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.