Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro: Promise Unfulfilled

Nocturnes is the only work of short fiction written by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’m not a great fan of short stories but I thought this year I would push myself to read at least a few of the many collections I’ve acquired over the years.

I had great hopes for Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall  having loved the subtlety and perception of character shown in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel The Remains Of The Day (one of my favourite Booker winners).

Nocturnes  was Ishiguro’s first collection of short fiction. He doesn’t like to class them as short stories however, preferring the term “story book” or “story cycle”. His argument is that short stories are typically imagined and written as separate pieces whereas from the beginning he wanted all five of his stories to go together as if they were movements in a piece of music.

As in a music cycle, the book begins and ends in the same place — Italy — with some recurring tones and motifs such as an open window. Each tale focuses on music and musicians and takes place partially at the close of day. The first and fifth stories feature cafe musicians while the same character appears in the first and fourth stories. All five stories are linked by virtue of their unreliable male narrators and the themes of unfulfilled potential and regret.

I was drawn in by the poignancy of the first story ‘Crooner’ in which a fading American singer devises a plan to serenade his wife from a gondola. He enlists the help of Jan, a cafe musician who plies the squares of Venice. Jan is thrilled to help but he misunderstands the nature of the couple’s relationship. The serenade is not a grand romantic gesture or a means of reconciliation but is in fact, a song of farewell.

None of the other four stories in Nocturnes held my interest to the same extent.

The mood of quiet melancholy I’d enjoyed in Crooner re-appeared in the final tale ‘Cellists’ in which a Hungarian cellist is drawn towards a fellow cellist, an apparently brilliant player who becomes his tutor.

But I didn’t care for the absurd element that was present in some of the other tales. Story number two for example “Come Rain or Come Shine” has a narrator who impersonates a dog and ransacks his friend’s flat to cover up for a mistake. I didn’t find it amusing however because the narrator is a gullible man who is being manipulated by the man he thought was a life-long friend. Instead of making me laugh, the story made me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

The writing is elegant and the harmony between between each story is clever. But technical virtuosity wasn’t enough to overcome my lack of interest in the characters or their situations. Nor did I get a clear sense of the purpose of this book and what the author was trying to convey. I know that in a few months from now I find it hard to recall most of the book beyond a faint impression of an atmosphere.

Deeply disappointing.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro: Footnotes

Born in Nagasaki, Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro moved with his parents to England in 1960 when he was five years old. He did not return to Japan for 30 years.

He has received four Man Booker Prize nominations, winning the award in 1989 for his novel The Remains of the Day. In 2017 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, described in the citation as a writer “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. Two years later he received a knighthood for services to literature.

After writing six novels, he changed to short form fiction with Nocturnes, published by Faber and Faber in the United Kingdom and by Knopf in the USA in 2009. It is is only work of short fiction. He has gone on to write two further novels, the most recent – Klara and the Sun  – will be published in 2021.

i’m counting Nocturnes as book 1 in my #TBR21 project which is an attempt to tackle my mountain of unread books by reading 21 books from my TBR by the end of 2021. I had thought I could also count it towards Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 14 but on closer examination of Ishiguro’s life I don’t think I can really categorise him as Japanese. He lived there for only five years, spending most of his life since in the UK.

BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

18 thoughts on “Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro: Promise Unfulfilled

  • February 14, 2021 at 2:53 am
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    I love Ishiguro, but have often a problem with short stories, so I think I’ll skip this one.
    I’m looking forward to Klara and the Sun, coming out on March 2nd (at least in the US). My favorite by him is still Never Let Me Go. He can write in so many different genres!

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    • February 15, 2021 at 9:08 am
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      I’m tempted to give Never Let Me Go a try. He does seem a very versatile author.

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  • January 20, 2021 at 5:01 pm
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    I liked this just a little more than you but agree that it was a bit disappointing, with a very flat narrative voice throughout. I did love Crooner though and am a fan of Ishiguro in general

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    • January 21, 2021 at 8:44 pm
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      Good point about the narrative voice. I’m sure that contributed to my lack of engagement with the book

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  • January 20, 2021 at 2:39 pm
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    I loved Remains of the Day but you know, not every author is good with the shorter form. That happens. Oh well…

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    • January 21, 2021 at 8:45 pm
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      He’s never attempted the short form since so maybe that tells us something

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  • January 20, 2021 at 11:45 am
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    I’ve actually never read Ishiguro and tbh have never felt strongly drawn to do so for some reason. Definitely will avoid these I think. Japanese Lit Challenge is proving – well, challenging! 😀

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    • January 21, 2021 at 8:46 pm
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      I think you’d be safe in giving this one a pass. There are much better options I’m sure. I have a collection of Chekhov and also some Maupassant so I think I’ll try them next

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  • January 20, 2021 at 11:14 am
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    Remains of the Day was ok, but who really waits that long to make his move. I like the concept of short stories meant to be read as one work. When it’s done well the connections are unsaid but apparent anyway. If the stories need an author’s foreword to hold them together then the author probably hasn’t fully done his/her job.

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    • January 21, 2021 at 8:49 pm
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      Well I think a man who has held his feelings in tight constraint for most of his life finds it hard to let them go.

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  • January 20, 2021 at 8:28 am
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    This was an early toe in the short story water for me but I’m afraid I remember little or nothing about it except for that music theme.

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  • January 20, 2021 at 6:45 am
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    I also remember being disappointed by these, though it is many years since I read them. I’m normally a big fan of Ishiguro’s work but, like you, found it hard to connect with the characters here. I hope the next book you read proves more engaging!

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    • January 21, 2021 at 8:51 pm
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      I’m about to begin The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa which I’m not sure I will enjoy – it’s for the book club

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        • January 22, 2021 at 9:23 pm
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          Started reading it last night – at the moment I keep questioning how people lose the memory of the things that disappeared yet the narrator can talk about them

  • January 19, 2021 at 9:53 pm
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    I don’t read many short stories either. I prefer essays if I read a shorter piece of work or a magazine article. I have short stories on my shelves and like you feel I should attempt some. Often I enjoy them more than I think yet other times not so much. I guess it is like anything.

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    • January 21, 2021 at 8:52 pm
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      My problem with short fiction is that I feel cheated when I get to the end – the narrative just leaves me in limbo.

      Reply

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