Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

06/06/09, TIME Magazine Asia

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize for four out of his six novels to date, and the winner in 1989, with The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro, the undisputed genius of vagueness, threshold states, and constantly shifting surfaces, has turned his attention to the short story for the first time in his glittering literary career. Nocturnes, subtitled ‘five stories of music and nightfall’, was written, Ishiguro has said in a recent interview, as a unified, organic project from beginning to end, much like a novel and unlike most short-story collections, which tend to be a gathering of work published elsewhere over a long period. As such, the unity of the collection is tight and assured although the obvious uniting principles, music and nightfall, that Ishiguro signals at the very outset, prove to be diversionary.

The real themes in this quintet of first-person narratives are of failure and unfulfillment, of early promises and dreams not quite coming to fruition, of lives having to settle for the second-best. ‘Crooner’ is narrated by Janeck, who makes a living playing for the tourist crowd in one of the cafes in Piazza San Marco in Venice. He spots Tony Gardner, a schmaltzy crooner whose heydays are well behind him, and gets roped into a scheme to accompany the singer while he serenades his wife, Lindy, from a gondola. What begins for Janeck as an unprecedented honour in being party to a famous man’s outpouring of romantic ardour modulates to the realization that the gesture is both despairing and valedictory. Lindy, now divorced from Tony Gardner, reappears in ‘Nocturne’, convalescing after a major facial surgery (her third) in a swanky hotel in LA, when she meets the narrator, Steve, who is her neighbour in the adjacent room and is there for identical reasons. Steve is a struggling saxophonist who has failed to hit the big time; together, they get involved in a caper, which, for all its superficial childishness, shines a rueful light on two related kinds of failure. In ‘Malvern Hills’, a young man, with ambitions of becoming an indie singer-songwriter, spends a summer at his sister’s café in the Malvern Hills and meets a middle-aged Swiss couple whose lives portend an unpromising future of blighted dreams to him. The final story, ‘Cellists’, in which Eloise McCormack, a mysterious American virtuoso cellist, gives intense, unorthodox lessons to Tibor, a promising young Hungarian, unwraps a secret about the virtuoso towards the end. The revelation calibrates a grey spectrum of failure, of revised expectations and ambitions, for both protagonists.

Written in a studiedly bleached style, in which repetitions assume a cumulative detonatory force, this is a melancholy book, drenched with regret yet suffused with sympathy for lives that hide, behind a brave, wistful smile, a diminishment of the dreams they began with.