Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

'Nocturnes' is a collection of stories with the linking theme of the fragility of love, talent and ultimately of fulfilment. Five stories narrated by struggling or 'about to get there' musicians showing the futility of perceived success; those who make it and those who don't and in some cases with these tales , we never find out for sure who had or who would eventually.

The most poignant for me of these is the 'virtuoso cellist' who never learnt to play for fear of 'damaging her talent' ; this surreality is what Ishiguro does best. These stories all link with physical references to hotels, the past and largely with bittersweet memories, stillness, regret and missed opportunities on all levels from the street musician to the old crooner.

The first story is narrated by Janeck, the Polish guitarist who notices the 'Crooner' Tony Gardner in a cafe in Venice. Tony asks Janeck to play for his wife and he is flattered as he remembers his mother listening to Tony Gardner when he was child. What Janeck thinks may be a romantic gesture turns out to be the tragic last holiday for the couple. Tony Gardner needs a 'come back' and this can only mean a divorce for celebrity purposes, even though he still loves his wife. His wife Lindy is the subject of a later story 'Nocturnes' after she's booked herself in to have surgery before her hunt for a new husband.

'Come Rain or Come Shine' is farcical at points, a man panicking about reading a diary entry of an old friend when he stays over for dinner. The story involves him impersonating a dog in order to get out of admitting he has read the diary. The story for me revolves around a 'lost' connection; both of them seem unfulfilled and it ends with his confession, both projecting each other's neurosis on each other and finally with them dancing. It's a nostalgic moment and a craving for lost youth and memories in their present dissatisfying lives.

'Malvern Hills' is the slowest of the five stories but still engages. Again lots of nostalgia as a young musician escapes London and goes for a break in the place where he grew up. Fuelled with a need to avoid his recent past and feelings of inadequacy, he runs back to his hometown and meets a couple of musicians from Switzerland who are encouraging if quirky and of course, tragic.

The fourth story revisits Lindy Gardner, newly divorced and reconstructing her face to look as she did 20 years ago. Again the bittersweet offering from the narrator, who has ended up next door to her in the Beverly Hills recovery 'hotel', is that his wife has left him and her new boyfriend has offered to pay for his surgery to help his career. Being a talented but 'ugly' saxophonist, he has to be grateful and the connection between him and Lindy becomes interesting as she is talentless but marketable with her looks, the opposite of him. Steve loathes everything about her, but a brief friendship develops even though both are wrapped in their surgery and neither really 'see' each other. This story is left with questions, a brief encounter in bandages. Did they ever meet again? Did Steve make it? Did Lindy find happiness? Again Ishiguro manages to leave you wondering but not frustrated as you know by the end, you've got his message.

The finale is 'Cellists', the story of a Hungarian musician who is befriended by a fellow cellist but a ' virtuosa' who never played beyond 11 years of age. Her talent is so much that no teacher would ever match her, so she never plays. This story I find the most tragic, she's either delusional or a lost talent in her own perfectionism.

This collection of stories probably wouldn't stand alone but linked together with the themes of missed opportunity, regret and bitter sweetness, they do resonate. Ishiguro has a talent for making you feel you've had insight, learnt something but also leaving you wondering, questioning the characters and probably yourself which can only be the result of a good read.

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