Nocturnes is a collection of five longish short stories, four about musicians and a fifth about friends who once bonded over musical tastes. As the title neatly suggests, the book is filled with characters living in obscurity; the stories are populated by people, often musicians, who have been forced to downgrade their ambitions dramatically. While the title also suggests classical music, however, jazz and its related forms feature more prominently.
The standout success among the five is ‘Malvern Hills’, which features a university drop-out who is trying (like countless others) to write songs, while helping out at his sister’s café in Worcestershire. Ishiguro insightfully portrays both the man’s self-regarding pomposity about his non-existent musical ‘career’, and his underlying bitterness at having failed to achieve in the eyes of those who know him. He befriends an older Swiss couple who work as musicians in continental hotels, and their own inner woes are hinted at with the same skilful restraint.
There are disappointingly few highlights elsewhere, though. Part of the problem is that each of the stories is narrated in the first person by an almost wilfully uninteresting character; Ishiguro achieves verisimilitude at a high price, because the prose seems underwritten, at times even mundane. The book starts with ‘Crooner’, in which a street musician in Venice meets the legendary Tony Gardner, a drawl-voiced former star, and agrees to play a guitar accompaniment that night so that Gardner can serenade his wife, Lindy. The story is patiently set up, but in the final couple of pages there is an uncomfortable tonal shift into absurdity, as we discover that Gardner is planning a comeback and is serenading Lindy as a final goodbye because they are divorcing, despite enjoying a flawless marriage, since he now needs a more youthful woman, like all the other singers (‘Every one of them, young wives on their arms. Me and Lindy are getting to be a laughing-stock’). It is a story which announces itself as a satire only at the end, which gives it the feel of an unnecessarily long gag.
In ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, a middle-aged man named Ray visits Charlie and Emily, old university friends who are now married. Ray has never moved on from post-graduate TEFL jobs; Charlie has invited him simply to provide an unfavourable comparison that will make Charlie look good and rescue his ailing relationship with Emily. The story unfolds like a prime-time sitcom, with motivations ignored and authenticity of dialogue and of action abandoned in favour of a series of self- consciously ‘wacky’ set-pieces which are not sufficiently funny to justify the reader’s suspension of disbelief. When Ray accidentally damages Emily’s diary and tries to cover this up by pretending that a dog has ransacked the house — a process which involves cooking a malodorous concoction on the hob to make the place smell dog-like — it is hard either to believe in or care about what is happening.
The two other stories are better but not gripping. In ‘Cellists’ the narrator tells us about Tibor, a promising musician who, as a young man, was taught for several weeks by Eloise, a woman who pretended to be a famous virtuoso but who could not, in fact, play a note. There are some interesting passages, but one wonders how Eloise’s lack of practical knowledge remained unexposed for so long: she apparently gave abstract instructions, but it is implausible that Tibor would not have asked something technical that would have left Eloise floundering. In the almost-title-story, ‘Nocturne’, Lindy Gardner reappears, this time after surgery, but a decent start gives way to an over-long tale which again shifts into capers that seem too staged. That story is perhaps the most reflective of a disappointing volume in which the comedy feels forced and the prose is too rarely a pleasure to read. Nocturnes is not a dreadful collection, but it is far off the pace of the author’s earlier work.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 9, 2009Tags: Fiction