Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer unlike any other. This may seem a truism—what writer, after all, is not unlike others?—but Ishiguro’s fiction is, in fact, very strange indeed. His celebrated gift lies in illuminating the hidden emotional complexities beneath a mundane surface—something canonically accomplished in The Remains of the Day, and again, more menacingly, in his last extraordinary novel, Never Let Me Go. But he is also the author of two deeply mysterious books, The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans, in which reality itself is called into question, and the fiction’s only firm ground is Ishiguro’s unerringly calm, even placid, prose. Perhaps what is strangest about Ishiguro’s work is precisely that: the marriage of a narrative style of almost thrilling banality and a surreal, often dark imagination.
Reading Never Let Me Go —a novel set in a dystopian alternative reality, in which a race of clones is raised alongside ordinary humans purely for the purposes of organ donation—was, for this reader, a form of literary education. The narrative, told from the point of view of a young woman named Kathy, describes in meticulous, unironic detail incidents of such petty tedium (the loss of a pencil case, the search for a cassette tape) that the novel seems at times like a spoof, poking fun at the notion of fiction itself; and yet the cumulative effect of Kathy’s account is devastating, a bleak allegory of contemporary existence and of the trajectory of life. In spite of its superficial dullness, Never Let Me Go gains power in retrospect, and achieves a haunting half-life that endures long after the last page. Camus-like in its unshakable effects, the novel proves, as it were, eponymous. (In this regard, Ishiguro is perhaps supreme among living writers as a bad example for would-be novelists: his accomplishments are so unlikely, so dependent upon the specifics of his talent and sensibility, that he is inimitable. Weaker copies of his fictions would be, quite simply, intolerable.)
The stories in Ishiguro’s new collection—his first book of short fiction—are at once less and more peculiar than what has come before. While they, like Never Let Me Go, stand as commentary on our contemporary foibles, they create no enduring echoes comparable to those of their predecessor. They are lighter than most of Ishiguro’s work, comical even; although their comedy is inevitably part of their strangeness. Even the book’s subtitle is odd: “Five Stories of Music and Nightfall.” Strictly speaking, each piece is engaged with music—four are narrated by musicians, the fifth by a lover of music—and almost all unfold, at least in part, at the end of day.
But “nightfall” in this context is a more nuanced allusion: these are stories about the fate of dreams and illusions in the morass of mid-life, and the “nightfall” is a darkening of possibility—of love, of success, of happiness. Similarly, “music” too strains against its literal interpretation—by which the stories seem, at times, a little forced, their links an easy conceit—to include the rhythms of human interaction, the play of major and minor characters, like major and minor chords; as well as the need for recurring melodies or themes, and both the satisfaction and the limitation of that need. In choosing his subtitle, Ishiguro seems to announce that these stories are, in some measure, exercises, rather in the manner of the nineteenth-century German composer Friedrich Burgmüller; but as with Burgmüller’s piano studies, the intention is simultaneously to exercise and to surpass the exercise, to create a genuinely affecting piece of music while educating the player or reader.
That said, Burgmüller may be a poor allusion, because the music in these stories is largely contemporary. The first in the collection, “Crooner,” set in Venice, describes the meeting between Janeck, a Polish guitarist who plays with various orchestras in the Piazza San Marco (“one of the ‘gypsies,’ as the other musicians call us”), and his late mother’s musical idol, an older American crooner named Tony Gardner (it is impossible not to think of Tony Bennett). Janeck strikes up a conversation with the older man, who invites him to accompany him that evening when he serenades his wife, Lindy, from a gondola. For much of the story, Janeck is trying to decipher what is going on between husband and wife, whose relations are loving but strained. Finally, Tony explains the situation: “I’m no longer the major name I once was,” he says.
Now I could just accept that and fade away. Live on past glories. Or I could say, no, I’m not finished yet. In other words, my friend, I could make a comeback. Plenty have from my position and worse. But a comeback’s no easy game. You have to be prepared to make a lot of changes, some of them hard ones. You change the way you are. You even change some things you love.
Given that a later story is depen- dent upon their divorce, it is not spoiling to clarify that Lindy, in this case, is the sacrifice Tony feels he must make:
Look at the ones from my generation still hanging round. Every single one of them, they’ve remarried…. Me and Lindy are getting to be a laughing stock…. Lindy knows the score. She’s known it longer than I have…. She understands it’s time to go our separate ways.
To Janeck, the couple’s incipient separation is baffling, especially because, as Tony says, “she still loves me as much as I still love her”; but he refrains from judgment, and reacts only with faint dismay:
It all came back to me then about that evening, and it made me feel a little sad thinking about it again. Because Mr. Gardner had seemed a pretty decent guy, and whichever way you look at it, comeback or no comeback, he’ll always be one of the greats.
The blandness of Janeck’s conclusion is an example of the strange calm in Ishiguro’s literary world. “A little sad”? “A pretty decent guy”? Why, you wonder, is Janeck bothering to tell this story? Without any living human attachments himself, as far as we know, what stake can he have in this moment of the Gardners’ unraveling, and what does he hope his listeners will take from it? And then you realize that, of course, he has none: he tells the story because, in the music of his own, uncelebrated existence, an encounter with Tony Gardner (who, on parting, assures him, with the cavalier generosity of the famous, “You played well tonight, my friend…. You have a nice touch”) is life’s great crescendo, its summum. For Janeck, the Gardners’ motivations and choices are so alien as to be barely humanly recognizable; but the simple fact of their brief appearance in his world is defining.
We, the readers, are free of course to impose upon the account a more complex interpretation—about the relationship of music to freedom (Janeck’s mother listened to Tony Gardner’s records behind the Iron Curtain, at a time when and in a place where it was difficult to do so, and found solace in his music; whereas Gardner’s choices, as a free man, suggest that he will damn himself, and his happiness, in order to market his music more widely); or about the relationship of the supposedly humble to the supposedly great (Gardner, it becomes clear, has no context for his life’s arc except the shapes of other lives, similarly lived: their melody, including divorce and remarriage, defines his melody; whereas Janeck is a “gypsy” who is, in this regard at least, more free) —but the story does not, on its own terms, demand such strenuous engagement. It need not be a commentary or an allegory: from Janeck’s point of view, observing Tony and Lindy briefly and then parting from them forever, it is just an account of mild and passing interest.
This triangular structure—in which a narrator observes, from a lesser or greater distance, the relationship of a couple in some sort of distress—is common to almost all of the stories here. In “Come Rain or Come Shine,” the most contrivedly comical piece in the book, forty-seven-year-old Ray, a British teacher of English as a second language living in Madrid, comes to visit his old friends from university, Charlie and Emily, in London. Over the years he has stayed with them often, but on this occasion he finds signs of disarray in the household, and Charlie confesses that the couple “have been going through a bit of a sticky patch.” What ensues is worthy of a West End farce, and not a particularly sophisticated one either. Charlie is leaving on a business trip and asks Ray to stay with Emily: “All I want is for you to hang about with Emily for the next few days, be a pleasant guest. That’s all. Just until I get back.” His suggestion is that this will be sufficient to repair ties between husband and wife, which Ray doesn’t understand, until Charlie reveals that Ray is being used as a foil, the ultimate loser:
She thinks I’ve let myself down…. But I haven’t. I’m doing perfectly okay…. Look at loads of other people, people we know. Look at Ray. Look what a pig’s arse he’s making of his life. She needs perspective.
Ray, meanwhile, once left alone in the flat, reads Emily’s diary and destroys a page in irritation. Over the course of a series of phone calls—from the airport, then from his destination—Charlie coaches Ray in ever more preposterous strategies to cover up this mishap: he has him boil a stew with a boot in it on the stove, to simulate the odor of wet dog, and suggests that he destroy objects around the house at knee-level, as if an unruly neighbor’s dog had been tearing through the rooms. This culminates (of course!) in Emily’s returning home early to discover her houseguest on all fours chewing pages out of a glossy magazine.
The musical key to this story is Ray and Emily’s shared passion, long ago at university, for American Broadway songs:
We loved playing different versions of the same song, then arguing about the lyrics, or about the singers’ interpretations…. We were especially pleased when we found a recording—like Ray Charles singing “Come Rain or Come Shine”—where the words themselves were happy, but the interpretation was pure heartbreak.
In this instance, the allusion is obvious: the story’s events, like the words of “Come Rain or Come Shine,” are, if not happy, at least comical. But their implications are, in Ray’s words, “pure heartbreak”: we, at least, can see that all three in this trio are crushed by middle age, judging one another for their own failures. All they would want, really, is to recover their youthful selves. Ray’s ultimate betrayal of Emily—carried out in order to keep a promise to Charlie—occurs when he denies remembering a Sarah Vaughan song, and in so doing wipes from the record (as it were) their shared student love. Earlier, Emily observes, of herself and Charlie:
We’re hardly young any more. We’re as bad as one another. We should count ourselves lucky. But we never seem to be contented. I don’t know why. Because when I stop and think about it, I realise I don’t really want anyone else.
If Tony and Lindy’s downfall (nightfall?) is their deliberate destruction of something precious between them, then Emily and Charlie run the risk of a similar outcome, through their inattentive disregard for that precious thing, a childish longing for what was, or what might be, as opposed to a cherishing of what is. Ray, meanwhile, is the most heartbreaking of all, trapped in a prolonged adolescence, in exile (like Janeck, but with less cause) and in isolation.
The unnamed narrator of “Malvern Hills” is also isolated and in a sort of exile: a young and penniless musician, he has forsaken the expense of London for a summer to live with his older sister Maggie and her husband Geoff in the Malverns, while working, unpaid, in their café. Like Janeck before him, he becomes tangentially involved with a foreign couple who eat in the café, Sonja and Tilo, a Swiss pair (whom he initially calls “the Krauts”) whose strangeness with each other is different from, but reminiscent of, the awkwardness between Tony and Lindy Gardner. Once again, the narrator discovers that his interlocutors are also musicians, in this case Swiss folk musicians who perform as a team.
Indeed, this story, at once the slightest and most straightforward of the collection, feels very much like a variation on a theme. Initially hostile to them (Sonja complains of the service in the café), the narrator sends his musical couple to a lousy B&B run by his loathed former schoolteacher. In his two subsequent encounters with Sonja and Tilo, he is tormented by guilt over this small act of spite, so much so that he insists, to Sonja, the final time, “The reason you’ve quarrelled, the reason your holiday’s all messed up now. It’s my fault. It’s that hotel, isn’t it? It wasn’t very good, right?”
This dialogue is odd because it suggests either a basic clunkiness on the author’s part or, more likely, an impressive solipsism on the part of the narrator: Why on earth would their quarrel be his fault? A reader might surmise that such a trait signals the narrator’s unreliability, thereby introducing a further layer of complexity to the story. But this doesn’t seem to be the case: either Ishiguro isn’t sufficiently interested in the narrator (who, to be honest, doesn’t seem very interesting), or else the story’s ironies are so puffily couched in the mundane that they fail to emerge. In other words, although at moments the story seems as though it could be at least in part about the narrator, rather than only about Sonja and Tilo, ultimately it isn’t. And the glimpse that this narrator has of them—unlike the glimpse that Janeck has of the glamorous and alien Gardners—does not afford sufficient substance to support the narrative.
As a result, unsatisfied by character or plot, a reader scavenges for import. “If Tilo were here,” Sonja explains to the narrator, about his musical prospects,
“he would say to you, never be discouraged. He would say, of course, you must go to London and try and form your band. Of course you will be successful. That is what Tilo would say to you, because that is his way.”
“And what would you say?”
“I would like to say the same. Because you are young and talented. But I am not so certain. As it is, life will bring enough disappointments. If on top, you have such dreams as this…” She smiled again and shrugged. “But I should not say these things. I am not a good example to you….”
This, then, is what the story must be “about”? This is its “message”? These are the challenges of life: Is the cup half full or half empty; is it worth the risk if you might fail; do I dare to eat a peach? The placidity of Ishiguro’s surfaces creates, in this instance, a world insufficiently compressed, insufficiently tense or intense to touch us. There is no flicker of menace or profundity, nor, particularly, of humanity, either.
The two remaining pieces in Nocturnes are perhaps the most successful. Both deliberately echo “Crooner”: one, “Nocturne,” returns us to the fate of Lindy Gardner, sometime later, on another continent; while the other, “Cellists,” brings us back not to Janeck but to other café orchestra musicians in the familiar piazza (although it is not, in this case, specified as the San Marco).
“Cellists,” in the manner of a nineteenth-century story, makes use of an all-but-invisible narrator who recalls someone else’s experience in a detail he is unlikely ever actually to have known. Like Janeck, a member of a café orchestra, the narrator glimpses a familiar face in the square, and is prompted to tell us the seven-year-old story of a colleague’s Hungarian friend named Tibor, and his summer-long professional relationship with an American woman named Eloise McCormack.
Tibor, we are informed, “was probably older than he looked, because he’d already studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, then spent two years in Vienna under Oleg Petrovic.” His ambitions are great, his situation precarious: although he hopes for better, he puts in, through contacts, for a position in a hotel orchestra in Amsterdam. Then, however, Eloise McCormack intervenes, approaching him in a café: “What matters is that one person…. I mean the person who’ll make you blossom. The person who’ll hear you and realise you’re not just another well-trained mediocrity.”
The relationship that develops between Tibor and Eloise—a relationship of “virtuosos”—has about it a Jamesian quality, an ineffable intensity, and an unspoken awareness on both sides that this intensity is built, if not upon a lie, then upon a willful misconception on Tibor’s part. Their separation, when it must come, is a silent tragedy for them both. Relatively brief, the story is affecting, its strangenesses harnessed to the service of real emotion. Ishiguro’s balance, here, is almost perfect.
“Nocturne,” the book’s title story and, effectively, its center, is narrated, yet again, by a working musician with a modest career; but in this case, the musician, Steve, aspires to fame. We learn that he is almost thirty-nine, aware of his considerable talent as a saxophonist, but hampered—according to his manager, Bradley Stevenson—by his homeliness: “You, Steve, you’re…Well, you’re dull, loser ugly. The wrong kind of ugly.” Stevenson says, “Listen, have you ever considered having a little work done? Of a surgical nature, I mean?”
As in “Come Rain or Come Shine,” what ensues from this comment is a near-farcical unfolding of events. Steve’s wife Helen leaves him for an old flame named Chris Prendergast; but out of guilt at her departure, she insists that Chris will pay for Steve’s plastic surgery. Although he is dead-set against it on principle, Steve agrees to have the operation when Stevenson assures him that this is all a complicated ploy on Helen’s part to procure the surgery for Steve and then to reunite with him. (That this is fundamentally implausible on many levels once again indicates an interesting flaw in Steve’s character; although Ishiguro doesn’t choose particularly to pursue this, at least it has, here, the weight of consistency, and clearly seems a choice.)
Most of the story takes place after Steve’s surgery, in the fancy Beverly Hills hotel where the exclusive and rather shady Dr. Boris sends his patients to recuperate. Steve learns from his nurse that in the room next door, also covered in bandages, is none other than Lindy Gardner:
If there was one figure who epitomised for me everything that was shallow and sickening about the world, it was Lindy Gardner: a person with negligible talent…but who’s managed all the same to become famous, fought over by TV networks and glossy magazines who can’t get enough of her smiling features…. And how was this all achieved? The usual way, of course. The right love affairs, the right marriages, the right divorces. All leading to the right magazine covers, the right talk shows….
Perhaps surprisingly, given the venom of Steve’s rant, the two become friendly. (Although this capacity for a volte-face has of course already been shown, in Steve’s attitude to his surgery.) They play chess. He presents her with a CD of his music, and she, after initially bridling, showers him with praise. Through a complicated series of coincidences—they learn that a music awards ceremony is slated to take place in the ballroom of the hotel, and that an untalented acquaintance of Steve’s is to win a prize there—Steve and Lindy embark upon an adventure together. Rather like little Eloise at the Plaza, they venture out of their rooms at night, making discoveries and, eventually, being discovered.
There is something delicious in this fanciful exploit, in spite of Ishiguro’s penchant for broad humor: just the image of two comrades in pajamas with their heads in bandages, roaming the hotel’s carpeted hallways, inspires the imagination. But the small, deeply silly drama that unites them also ensures that they will go their separate ways.
Steve is more complicated than any of the collection’s other narrators, and his relationship with Lindy is more substantial. There is, in his simultaneous yearning for worldly success and his principled disdain for the rules of the game, something contemporary and very human; just as there is in his ultimate acceptance of Lindy Gardner’s benevolence, even though she embodies all he despises. Steve’s conflicted presence gives “Nocturne” a strong story’s fullness; although in so doing it makes us aware of how slight, if enjoyable, the rest of the collection remains.
What might, were it more consistently successful, be termed a lightness of touch seems, in Nocturnes, an unexpected mixing of registers: Ishiguro’s aim may be, like that of Ray Charles in singing “Come Rain or Come Shine,” to have “the words themselves [be] happy but the interpretation…pure heartbreak,” but in many instances here, one is chiefly baffled or bemused rather than heartbroken—or happy. Ishiguro’s particular talent—rendering the muffled cloud of the quotidian only to pierce it with unnerving aperçus—may flourish best in more expansive form; or it may be that we have yet to learn how to read these five apparently easy pieces.
October 22, 2009