters, a few thrills occasionally, but always ends with a sad resolution: the return to the mundane.
At each of those five encounters, Ishiguro’s protagonists are compelled to confront their failures, their crumbling relationships and the ordinariness of their lives. And herein lies the essence of the book; a heart beating with lament and defenselessness. Ishiguro’s characters have passed the point of desperation or anxiety over their futures. They’re living in the here and now, succumbing to the forces of the uneventful present. Their only remaining safe haven is the music and the memories they bring.
The fall from the lofty to the commonplace is more grueling for artists, and Ishiguro understands that. The most tragic segment of the “Nocturnes involves a character who refused to realize her talent in fear that her musical gift might be damaged or, most probably, fearing that she might not turn out to be the great artist she always believed she could become.
Musicians, or artists in general, are always on a never-ending quest for the unknown. The failures, compromises and unfulfilled potentials all characters face at one point is incomparable to the ultimate calamity that could strike an artist: the recognition of one’s own mediocrity and self-worthlessness.
Few writers possess the skill to portray sadness and loss with such tenderness, with such haunting exquisiteness. But Ishiguro does it once again.
“Nocturnes is not strictly an account about a group of musicians; Ishiguro’s work speaks for the human condition: mortality, loss, the passing of love, the dissolving of friendships, the flimsiness of talent and the fleetness, and pointlessness, of success.
I opened Ishiguro’s album hoping to recapture the memories of another place and time. By the time it ended, I was left with a lingering sad melody, playing endlessly in my head as I assumed my place in the middle of this unfathomable living, idly observing life as time goes by.
“Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, published by Faber & Faber, will be released next month in the US and Canada and in Egypt this October. The novel is currently available in the UK and Ireland.