Kazuo Ishiguro: Nocturnes

According to a piece in the Guardian last week, the reason why so many books are published at the beginning of the month is to take advantage of retailers’ book-of-the-month promotions. This week sees the publication, on the same day, of much-vaunted new books by Colm Tóibín, A.S. Byatt, Adam Foulds, Reif Larsen and many others. Taking his place in the crowd is Kazuo Ishiguro with Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. After the slight disappointment of Tóibín’s Brooklyn, I wondered whether Ishiguro – the biggest name for me in this week’s launches – might fare better.


In a sense he was bound to, as my expectations were not high. Ishiguro, to me, achieves his greatest effects cumulatively, at length – at over 500 pages’ length in his most interesting novel The Unconsoled – so I doubted whether a bunch of stories would satisfy. Then I read in an interview that this book was written sequentially, as a collection, rather than just gathering existing stories together. Well, I thought, that changes everything: he might have wasted his own time as well as mine.

Nocturnes retains some aspects of Ishiguro’s world which are familiar to us – the elegant, understated language used by his narrators, the sense of people speaking not just at cross purposes but in active denial of communication, characters paralysed by the past – but others which are new: contemporary settings; stories where the storyteller is not – necessarily – the central character; and even unaccustomed evidence of Ishiguro comedy.

A theme of Nocturnes – as the ‘nightfall’ part of the subtitle suggests – is the regret which comes from failed (and unexplored) potential. In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contemplated the brevity of human existence, and now he moves this consideration from allegory to reality. In relation to this, the interview linked above is instructive in detailing Ishiguro’s concerns these days (not least the heading: “There comes a point when you can count the number of books you’re going to write before you die. And you think, God, there’s only four left”):

It’s difficult for me – when I meet certain old friends, I try not to make any reference at all to certain things I do in this world. One of my oldest friends comes round to play music and we’re still close. He’s a person I’ve known since I was 12, and we’ve managed to keep that friendship going really by pretending that I’m not a successful writer.

He speaks also of his sympathy for people – friends – who were “convinced that they were geniuses … addicted to the idea that [they] have tremendous potential” but “just don’t have the technique.” This is rendered absurd in one story, ‘Cellists’, where a character decides that her potential is such a fragile flower that to explore it would risk destroying it altogether (the likely outcome for most of us). In another, ‘Crooner’, a jobbing musician in the cafe orchestras of San Marco in Venice finally gets to work with one of the musical greats, but only after the latter’s career has faltered. A character from this story reappears in ‘Nocturne’, the longest story, which is set in a cosmetic surgery unit where another musician has come to revive his career. Here Ishiguro dissects how fame, which plays hideous tricks on the brain, and modern notions of celebrity interact with this sense of overlooked potential.

Earlier I said we were unaccustomed to comedy in Ishiguro. In fact comedy, in the form of baffling farce, has been seen before in The Unconsoled (and the tragic comedy of the human condition might be said to be one of Ishiguro’s recurring themes), and it’s this book which was brought to mind in the best story, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’. I felt it was the best because of its willingness to leave so much unsaid, rippling beneath the surface and hidden from the reader in the years building up to the story. Our narrator is Ray, a musician who finds himself caught between two old friends, Emily and Charlie, as their marriage falls apart. Yet we begin to learn things about Ray despite his attempts to tell his friends’ story, and not his own. Estranged but still living together, they communicate only through criticism of Ray, in hilariously inappropriate terms:

‘He can’t expect many of that tribe to survive!’ Charlie boomed from the hall. I could hear he had his suitcase out there now. ‘It’s all very well behaving like an adolescent ten years after you’ve ceased to be one. But to carry on like this when you’re nearly fifty!’

‘I’m only forty-seven…’

‘What do you mean, you’re only forty-seven?’ Emily’s voice was unnecessarily loud given I was sitting right next to her. ‘Only forty-seven. This “only”, this is what’s destroying your life, Raymond. Only, only, only. Only doing my best. Only forty-seven. Soon you’ll be only sixty-seven and only going round in bloody circles trying to find a bloody roof to keep over your head!’

‘He needs to get his bloody arse together!’ Charlie yelled down the staircase. ‘Fucking well pull his socks up until they’re touching his fucking balls!’

This story culminates in grotesque physical comedy, with Raymond imitating a dog on all fours in the kitchen as he attempts to conceal an embarrassing incursion into Emily’s privacy (which was in turn an embarrassing incursion into his own privacy). It’s beautifully judged, amusing mainly because it is so blatantly forced, and wildly over-the-top while underpinning a subtle story of dissolution and regret. In that sense, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ ranks along with his best work, because it is quintessential Ishiguro, but also because it takes his work into a new dimension. For that reason, Nocturnes succeeds.


  1. Now you’ve done it, John. It looks like I might have to revisit Ishiguro after all… and do I get points for catching the Smiths reference?

    (I was going to just quote a line back, but they’re all kind of icky if taken out of context…)

  2. I’d never really considered the relative lack of comedy in Ishiguro. But that did remind me of one of my favorite bits in The Remains of the Day when Stevens is trying to speak to Reginald Archer about the birds and bees.

      1. But it’s the years of bitter aftertaste that makes eating humble pie worthwhile! Well, that and the free lolly if you finish it and clean your plate.

  3. I think I place the biggest order of new books in memory on Tuesday — in addition to three of the five you mention, on this side of the Atlantic we had Sarah Waters’ new book, Christopher Buckley’s intriguing memoir of his parents and a promising account of the moguls (now bankrupts) who financed the Metropolitan Museum of Art (my wife is as obsessed with fallen moguls as I am with fiction).

    Kudos, lollys, humble pie or whatever, I don’t get a Smiths reference. Am I being thick or can I claim distance as an excuse?

    And I am definitely looking forward to the arrival of this book. I quite like the linked premise as outlined in the review — and now that Geoff Dyer’s semi-fiction jazz book has arrived and I might consider a linked reading of two fascinating authors approaching music.

  4. Well the Smiths reference was a line from the song ‘Frankly Mr Shankly’:

    Fame, fame, fatal fame
    It can play hideous tricks on the brain

    Probably before your time, Kevin 😉

    I forgot that as well as all the new books published today, Penguin are reissuing six classics of American reportage with photographic wrap-around covers, the Magnum Collection. I forgot about Sarah Waters, though she isn’t published here until next month. She leaves me cold, or at least cool, though I do have to face the facts that she’s pretty likely to make the Booker longlist on past form.

  5. Thanks for setting me straight. And the reason I missed it is that it comes after, not before, my time :). I’d say I shut down paying attention to “new” music about 1975. Just to show you how out of touch I am on that front, I was pondering whether there was some reference to some old W.H. Smith motto or promo line. Now I am feeling humiliated.

    I did find it strange that Sarah Waters gets released in Canada a month ahead of the UK. And I share the “cool” description — the two I have read were okay, but in the realm of escapist reading for me. Since the new one is a ghost story, which is a genre I don’t like much, I didn’t order it and probably won’t unless it does make the Booker longlist.

  6. I thought the longlist was coming out in July?

    A new Ishiguro and a new Byatt is a treat to me. And I have yet to read The Unconsoled but I see I better add that to the urgent pile.

  7. Rob: It is very important to be ahead of the Booker curve — in a good year, the serious reader’s Booker dozen only has half a dozen unread books when it is announced. Please get with the program.

  8. the elegant, understated language used by his narrators, the sense of people speaking not just at cross purposes but in active denial of communication, characters paralysed by the past

    You’re a much more generous reader than me, John! You say elegant and understated, I say prim and dull.

    His writing can feel like it doesn’t fit the story he’s trying to tell. The awkward fastidious prose worked brilliantly in The Remains of the Day, where it matched perfectly the awkward fastidious narrator, but it can be cumbersome in more contemporary settings. I made it halfway through Never Let Me Go before tiring of the narrator: she didn’t sound anything like someone brought up in the recent past – she sounded more like Jean Brodie. And the dialogue was – without exception – incredible. I’ve linked to two reviews by Philip Hensher – on When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go – where he goes into some detail on Ishiguro’s ‘limited linguistic inventiveness’ and why this proved ‘completely catastrophic’ in When We Were Orphans. I do agree with Hensher’s assessment.

    Frankly, it’s embarrassing that we consider Ishiguro, along with McEwan and Barnes – middling, mild, mellow writers of nostalgia-ridden tales – to be the best England can offer the world.



  9. We will have to agree to differ Sam, but as for Ishiguro as a middling, mellow and mild mumbler along with with Barnes and McEwan (I agree with you there) – well, The Unconsoled knocks that one out of the park, I think. Even Hensher called it “daring” and a “great” novel (in the review of When We Were Orphans you link to, in fact).

    Many of Ishiguro’s characters are prim and dull, perhaps by necessity, but I don’t think his limitations – all writers have them – damn him in the least. For the record I also consider When We Were Orphans a very good book, if something of a ‘problem novel’, and I think Hensher has misread the book if he really does believe, as he says, that Christopher Banks is a society detective, just because Banks tells us that. Here is a review that I think gets When We Were Orphans just right.

    Where I do agree is that Never Let Me Go is, at best, overrated. I liked it but I don’t understand how it seems almost to have supplanted The Remains of the Day as the Ishiguro novel in the popular mind.

  10. I’ve been surprised that Never Let Me Go has supplanted The Remains of the Day too. Is it because Never Let Me Go feels more like a popular novel? English butler versus private school clones. I see where some people might think the idea of Never Let Me Go is better, though I’m not in that camp.

    As for When We Were Orphans, I found wonderful the connection between the incredible – if contrived – naivety of Christopher Banks’s search for his parents and the government’s dealings with the political situation. Still ended up not loving it, but I thought that was because I was comparing it to earlier Ishiguro. Can’t wait to read this, though.

  11. I certainly think the author of the brilliantly inventive, ground-breaking and breathtakingly exciting The Northern Conspiracy is ideally positioned to find Ishiguro a writer of “limited linguistic inventiveness.” I can only assumer Hensher the reviewer is fairly certain readers have not read the latest Hensher the author.

    For what it is worth, I find Ishiguro’s style anything but mumbling — there is a very precise formality to it that carries its own sharpness. I also find Never Let Me Go to be his weakest work — all of the others are strong. And the problem with Never Let Me Go for me is not the writing but a questionable and not very interesting storyline.

    And, confirming that I am a heretic, I think both McEwan and Barnes, in their better books, are very good writers (certainly better than the author of The Northern Clemency), although I would admit that both have their off books.

  12. To be fair Kevin, ‘mumbling’ was my term, only used when disagreeing with Sam, and not a term used by anyone to decry Ishiguro. I should say that I do also like Barnes and McEwan at their best, but find that best increasingly hard to come by. England, England, Amsterdam, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Saturday etc are all very ho-hum. Both I think were more interesting in some of their earlier stuff – Flaubert’s Parrot, First Love, Last Rites and so on. I did also like Arthur & George and Atonement so I guess I’m just a mess of inconsistencies this evening.

  13. I didn’t intend to attribute “mumbling” to anyone but was continuing your usage — sorry if I implied otherwise. And you and I have similar evaluations of when Barnes and McEwan are good and when they are not. My own hypothesis is that both of them tend to publish too much, but then I guess when even the bad ones sell as well as they do that’s probably just grumpiness on my part. After all, I don’t have to read the books.

  14. WelI (more heresy), I love Never Let Me Go — though it’s the black sheep of Ishiguro’s oeuvre so far, it’s gripping and provocative sci-fi, and can be enjoyed on that basis.

    I remember finding AN Wilson’s review of it helpful. Wilson puts his finger on why I found the book so chilling and memorable. Kathy H’s life seems like an exemplar of how not to live, but how different is her life from many real lives, and how different is her society from ours? She enjoys high “quality of life”, finds some meaning in love and art, but she is still grist to the mill of a utilitarian society that fails to see life and freedom as ends in themselves — and that’s what’s horrifying.

    Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to reading Nocturnes.

  15. Never Let Me Go is the only Ishiguro I’ve read; I thought it was very effective. Another blogger’s recent rave of The Unconsoled has that on my list… thanks for another fine review.

  16. Thanks Richard. As I said above, I do think The Unconsoled is his most interesting – even if I dare not say ‘best’ – book. I was also pleased to read in another interview with Ishiguro today that his current project is “another larger-scale novel … ‘a bit odder’ than [Nocturnes].”

    Jonathan, Wilson I think has got Ishiguro’s intentions exactly right. In Never Let Me Go, he seeks to portray all our lives through an extrapolation to the extreme. I remember Tony Parsons on Newsnight Review ridiculing it because the students didn’t run to escape their fate (you know, like in Michael Bay’s cinematic masterpiece The Island). This gloriously missed the point that in Ishiguro’s world, you must go on.

  17. The idea that Parsons could see that as a plot hole rather than as the point of the novel is astonishing… presumably he read The Remains of the Day and thought, “that’s ridiculous, why didn’t he just quit his job and snog Miss Kenton?”

  18. Barnes wrote an excellent crime series under the name Dan Kavanagh, which in my view is actually quite a lot better than his literary fiction. It’s a shame that in the end he continued with the literary stuff, which has got less interesting over time, and abandoned the crime, which he was rather good at.

    That aside, I’ve only read An Artist of the Floating World, which I considered genuinely excellent, and A Pale View of Hills, which was good but not for me as much so as Artist. I own The Unconsoled, but it sits on my shelf, untemptingly. I’m not wholly taken by the description of this one, but I shall take another look at The Unconsoled based on your comments.

    Amsterdam, on another tangent, I thought was shockingly bad. It starts with well written and credible characters, then they take a series of increasingly unconvincing decisions which do real violence to their credibility as character portraits and which are coupled with a bizarre series of coincidences. By the end, all concepts of character integrity or internal logic are jettisoned, in favour of a pat and frankly ludicrous ending. Put another way, I didn’t really like it. A huge disappointment for me after the rather excellent Black Dogs.

  19. I agree Max, Amsterdam is an absolute disaster, but by no means the only embarrassing Booker winner. Judging by the Amazon reviews this is pretty much a consensus view.

    I’m unusual in that I also disliked Atonement. I thought it had mannered prose, a contrived plot and a dreadful ending. It has a thesis about atonement-through-writing that it tries to ram down your throat. But I may be alone on that one.

  20. I’m afraid I did genuinely LOL at the first Amazon review of Amsterdam which I saw when I clicked your link, Jonathan. It’s titled What a load of b*******.

    Max, I think An Artist of the Floating World is very good, perhaps even more satisfying than The Remains of the Day, about which Ishiguro now says:

    [I]t was a little too easy for me, the writing process wasn’t quite so interesting for me as it could have been because it felt like a book I was already very familiar with.

    By then I think I was quite ready for something that would be quite difficult for me to write. In some ways I was quite hungry for a different relationship with critics. I had felt that I was in danger of becoming too cosy as a writer.

    The result was The Unconsoled, which I hope you will be tempted by soon, Max.

    Interesting about Barnes’s crime fiction. The Duffy books, isn’t that right? Interestingly, his worst book by far England, England was shortlisted for the Booker in the year that Amsterdam won. Douglas Hurd, chair of the judges, says that there were “no overpowering or sensational entries” in that “quiet year”, and that Amsterdam won “not because we thought it was about time he won the Booker, but because in a mild year most people (though not the chairman) thought his offering finished just ahead of Beryl Bainbridge, riding Master Georgie.”

    1. I agree with Max above who found “An Artist Of The Floating World” excellent. I would say the same for “A Pale View of Hills.” Ishiguro’s new book hasn’t come out here in the states yet so I can’t comment on that but in general I would say his work has become less impressive as he goes on. I will admit that I am an impatient reader, but I couldn’t stick with “The Unconsoled” at all. A hundred pages was as far as I got. Recently mentioned this to a friend who also loves Ishiguro and she said she only made it two thirds of the way through. But the book has its supporters–among them Anita Brookner who I think is brilliant. People are bound to disagree on things.

      I haven’t read much of Barnes so I can’t comment on him. As for Ian McEwen, he’s very very good at times and also not so good at other times. But then look at the output of many famous writers from the past, particularly those who wrote a lot. They all seem to have an uneven output. You just can’t hit a home run every time.

      1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts John. The Unconsoled is one that divides opinion, certainly, as does When We Were Orphans, though I’m very fond of them both. And yes, Brookner did like it, and you’re the second person I’ve heard praise her in the last week, so it looks as though I am going to have to read some of hers too. Is there anything you recommend? (You might have to reply at the bottom of the comments, as the indented replies only go three levels deep.)

  21. Frank Kermode writes on Nocturnes in the latest London Review of Books. Unfortunately the digital version is available to subscribers only, but “brilliant” and “accomplished” are probably the words Faber will be pulling from it to put on the paperback.

  22. I just finished Come Rain Or Come Shine and I laughed more than I have in a long time. Close to a perfect story for me, and perfectly hilarious. Definitely something new for Ishiguro. But then I have only just started The Unconsoled.

  23. John, I just saw I missed a query from you earlier, you’re quite right – it is the Duffy books that Barnes wrote under a pseudonym.

    The only Brookner I’ve read, to chime in on that, is predictably enough Hotel du Lac. I was very impressed by it as I recall.

  24. John, I only came upon your blog when it came up in connection with James Lasdun’s new book. I’ve been browsing around a little bit since then and must say I like what I see. You seem to be interested in a lot of the same writers I like. I see you had Damon Galgut’s “The Imposter” on your year-end best of list. I definitely agree with you about that one. I will continue to browse around as I’m always on the lookout for new books and I’ve seen mention of quite a few things in your blog I hadn’t heard of before. Whether they will have come out here in the states is another matter.

    As far as Brookner goes, I guess the first thing everyone thinks of is “The Hotel Du Lac”. It’s brilliantly written–like most of her books–but even she herself in a recent interview said it wouldn’t have been the one she would have picked to win. Joyce Carol Oates called it one of the slightest books ever to win the Booker. At any rate, aside from that book I can also heartily endorse “A Friend From England” and also “Altered States”–those are my two favorites.

  25. Thanks John for the Brookner tips – and thanks too for the heartening words. Yes, Galgut is very good, and at the risk of hammering a point, if you liked The Impostor you might like Hugo Wilcken’s Colony. (Might, they’re not that similar, but both shared some qualities for me.) Now that really is the last time I’ll plug that book! …this week.

    1. Thanks for the tip about the Wilcken book but I think that might be a hard one for me to locate. I couldn’t find out anything about it anywhere. I guess that’s the problem with a lot of neglected books–they’re just not available.

      This is a subject I’ve been interested in for quite some time–unjustly neglected books. I wonder if you know about the neglected books page on the net. What it is is a gathering of material from many different sources about great neglected books. In some cases, various authors were asked to nominate a book they considered unjustly neglected. In others, readers of all stripes wrote about books they were passionate about.

      At any rate, it’s a great resource. I’ve made some great discoveries using that site. If you’re interested at all, check it out.

  26. Thanks leyla. I read your review with interest. I think your medical background makes it difficult for you to dismiss implausibilities in that field in the way that a layman (such as me) has no difficulty in doing – and as I might have difficulty in legal aspects of a story, for example. They didn’t trouble me, partly because implausibilities have become Ishiguro’s stock in trade since The Unconsoled, and as I mentioned above, ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ (which is ultimately very implausible) reminded me quite a lot of that book. KevinfromCanada on his blog pointed out that

    the world that he describes is normal for about 90 per cent of the time, and totally abnormal for the other 10

    I suppose it’s one of those self-fulfilling things: if you’ve bought into it early on, then it’s straightforward to continue to do so; if not, then the implausibilities will build up and become more and more of an obstacle – as they seem to have done for you.

    John – thanks for the reminder about the Neglected Books site. It is indeed a valuable resource.

  27. Thanks, John. Yes, I guess Ishiguro’s dream-like world calls for a suspension of disbelief or at least a loosening of pedantic attention to fact. I was just disappointed because I had been convinced by others that previous implausibilities, for example in When We Were Orphans, were planned by Ishiguro and cleverly meant to make us realise we were dealing with a delusional narrator.
    KevinfromCanada, I liked your review very much.

    A fellow writer on rocksbackpages, Bill DeMain, has pointed out that Ishiguro wrote some of the lyrics to the last Stacey Kent album and he says they are very impressive, especially the lyrics to The Ice Hotel. (I have to admit here to not knowing who Stacey Kent is, but I admire her for her choice of songwriter.)

  28. It’s my first comment, I’m from Japan.
    My friends say that Never Let me Go is too sad, but when I finished it it wasn’t sad I felt but some feeling as if I could forgive anything which might occur to me in my future. And I also felt big silence like that of Stevens in The Remain of The Day. Some people beloeve in God but God is always silence. The silence that I felt after Never Let Me Go was similar to it.

  29. The book has come out here in France. I was very interested in your english coments. The main question for me in this book is ; “Why do we accept our lives and frustrations ? Sometimes we believe that nothing can be changed, we believe in fate… Maybe it’s bad… (sorry for my english, I hope you understand).

  30. Hi La librivore, thanks for your comments (your English is very good, and bien meilleur que mon francais…). I think your question is central to much of Ishiguro’s fiction, and would equally well apply to his last novel Never Let Me Go.

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