Kazuo Ishiguro’s last three novels have all been high concept. The Unconsoled finds a concert pianist in a dreamlike world not unlike Kafka’s, When We Were Orphans is a work of existential crime fiction, and Never Let Me Go is his eerie and moving take on human cloning.
Ishiguro’s first collection of short fiction, Nocturnes, though more grounded in everyday experience than his recent novels, is tinged with his sense of the strange and sad and, new for him, the humorous. It’s subtitled Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. Each story is about music, or, more precisely, musicians, and the “nightfall” aspect of each story relates to the end of either a relationship, or an aspiration.
In the first story, “Crooner”, a talented young guitarist, making his living performing for tourists in Venice, meets Tony Gardner, the “crooner” of the title, a still-famous American singer — from the description it appears we’re meant to think Tony Bennett. Tony offers to pay the young man to accompany him that night, to serenade Tony’s wife from a gondola beneath her window. The adventure provides the guitarist with a lesson in the imperatives of fame and the contingent nature of love.
“Come Rain or Come Shine”, is the funniest of the book’s five stories. A schoolteacher visits old college friends in their London flat. Their marriage is on the rocks because the wife is disappointed by her middle-aged husband’s lack of success. The husband conspires to leave the two together for a few days, convincing the school teacher to stay because, being himself a consummate failure in life, he will be able to demonstrate to his wife what real failure is and, by contrast, convince her that her husband isn’t nearly as woebegone as she believes.
But, the schoolteacher is warned, he mustn’t talk to her about music, since that’s the one area in which she believes he has taste and value as a person. The schoolteacher’s hilarious attempt to cover up a mistake he’s made while the wife’s away on business, and her surprising reaction when she comes home unexpectedly, has perfect comic timing, and the ending is musical, sweet, and hopeful.
In “Malvern Hills”, another young guitarist and songwriter, spends the summer with his sister and brother-in-law, working in their café for bread and board. Two customers, husband and wife, and, we learn later, itinerant musicians, are a perfect contrast — the man all hope and eagerness, the woman all frustration and pent-up anger. This is the least of the five stories, its mild lesson about failure in life and the impact it can have on relationships is the least satisfying.
The fourth story,“Nocturne”, returns us to comic mode. A homely 39-year-old saxophonist, but with the gift of musical genius, is left by his wife because, among other things, he refuses to get the facelift that will help him make the big time. Her wealthy lover, out of guilt for victimizing the saxophonist, offers to pay for the best plastic surgery available.
After agonizing over the decision, and repeated urging from his agent, he agrees to the procedure. After which, he’s put up in the same fancy hotel where the rest of Hollywood’s big stars are sent to quietly and secretly recover from their surgery.
His face wrapped in bandages, despondent over having been talked into all this, and feeling it’s been a terrible mistake, he’s astonished, and not a little appalled, to be invited next door to visit with Lindy Gardner, the former wife of Tony Gardner (from the first story). A celebrity in her own right, she is someone the saxophonist sees as shallow and untalented, whose done nothing but sleep her way to the top.
A wild midnight prowl of the hotel with Lindy, attempting to return something she’s stolen as a gift in recognition of his genius, is hilarious and almost lands them in jail. But, the fact that he can’t completely hide his contempt for Lindy has its consequences, leaving the reader to understand that genius, of itself, is perhaps never enough to make a career.
The final story, “Cellists”, is also about genius, as well as the trust in one’s own talent that can be the difference between successful aspiration or eventual self-defeat. A young Hungarian cellist, classically trained, attempting to advance his career in Venice, is approached by an older woman who has heard his recent recital. Herself a virtuoso on the cello, she offers to help him to find “the correct path” in his playing.
At first, he takes umbrage at the suggestion, but eventually finds himself playing for her in her room every day and learning to play better, and with greater feeling, prodded by her critique and suggestions. That she never herself takes up the instrument in his presence leads to suspicions and unease in their relationship. She is also “hiding out” from a wealthy man who wishes to marry her. In the end, she is found out, in more ways than one, but the revelations will have the greatest impact on the young cellist.
Nocturnes is Ishiguro in minor mode. While it has neither the ambition nor innovation of his previous books, it is the work of a master of prose fiction. Every sentence is perfect — fluid and limpid, entirely in the service of the tale being told, musical.
The book is also a compelling set of variations on genius. In my former life (as a symphony orchestra manager), I saw many musicians perform with great skill. But, true musical genius, what I call the “music gene”, is rare indeed. Rarer still is the genius with character. (The real Tony Bennett has both.)
Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, clearly not an attempt to parade musical knowledge (for example, the virtuoso’s instructions to the other young cellist are only alluded to), demonstrates his deep understanding of the value of genius, and its limitations.