Book review: “Nocturnes – Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Book review: “Nocturnes – Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The five stories in Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2009 collection Nocturnes are, in a way, about music and nightfall, as the subtitle indicates.

Yes, but, even more, their subject is the fragility of love in the face of human nature. Or maybe the strength of love despite the clashings and dissonances of human nature.

A famous singer croons to his wife from a gondola in Venice, and she weeps bitter tears. A London couple berate their visiting friend, all while befuddled at the way their lives have drifted apart and the bonds of their love have strained to the breaking point.

A couple on vacation from Switzerland has a spat while gazing together at the English countryside that inspired the music by Edward Elgar they both treasure. A sax player in Los Angeles has his plain face reconstructed at the urging of his wife who has left him. A middle-age woman leads a young cellist to raise his craft to a higher level, and then her boyfriend shows up.

Muriel Spark's 1959 novel Memento Mori

Shades of Muriel Spark

There is an air of unreality to these pieces that recalls Muriel Spark. In her 1959 novel Memento Mori, several elderly friends get phone calls in which a whispered voice says, “Remember you must die.” That’s the English translation of the Latin “Memento mori.” The calls cause whole flutter of activity and revelations, but the caller is never tracked down.

Here, Ishiguro sprinkles his stories with oddities, such as a virtuoso who turns out not to be quite exactly that, and a potentially wayward husband whose wife thinks he’s having an affair with his dentist since he’s flossing so much.

There’s a couple that is about to go through a divorce — as a career move. And another couple which rummages around in the back hallways of a major hotel and has an odd encounter with a turkey ready for roasting.

A companionable, everyday voice

In each story, the narrator is something of an unsophisticated soul, telling a tale in a companionable, everyday voice.

For example, the guitar player who relates the story “Crooner.” It begins:

The morning I spotted Tony Gardner sitting among the tourists, spring was just arriving here in Venice. We’d completed our first full week outside in the piazza — a relieve, let me tell you, after all those stuffy hours performing from the back of the café, getting in the way of customers wanting to use the staircase. There was quite a breeze that morning, and our brand-new marquee was flapping all around us, but we were all feeling a little bit brighter and fresher, and I guess it showed in our music.

Or another guitar player who tells the story “Malvern Hills.” At one point, he describes some work he’s doing for breakfast at the café run by his sister and brother-in-law, and then says:

The café got quieter after that, then Geoff came back, so I went off upstairs, feeling I’d done more than my share for the time being. Up in my room, I sat at the bay window with my guitar and for a while got engrossed in a song I was halfway through writing. But then — and it seemed like no time — I could hear the afternoon tea rush starting downstairs. If it got really mad, like it usually did, Maggie was bound to ask me to come down — which really wouldn’t be fair, given how much I’d done already. So I decided the best thing would be for me to slip out to the hills and continue my work there.

Music isn’t at the core

As that excerpt indicates, Ishiguro’s narrators are somewhat artless in their storytelling, even to the point of revealing their own pettiness. And, although four of the stories feature musicians and the fifth involves a love of popular American standards by Frank Sinatra and similar singers, music isn’t at the core of these pieces.

Ishiguro could have easily substituted left-handedness, say, or baseball as a factor in these stories without changing the nut at the center of each.

That’s true, too, about the night settings.

The collision of life and love is Ishiguro's true subject.

Now, the collision of love and life — that’s what these stories are really about. In “Nocturne,” one character says to another:

I hope your wife comes back. I really do. But if she doesn’t, well, you’ve just got to start getting some perspective. She might be a great person, but life’s so much bigger than just loving someone.

Is it?

Bigger than love

That’s the idea that Ishiguro is toying with here. It’s a question that, in these pieces and in life, involves very much the element of perspective.

These are quirky stories, like brambles, that stick in the mind. Can divorce be a good career move? Who in the Swiss couple is right — the always upbeat husband or the wife who grows ever more prone to anger?

And when is flossing too much flossing?

Patrick T. Reardon
1.21.14

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