Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

If a different writer had published a book with the same title as Kazuo Ishiguro’s new collection of stories, the reader might be tempted to groan at its preciousness. Nocturnes — could there be a more self-consciously arty word, with its memories of Schubert and Chopin? And doesn’t the subtitle make things worse, insisting too grandly on melody and melancholy? Yet Ishiguro, as readers of his fiction know, is anything but a conventional or pretty writer. In his last book, Never Let Me Go, he conjured the most convincing dystopia in recent literary fiction: an alternative England where human clones are raised in segregated schools, until their organs are harvested for the benefit of “real” people. That the clones are every bit as real as their originals is less disturbing, in Ishiguro’s novel, than the intricate ways they justify and reconcile themselves to their fate. With typical indirection, Ishiguro turned his sci-fi premise into a parable of the ways we learn to live in our own world of injustice and despair.

It all seems a long way from music and nightfall. But it doesn’t take very long for the reader to discover that, in Nocturnes, Ishiguro is conducting a different kind of writerly experiment, whose design is just as stringent as that in his previous book. It is as though Ishiguro had laid down a group of thematic and stylistic ground rules, and challenged himself to write five stories that obey them in utterly different ways. All the stories, as the subtitle promises, involve music and musicians, and all reach their climax at evening. What is more significant, however, is what the title does not announce: that each story is told in the first person, and deals with the problems in a marriage, with professional success and failure, and with the mysteries of teaching and apprenticeship. Finally, and most surprising of all, Ishiguro gives every story a moment of broad comedy, verging at times on slapstick.

Part of the pleasure of reading Nocturnes is discovering just how consistently Ishiguro returns to these seemingly inconsistent elements. “Crooner,” the first tale in the book, offers the theme on which Ishiguro goes on to build his variations. The narrator, whose name we eventually learn is Jan, is a guitar player in a café band in Venice, who is surprised to notice one day that a famous American singer, Tony Gardner, is sitting in the audience. Jan tells us how important Gardner is to him: growing up in an unnamed Communist country, Gardner’s records were hard to find, and his mother treasured her copies. Jan remembers the time when, as a child, he accidentally scratched one of those records: “I felt so bad, not just because she was shouting at me, but because I knew it was one of Tony Gardner’s records, and I knew how much it meant to her.”

To the star-struck Jan, then, Gardner is a legend, and he shyly starts a conversation with his idol. But in a way that is characteristic of Ishiguro, the reader begins to see things that the narrator cannot. Gardner, though truly famous in his day, is no longer the red-hot celebrity Jan remembers; people no longer turn to look at him. Perhaps as a result, he is distracted and bemused, and his conversation with his younger wife, Lindy, is tense, trying too hard to seem loving. When Gardner suddenly hires Jan to accompany him that night on a gondola serenade, where he will sing his old love songs at Lindy’s window, we begin to suspect that we know what is really going on: the aging star is losing his wife’s affections, and this is his theatrical attempt to win her back.

But as always, Ishiguro is several steps ahead of us. When Jan joins Gardner that night, the singer pours out the real history of their relationship, as the gondolier circles the canals again and again. Lindy, Gardner reveals, was a professional gold-digger. At nineteen, she started working at a diner near Los Angeles that was frequented by starlets and presided over by Meg, a middle-aged waitress who knew all the Hollywood tricks. “You’ve got to understand,” Gardner says, “these were serious girls, really ambitious, determined girls. Did they talk about clothes and shoes and make-up like other girls? Sure they did. But they only talked about which clothes and shoes and make-up would help them marry a star.” Eventually, Lindy married a minor singer, whom she ruthlessly traded in for Gardner, a much bigger prize.

But this ugly revelation is not the last, or the ugliest, in the story. Jan learns that, as he suspected, this trip to Venice is the last for Tony and Lindy Gardner; after twenty-seven years of marriage, they are about to get divorced. But it is not because Lindy wants to upgrade husbands again. Despite the sordid beginning of their marriage, Gardner confides, they now truly love one another. No, it is Tony who is getting rid of his wife, because he is desperate to make a comeback, and he thinks he needs a younger woman to make him seem relevant. “Look at the ones from my generation still hanging round. Every single one of them, they’ve remarried,” he tells Jan. “Me and Lindy are getting to be a laughing stock.”

“Crooner” covers a surprising amount of emotional ground, though it is only about 30 pages long. We start out in a picture-postcard scene — Venice, gondolas, serenades — and end up in the fearsomely realistic world of modern celebrity, where anything and anyone can be sacrificed to the goal of success. At first, the story that follows, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” seems to have little in common with “Crooner”: now the narrator is a middle-aged expatriate Englishman, Raymond, who has returned to London to visit old college friends, Charlie and Emily. Raymond’s life has been aimless, a failure, while Charlie is a successful businessman who married Emily, the girl Raymond liked. All Raymond has now is memories of the way he and Emily used to bond over their love of American songs, the Gershwins and Cole Porter.

As the story unfolds, however, the reader begins to realize that, once again, Ishiguro has deployed the same elements. Raymond and Charlie are the mediocrity and the success, like Jan and Tony Gardner; once again, the successful man turns out to have a deeply troubled marriage, and needs the unsuccessful one to help him; once again music, now recorded instead of performed, is the medium of seduction. But this time, the story is not bittersweet but an outright farce. Suffice it to say that it climaxes with Emily discovering Raymond in her living room, on all fours, chewing the furniture like a dog, while making soup from an old boot in the kitchen. And yet the bittersweetness, the sense that happiness is the price we must pay for achievement, is there too. It is as if Ishiguro has turned the dial on the kaleidoscope, creating a new pattern out of the old one.

That he goes on to do this three more times raises Nocturnes from a mere trick to a real demonstration of virtuosity. In the later stories, Ishiguro’s protagonists are a sullen teenage songwriter in the English countryside, a jazz session-man recovering from plastic surgery in Beverly Hills, and finally a great cello teacher who may or may not actually know how to play the cello. Music and nightfall come into play each time, but so do the deeper themes Ishiguro, a writer at the height of his fame and skill, seems to know so well: the human cost of success, the illusory nature of accomplishment, and the competition in every heart between vanity and love.