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Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro: Promise Unfulfilled

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro plays on the idea of a song cycle
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 2 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.

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