Review: Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

4 comments

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro book cover
Nocturnes (2009) is a collection of five short stories, linked thematically by the melancholy and mood of reflection that is inspired by both music and the night. Kazuo Ishiguro has dealt with these themes in longer forms of prose previously, and here he draws together the twin stylistic strands of his fiction: The surreal, mood-writing of The Unconsoled and the refined, contemplative introspection of The Remains of the Day. At the centre of each 'movement' is a different musician narrator, taking the reader from the piazzas of Venice to the Malvern Hills, from a trendy London flat to a Los Angeles hotel. Each narrator is at a different stage in their (musical) life, with varying tones of rebellion, regret, and delusion spreading out across the stories. The reader is presented with the tiniest, often seemingly insignificant, fragment of each of the narrators' lives before drifting on to the next.

As with a beautiful piece of music, the stories attempt to create an atmosphere, upon which the reader might project their own feelings. It is fair to say that there are themes here common to much of Ishiguro's work; missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential, nostalgia, the strain of relationships and their evolution over time, the beauty in art (music) which is lost in the minutiae of life, and the often unexpected/unhappy effects of one's choices. Overall, a sense of melancholy hangs over Nocturnes and each story pinpoints a fractured life at a moment of transition.

For a collection which appears to hang on the theme of music, the music in most of the stories feels almost incidental, as though it is a neat prism through which to explore human relationships but not something intrinsic in the way it appears it ought to be. However, there are interesting meditations on the blending of muscial genres and the place of music in the formation of memory and relationships.

Ishiguro's writing is smooth if some way short of his best. Here descriptions are clipped and mundane, conversations obtuse and imprecise. The stories drift from farce to melancholic realism, but rarely does the atmosphere translate into anything truly powerful or, more importantly, memorable. The same might be said of the characters, none of whom resonant strongly enough, and all of whom narrate in a similar voice and suffer from the same flaw of, implausibly, sharing emotional intimacies with strangers. All this amounts to a frustration: the prose is strong, but Ishiguro is capable of so much more. His style is often understated, appearing effortless at first glance, but here there is too little to savour on second glance.

Too much of the plot seems implausible and after a while the contrast between surrealism and realism begins to grate, Ishiguro never able to quite marry the two. Nevertheless, this is an interesting attempt at tying the two styles together, and readers of Ishiguro will appreciate the effort.

Nocturnes is clearly a well thought out and finely crafted collection of short stories. Yet this is Ishiguro some way off his best, with the stories missing the mark individually and collectively for the most part. The moods, the lack of tidy resolutions, the slightly skewed reflection of life, none quite succeed and it all adds up to a not wholly satisfying picture of the characters or the world they/we inhabit. And yet the disparity between what music promises, and what life delivers sits perfectly in the melancholic atmosphere that so many of Ishiguro's novels conjure. This might be Ishiguro writing at a register far short of what he is capable, but there is still something painful and evocative in the pages of Nocturnes, provided you let yourself be swept up in the piece and don't focus too carefully on the detail.

I rarely read short stories so I am perhaps not best placed to judge a collection like this. However, I do enjoy Ishiguro and I felt this was quite a long way off his best. Thought has obviously gone into the collection but the result just isn't what I'd hoped for.


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4 comments:

Petra said...

I like the idea of music being an important part in this collection. And while it might not be Ishiguro's best work, it might be the right place to start for someone who hasn't read anything by him.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Yes, it's a good idea. I wouldn't recommend anyone new to Ishiguro pick this up - I think it'd turn them right off him. Keep it simple, Remains of the Day is the place to start for me.

Petra said...

Okay then, I'll start with Remains of the Day. Someday. :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Good - I think you'll like it. :)