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Again, my review is too long - I know I'm longwinded. So here it is in two parts:


Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book is a collection of five stories centred around the theme of music. The full title of the book is ‘Nocturnes - Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’.


That Ishiguro should choose music as a subject around which to base his stories is not surprising: as a young man, music was Ishiguro’s first career choice. He played the guitar and piano and wrote songs, and he submitted demo tapes unsuccessfully to producers who - he self deprecatingly reflects - would grimace after less than a minute and send him on his way.


It was only after the success of his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, that Ishiguro gave up his musical ambitions to concentrate on writing. Since then, he’s established himself as one of the most respected British writers of his era. He won The Booker prize for The Remains of the Day which was made into a film. His six novels have certain themes in common - regret, nostalgia, wistfulness about actions not taken. He is also a master of the unreliable narrator. He usually relates his tales in the first person, in highly accessible, chatty but nevertheless elegant language. The simplicity of his prose belies the various narrators’ veracity - they are often deluded, as was Christopher in When We Were Orphans, or suppressing their real emotions, like Kathy in Never Let Me Go, whose facade of calm hid terrible depths of anguish.


Nocturnes is a departure for Ishiguro - the form of the novel gives him the space to allow the reader to see under the narrator’s story and spot the threadbare areas, the parts where the story as related doesn’t quite fit. In the short story, Ishiguro has less space and time to develop the narrator. The unembellished, at times starkly plain prose therefore has to be taken on surface value. There are still times in this collection where Ishiguro does manage to convey that the narrator is not what he seems - for example, the egotistical, lazy sponger in Malvern Hills who presents himself as an undiscovered genius. There are hints of it elsewhere - for example, in Crooner, one wonders whether the narrator, Janeck, is paranoid in his conviction that Vittorio the gondolier badmouths him behind his back, and in Malvern Hills, the resentful narrator broods that an old school teacher asked him ‘in lessons exactly the question she sensed I wouldn’t be able to answer’, raising suggestions that he’s blaming her for his own shortcomings. But elsewhere, the enforced brevity of the short story form is an obstacle to Ishiguro working his trademark magic.


Ishiguro’s writing is always a delight to read. His lack of unnecessary adornment means that his prose slips down like nectar. His narrat0rs are always intriguing and compelling, their stories related in informal language peppered with figures of speech like ‘As I say’, ‘Anyway’, ‘I guess’, ‘But here I am’ to make them echo the sprinkling of chatty phrases found in conversation. Because of this, the monologues capture the reader’s attention immediately; there is no sense of being talked at or lectured to. This immediate intimacy is so ubiquitous, however, that the narrators of the five stories sound similar to each other except when the reader is given insights into their personality, as with the would-be musician in Malvern Hills.


The five stories all feature small-time musicians or lovers of music. The music is never the central topic, though - it acts as a backdrop to standard Ishiguro themes of unfulfilled promise or lost opportunities, damaged relationships and melancholic memories. In Crooner, a guitar player from a previously Communist country who now plays in the piazzas of Venice meets an old American musical idol of his mother’s, Tony Gardner. Gardner asks him for a favour. It is only later that we learn what is really going on. In Come Rain or Shine, a successful Londoner invites an old university pal of he and his wife’s to come and stay. The friend, Raymond, who scrapes a living teaching English in Spain, is delighted at this opportunity to visit, holding special memories as he does for the musical tastes he shares with the wife. But the true reason he has been asked quickly becomes apparent. In Malvern Hills, the inconsiderate amateur guitarist mentioned previously comes to stay with his older sister in the cafe she runs with her husband in the Malverns. He meets a Swiss tourist couple (the male of which, Tilo, is depicted beautifully as a generous, jolly soul). The guitarist’s initial dislike of the couple changes when they admire his music, and as facts about the couple are revealed, a poignancy is evoked. Nocturne features another unsuccessful musician. He embarks on plastic surgery to try and save his career and win back his wife and meets the wife of Tony Gardner from Crooner in the hotel where she too is recuperating after cosmetic surgery. Cellists is centred around the relationship between a classically trained cellist and a mentor he meets in Italy.


My main cavil with these stories - and unfortunately it’s an insurmountable problem - is their implausibility. Ishiguro has always toyed with the improbable, and sometimes the reader puts the lack of feasibility down to the unreliability of the narrator. For example, in When We Were Orphans, the narrator returns from England to Japan where his parents disappeared twenty years previously, and tells us that the the powers-that-be pull out all the stops to help him search for his parents, even though neither he nor his parents have ever been particularly significant figures. He even says that resources are diverted from acute, violent ongoing problems to his long dead cause. In Never Let Me Go, the lack of plausibility of clones being raised in order to provide organs was an obstacle for me because it’s a risible idea that this would ever get past an ethics committee, but I told myself it might occur in places with less stringent human rights than the UK.


But in Nocturnes, the implausibilities become a great stumbling block because in the limited space, there is less possibility to develop other strengths of the story. Thus in Crooner, the whole premise of the tale is ludicrous because the reason Tony Gardner gives for his action is just not true (he says he will only have a chance of a come-back if X occurs - yet the reader knows well that this is not the case). The only alternative is that Gardner is being dishonest - in which case the whole pathos of the piece is ruined because he is no longer a man for whom we feel sympathy.


Similarly, in Come Rain or Shine, the whole farce depends on the reader believing the actions related could occur. That they’re preposterous is not the only problem - after all, much of farce is based on the unlikely. The other stumbling block is that surely once Ray has found out what his venal ‘friends’ think of him, he wouldn’t care a jolt about the small spontaneous act of vandalism that causes him to embark on his elaborate cover-up. The wife’s ‘concern’ is obviously a total sham and so Ray shouldn’t care about what she thinks - his act is understandable given what he has found out. It may be that Ishiguro intends the reader to think that the malevolent (and dishonest) husband was the one who wrote and planted the hurtful item that Ray finds, but this wouldn’t work because the wife would quickly find out and explanations would out.


Nocturne uses a similar element of farce, but again, the way it comes about is so contrived as to rob the end scene of any real humour it may hold. A man is caught on stage with his hand up a turkey - but the reason this happens is frankly too unlikely to be plausible.

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Other plausibility problems in Nocturne include the fact that patients would need to recuperate for two weeks in a hotel after cosmetic surgery. Sure, the Americans use hotels instead of hospital wards in these situations, but the narrator spends ‘a couple of days’ in hospital and then a couple of weeks in the hotel. Even in the UK, people only stay a night after a facelift unless there are complications, they then go home. And the bandages that are crucial to the story’s visual gags would have been off within days. And it’s also completely unbelievable that a cosmetic surgeon would operate without a prior consultation. Or that a woman’s lover will pay for her ex’s cosmetic surgery. Or that a nurse, bound by medical confidentiality, would gab about a celebrity being in the next room. Or, for that matter, that a celeb would invite a total stranger to her room, especially after a facelift (which almost all US celebs deny having). And the idea that Lindy Gardner would be able to get hold of an award due to be given the next day at a lavish ceremony… or that a turkey prepared for the ceremony would be sitting out unrefrigerated (this is a swanky hotel in the US, their ass would be sued)…


More problems of credibility arise in Cellists. The story between Tibor, the cellist, and the American woman, is related by a narrator who wasn’t present during any of their meetings. So how can the nuances and fleeting glances, the emotions contained within these encounters, be in any way reliable? Perhaps it’s not meant to be; perhaps it’s the story as imagined by the narrator from what Tibor has told him, but then it loses a lot of its resonance and meaning.


I remember being unconvinced by the plausibility of the conclusion of Ian McEwan’s latest novel On Chesil Beach. I didn’t believe that a relationship could come to the conclusion it did because of the event related. I saw McEwan speak at the Edinburgh festival a few months after I’d read the book, and, in answer to someone else’s question, he said he doesn’t write about the most likely scenario but about the one in a million that might occur. For me, that made all the difference as far as On Chesil Beach was concerned, and I appreciated it in full afterwards, my quibbles dispelled. But the lack of plausibility in the stories in Nocturnes is of another order - the whole plots are contingent on facts that defy belief, even in a one in a million situation.


Because of these glaring incongruities, the bitter-sweet loss and disappointment of these stories becomes less convincing. Ishiguro is without doubt a writer of great talent, but for me, his dreamy narratives work far more convincingly in his novels. Nocturnes is by no means mediocre - Ishiguro’s prose is always seductive and charming. But it’s not his best work.

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  • 4 months later...

I haven't read any Ishiguro before so I don't know how this collection of thematically related short stories fits into his oeuvre. The first story, Crooner, is by far the best and none of the following live up to it. I got a real sense of sadness while reading it, not that I wanted to cry, just that all the protagonists' stories really moved me. I thought it was by far the most successful one, maybe because of the way he conveyed the 'foreigner' who was the musician.


The others I liked but due to their shortness they fell into the category of 'a snippet of a story' rather than being fully formed themselves. I deliberately didn't flick ahead to see where any story finished so I never knew where each one was going or when it was going to end. Then, boom, the story is no more and there's no resolution. Like a fugue that doesn't resolve itself back into its original key, these endings felt uncomfortable.


I liked this but I don't feel the urge to read anything else by Ishiguro.

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More problems of credibility arise in Cellists. The story between Tibor, the cellist, and the American woman, is related by a narrator who wasn’t present during any of their meetings. So how can the nuances and fleeting glances, the emotions contained within these encounters, be in any way reliable? Perhaps it’s not meant to be; perhaps it’s the story as imagined by the narrator from what Tibor has told him, but then it loses a lot of its resonance and meaning.

Having now read your review I now understand what I didn't like about that story. It has the 'wavy lines' problem of a TV show where the narrator is telling a story and goes, "And then the old sea captain said..." before the screen does that wobbly thing and we go to flashback and I wonder how the narrator knew what the sea captain really was thinking about.

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Having now read your review I now understand what I didn't like about that story. It has the 'wavy lines' problem of a TV show where the narrator is telling a story and goes, "And then the old sea captain said..." before the screen does that wobbly thing and we go to flashback and I wonder how the narrator knew what the sea captain really was thinking about.


Well put, Adrian! For me, any beauty in the story was down to the tiny details of the relationship, yet these must have been almost entirely fabricated by the storyteller. I know Ishiguro features a lot of narrators who we're meant to question, and perhaps it was his intention that we think of this story as being seen through the eyes of a person who wasn't there. But it doesn't quite work for me.


The sense you mention in your previous post of the stories having no resolution is something I wouldn't mind if they delivered on other factors: I quite like snippets of people's lives, and many of my favourite short stories do leave me wanting more. But I know what you mean, there didn't seem any *point* to some of the stories. And when Ishiguro attempted farce, as in the story about the post-facelift duo in the hotel, I thought it seemed clumsy and contrived, like a poet mooning to try and get in with the masses instead of sticking to his more dignified talents.

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  • 7 months later...

I just finished these stories, prior to me hearing Ishiguro speak at the Hay Festival. I love his writing, having read Never Let Me Go and The Unconsoled (the latter I found a difficult and frustrating but ultimately rewarding read.)


The elegance of Ishiguro's prose is there, as Layla has mentioned, and he does evoke a wide range of very subtle emotions, but I was left wondering why he felt moved to write these stories - they don't really say very much, or go anywhere. I always feel a truly good book has a sense of the author absolutely having to write it - as with a music composition, if it doesn't spring from a passionate need to create, it's going to leave the audience cold. I did not believe that these stories were important to the author, so it was hard for them to get through to me.


I also agree that the implausibility of them is an issue, but found that more forgivable for some reason.


I would recommend that Ishiguro fans read Nocturnes, if only because there are some lovely moments in them, but anyone looking to read their first Ishiguro should start elsewhere or they may end up with an impression that he's not as great as I believe he really is!

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