Eine kleine Nachtmusik: Ishiguro’s Nocturnes

It is oft said that even the best of novelists hone their skills on short stories since they contain more or less the same elements as novels yet on a smaller scale. Kazuo Ishiguro’s charming collection titled Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall most definitely echoes some of his longer work, most notably The Remains of the Day where he employs the same delicate interplay of understatement and innuendo. The title, Nocturnes, represents the binding points of the five stories. A nocturne is a musical composition or a painting inspired by or evocative of the night, the dusk, the time of day when shadows lengthen and begin their intricate dance in the recesses of the mind. The music functions as a catalyst for a thought, or, as is the case in this collection, as a thread that binds seemingly disparate characters and occasions together.

veniceThe collection begins and ends in Italy with the narrator talking about people other than himself. The same reticence exhibited by Stevens in The Remains can be observed in the narrators of the Nocturnes. The narrative voice is so similar that it may seem that the stories were told by the same insecure, slightly awkward, and colloquial narrator. The first story takes place in Venice, where a musician playing in one of the restaurant orchestras on the Piazza di San Marco, meets Tony Gardner, a once highly popular ‘crooner’ on holiday with his wife. The two of them serenade her from a gondola underneath her palazzo window, yet what the narrator deems to be the peak of romance turns out to be something quite the opposite.

Although all of the stories have far from happy endings, Ishiguro veers more into farce than tragedy. The second and the fourth story, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ and ‘Nocturne’ respectively, provide a kind of in-between comic relief. In ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ Ray, a hopeless middle-aged under-achiever, is invited to spend the holidays with his former university friends, however, as he is soon to discover his being there is simply a means to an end rather than an expression of friendly nostalgia for the good old times. His lack of ambition and success is supposed to serve as a kind of an emollient for his friends’ dissolving marriage. However, instead of wallowing in self-pity, Ray blunders into trouble, tries to get himself out, and gets stuck even deeper. In the process, he unwittingly manages to serve the exact purpose that he was invited to fulfil: present himself in the worst light possible thus reminding his friend’s wife that she could have chosen far worse than she did.

nocturnes1Lindy Gardner, Tony Gardner’s serenaded wife from the first story reappears in ‘Nocturne,’ the fourth story in the collection, where we find her befriending an unsuccessful saxophonist while both of them are convalescing after having undergone face surgeries. Due to a rather rash decision, the two face-wrapped middle-aged people embark on a hilariously farcical adventure that comprises prowling around the hotel in the dead of night, stealing a trophy, and sticking their hands into the rear end of a roast turkey. Although the story is taken to such farcical heights rendering it practically incredible, it contains some of the most refreshing, laugh-out-loud moments in the entire collection.

The third and fifth stories, ‘Malvern Hills’ and ‘Cellists’ leave you with rather a bland taste in your mouth. They establish a mood of quiet melancholy whilst ruminating on the perishability and fragility of love and talent, the passage of time and how it affects people, including musicians, by contrasting what music and art promises and what life delivers. ‘Malvern Hills’ is a whirlpool of underlying resentment and misinterpretation, whereas the last story in the collection, ‘Cellists,’ challenges the very idea of what it means to be a musician and what is the adequate way to value artistry.

Ishiguro’s stories are a delight to read, not because of their plot lines or characters, but for the sheer pleasure derived from participation in the interplay of absurdity, nostalgia, farce, comedy, and tragedy that they deliver. They veer from superficial amusement to immersion in deep thought, making one ponder the passage of time, the transitoriness of everything, and the notes that make it all worth while.

© 2018 Erna G.

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