on 13 May 2009
The five stories in this collection move rapidly. Unlike many short story collections where the reader feels like he can pick and choose stories in no particular order, the stories in Nocturnes feel like they should be read in quick succession in one go. Given their pacing, this seems like a manageable task over a long languorous weekend afternoon. They are written in an easy style and it's rewarding to notice that they contain characters which make multiple appearances.
There are several recurring themes throughout these stories. There are long term relationships that have been strained to breaking point like a tourist couple in the story "Malvern Hills"; people uneasy with fame and success like a man who undergoes plastic surgery in "Nocturn"; and an anxiety about fulfilling one's potential like a houseguest with severely judgmental friends in "Come Rain or Come Shine". The niggling details of life are shown to continuously squander the beauty which music offers. Careers get in the way of musicians trying to realize their artistic vision. Music brings individuals together, but the promises it makes can never be realized because of the circumstances those people find themselves in.
There are moments when these stories tread the line between realism and a hallucinatory dream-like narrative resonant of Ishiguro's masterful experimental novel The Unconsoled (whose protagonist is also a musician). Perhaps this is what Ishiguro is seeking to do: create the kind of inarticulate sensations which music invokes by using a carefully-modulated form of prose. He most definitely succeeds at demonstrating great skill in creating stories which are touchingly beautiful like the opening story "Crooner" and ones which are utterly hilarious and disturbing like "Nocturn". While perhaps not reaching the depth of his more meditative novels due to their intentionally clipped lengths, these stories are nevertheless highly accomplished and very enjoyable.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a proper writer: a book every four or five years, and, when they come along, they matter. His seven books, spanning thirty years, are the milestones of a lifelong meditation on longing, nostalgia, regret, and how on earth to cope with it all.
Reading Nocturnes, described on the jacket as a short-story "cycle", is like reading five Ishiguro novels in miniature. He's still the quintessence of himself, but here that essence is condensed and compressed into small, 30-page doses.
Like the nocturnes of Chopin, Fauré et al. from which the title derives, these are mood pieces, Romantic and pensive, evoking thoughts of finality and transience, of the passing of the day. Troubled relationships, usually marriages, lie in the background throughout.
The "nocturnes" are surprisingly uneventful, with a tendency to end on quiet, anticlimactic notes. In all five pieces, the characters come first. Fiction is all too often about authors moving their characters around like chess pieces; but Ishiguro's world is populated by free agents who flitter briefly across the page, fail to behave in a particularly novelistic way, then disappear back into the gloom of their real, monotonous lives. This wonderful, non-chessy writing is the secret to Ishiguro's success, and it's much in evidence here.
But there's a niggling feeling that Ishiguro is capable of more than this. There's enough overlap between the stories to make me wonder why he didn't stitch them together. I don't know whether to be impressed that Ishiguro didn't feel the need to merge the stories into a novel, or disappointed that he didn't bother.
Expect a work as distinctive and unforgettable as The Remains of the Day (1990) or Never Let Me Go (2005) and Nocturnes will fall short. But it's not some miscellaneous collection of unpublished scraps. Nocturnes is a finely crafted whole; cultured, elegant and captivating.
on 15 April 2010
3 stars is perhaps a little harsh for what is an interesting and enjoyable book, in which Ishiguro displays his usual talent for drawing the reader in to his characters' lives, and creating interesting scenarios. However I've given him 5 stars elsewhere for A Pale View of Hills so I think he'll understand.
I really liked the first two stories; 'Crooner' has poignant themes of aging and memory and harsh observations about the shallow world of fame and celebrity. 'Come Rain or Come Shine' was my favourite, it had me laughing out loud at some of its absurdities, but it ended much too abruptly. 'Nocturnes' was in a similar style, with a likeable, rather hapless, protagonist.
The narrator of 'Malvern Hills', on the other hand, didn't evoke any sympathy in me; he was selfish in a whiny sort of way, and the fact that he was supposed to have musical talent only made him all the more annoying. I wasn't sure how ironic the portrayal was; whether or not the author expected us to like him. 'Cellists', which also focused on musical talent and potential, was interesting rather than really engaging.
The five stories are rich in recurring themes and this is the kind of deep, intelligent book in which you discover more as you reread it, the perfect book to study in an English Literature class. However I have rather more simple tastes; I like good characters and good stories and don't really appreciate anything beyond that. If Mr Ishiguro had asked my opinion (unlikely, I admit!) I would have suggested expanding the first two short stories into novels, and leaving the rest.
If you like the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro then this is worth a read, but if you haven't read anything by him I would recommend you to read 'Pale View of the Hills' or The Remains of the Day instead!
A new book by Kazuo Ishiguro is a welcome event for me and Nocturnes was no disappointment. Very different to Ishiguro's previous books, Nocturnes consists of five stories, all in their own way focusing on music and nightfall. Ever since reading Ishiguro's earlier work, The Unconsoled, I have found Ishiguro's dream-like prose irresistible. His stories have a strange, almost surreal quality, credible on the surface at least, but somehow as though time or people or places have been disjointed, shifted slightly to another not quite real world.
Kazui Ishiguro has a great feeling for music, being an enthusiastic player of piano and guitar and the five stories in Nocturnes all feature musicians of one sort or another. I'm not going to describe the five stories, but each one is a perfect whole, moving in unpredictable ways from their opening themes and leaving the reader with a sigh of satisfaction.
We find ourselves in the company of people who are somehow "not quite right" but in a way which is difficult to define, and the situations they find themselves in are sometimes dream-like. Ishiguro has a unique style of writing which has developed in a very different direction to that of his best-known work, The Remains of the Day. I only wish in some ways that this book was longer. It is something to keep Ishiguro fans going, but we can only hope that his remarkable voice is next heard in a full-length novel.
on 30 June 2010
It's always difficult to review a Kazuo Ishiguro book. The naturalistic, fluid nature of his writing is very compelling and consistently worthy of at least four stars. The problem is with some of the characterisation in his novels and the desultory nature of his narratives. He's well known for the kind of stories that meander towards an anti-climax, the emphasis not so much on the destination as the journey. What do we learn about the characters from this snapshot of their life that has been revealed through the tale? Now this sort of passing-through approach should be ideal for the short story format, surely? Well yes and no. 'Nocturnes' has five stories for which the phrase 'hit-and-miss' is most apt. For every decent tale the next falls flat. The worst offenders in this collection are 'Come Rain or Come Shine' and the eponymous 'Nocturnes' for no other reason that they feel the most contrived and left me the most dissatisfied with their resolution. 'Cellists' comes a close third.
There is a running theme throughout the book of implacably shallow women who only value the men in their lives according to their social status and achievements. Another Ishiguro favourite is the docile male character who allows those around him to trampel his self-worth into the ground. These combined factors make for extremely irritating reading and reaches a nadir in doormat Ray and his supercilious, bullying friends Charlie and Emily in 'Come Rain...'-a story that actually starts off very promisingly.
'Nocturnes' is the tale of a talented but supposedly underachieving saxophonist, Steve, who is convinced by his callous ex-wife and opportunistic manager to have plastic surgery to improve his looks and -by their logic-his chances of success. Whilst re-cuperating after surgery in a plush hotel, he meets media-whore Lindy Gardner who he initially abhors due to her being a celebrity-chasing non-entity. And she is indeed obnoxious, resenting his talent and feeling it's her God-given right to set herself apart from being 'just public'. Steve comes close to putting her in her place only to be apologetic about it later-which just about sums up the propensity for spinelessness of the majority of male protagonists in 'Nocturnes'. And Steve is one of the more forthright ones, believe it or not.
In 'Cellists' a gifted young Hungarian Tibor, drifting through Italy, meets an American woman with delusions of grandeur. She claims to be a virtuoso cellist, offering to mentor him, despite not being proficient on the instrument herself. He still manages to fall under a spell... By now you get the drift.
The problem with this approach is that Ishiguro's characters throughout 'Nocturnes' end up being quite two-dimensional. In adhering to his non-explosive literary style, the author often forsakes realism. There are too many times when a confrontation would seem the natural outcome. When it doesn't occur, ironically, it betrays the realism that one assumes Ishiguro is after.
Having read quite a few of his books now I am also puzzled about some of Ishiguro's binary representations of women. Most of them are especially manipulative and unpleasant in 'Nocturnes'. I also feel the author sits on the fence too much with some of the subjects broached in the book. Is he critiquing the superficial nature of celebrity culture and aspirational living or is it merely a backdrop for another aimless tale? The thing is, Ishiguro is perfectly capable of making a point as demonstrated in 'Never Let Me Go'- my first exposure to his work and by far his best. 'Never...' raises some profound questions about medical ethics without being heavy-handed. Such reflection is missing in 'Nocturnes'.
That said as a music lover myself I appreciate that Ishiguro is a man enamoured with the art form; one with diverse taste and an excellent grasp of musical technicalities and the history of various genres. This definitely comes across throughout the collection and alongside the irresistably simple-but in no way facile-way he crafts a story, elevates the book in a way few others could manage. Knowing that there's always an infuriatingly repressed tone to Ishiguro's work, perhaps I'm a glutton for punishment to keep returning...or it's just plain addictive.
These five stories gather you into a world where the pace is set by music. An original idea, which introduces a new way of looking at things, really pleasant and relaxing to read through.
Readers who understand more than I do about music will love it even more.
My one suggestion is that you should be in the right frame of mind to get maximum pleasure from reading `Nocturnes'. That is calm and easy, not expecting great excitements or puzzles. I found it just a little fragmented, as when familiar names cropped up later in another story this made me feel that I was meant to be reading a whole novel and must have missed something but of course not so. 'Nocturnes' are more moods than tales, not necessarily with a tidy resolution.
My favourite was the one about the young musician passing a summer working in his sister's café in the Malvern Hills. I enjoyed the completely realistic portrayal of what was going on in his head at the time.
This is a book to read again later, when the pleasure may be deeper for understanding what kind of work you are being offered.
Kazuo Ishiguro is back to his bittersweet, witty but sensitive original style. The five brief novellas of Nocturnes are intense and beautiful; they are packed with detail, never waste the readers' attention, and are entirely engrossing. In the first: Crooner, a Polish café musician comes to the assistance of a vynil-era singer who was once his mother's idol. Another story pits a greying ex-hippie against his brash and shallow university friends in a comedy of missed meanings. The third peels the multiple layers of an unexpected encounter in the Malvern hills.
I hesitated to get Nocturnes. After the awkward plot of When We Were Orphans, the controversial The Unconsoled, the gothic / sci-fi Never Let Me Go, I thought: sure, this is interesting, but maybe this is an author running out of inspiration, maybe this is someone flailing for the next idea, and now all we're getting is a collection of stories. This is what I had in the back of my mind, especially when I saw the title, with the vaguely corny musical theme, the Chopin prop. But it isn't like that. This book is in the style of Ishiguro's first three novels, and it is new at the same time.
The musical theme is an excuse; it even works. These are all moving stories with an eye for verisimilitude - the infuriating fragmented mobile-phone conversation, customer rage at the sandwich bar - and humour. Two of them got me laughing to tears - I know reviewers say that, but literally. And Ishiguro can have you laughing to tears and two pages later falling respectfully silent. Some people say they don't like short stories because it is difficult to build characters within their brief span. But this author can pack a character in fifty pages where others would take 300. And the stories aren't entirely unconnected... but I won't spoil it for you. Don't miss this!
on 26 May 2009
Dean Martin sings that. One of the main characters in these stories is music. Omnipresent in 'Crooner' or from a distance like in 'Come Rain or Come Shine'. It's the soft and sentimental music from the Fifties to the beginning of the early Sixties. The title 'Nocturnes' doesn't refer to Chopin's classical piano music but it's the nighttime that brings along romance and sorrow.
"From the piazzas of Italy to the Malvern Hills, a London flat to the "hush-hush floor"of an exclusive Hollywood hotel, the characters we encounter range from young dreamers to cafe musicians to faded stars, all of them at some moment of reckoning."
The titles of the five stories are: "Crooners", "Come Rain or Come Shine", "Malvern Hills", "Nocturne" and "Cellists".
A distinctly mixed presentation.
I have to say that the selection of stories here is readable, its good writing but its not especially good writing, either by this particular (good) author or I would say in general, so far as anthologies of short stories go. I think that some of the good reviews I've read of this book and some of the hearty recommendations I have been made by friends with reference to it are a result of peoples hopes that a book about music, romance, relationships and life would be something special and exceptional colouring their experience.
There are a series of stories which incorporate music as a pivotal point, also waxing and waning romance or life experience feature prominantly too. I feel there is a certain bitter sweet or world weariness about each, although I would say that about this author's other (I felt better) writing too, a certain sense of realising too late your disappointment and having limited options for doing anything about it. Personally I would consider this a matter of how you "make peace" with your circumstances when you realise it is not going to change or is highly unlikely to change and you have to carry on. Something of an acceptance of the absurdity if I were to borrow an idea from Camus.
This is certainly the case in my favourite of the stories, the second one, in which someone who may or may not be personally troubled (it is a first person narrative and he clearly disagrees with the opinions others have formed of him) who meets someone he once knew and loved and listened to records with. His muse is married now, she and her husband dont appear to be getting along and he is led a merry dance by each of them, he makes a fool of himself on the direction of one of them, recovers, and the tale abruptly finishes around that point with him dancing with his muse listening to the music they had mutual affection of once again.
The first tale is one of someone serenading someone from a boat, their relationship is foundered and the absurdity of a romance carried on when the love may be gone is brilliantly rendered. I like that stories exhibit a realism without being cynical. There is another story featuring a college/university drop out musician, refusing to come to terms with the popularity of bands making a living from cover artistry, who encounters an older couple who have done precisely this. There was a sense in that tale of the couple meeting their past selves in him and he meeting a possible future self in them. I felt there is something of dip in the tales from that point on, no longer proving as interesting as the ones preceding them, with an artist getting cosmetic surgery, meeting celebrities and musing about whether his talent or his image are what sell or should. So as you see many of the stories feature that coming to terms or making peace with circumstances.
The writing is well done but sometimes the pace is uneven, dull, then more interesting, making for an uneven read but for all its faults, making it good but not great like other books by the same author, there is some brilliant depicting scenery, people and places. Characters depth or development is not great but I would suggest it is done very well for the medium of a short story.
on 25 September 2011
This collection of five short stories is a new departure for Ishiguro, who has previously written only full length novels. The stories, though, share many similarities with his novels: the focus is on characters who recall, and draw lessons from, earlier episodes in their lives; the writing is terse but elegant, and manages to maintain considerable tension throughout even though there are very few tangible events; the tension comes from the interactions between characters who re often rather quirky.
Given the similarities with Ishiguro's longer novels, readers who like (dislike) the latter are likely to be correspondingly impressed (unimpressed) by this collection. Whilst I quite enjoy his novels, I don't feel that they fully merit the very high reputation which he has established: there are usually too many loose ends, and often there are implausible elements. This collection likewise has its implausibilities. For example, in the longest of the stories, `Nocturne' (from which the book's title is derived) the scenes between the two central characters, Steve and Lindy, seem unconvincing to me (Lindy has no plausible motive for taking an interest in Steve), and eventually the story descends into a weird sort of slap-stick comedy in which they wander around a hotel debating with each other about whether to steal a trophy from one of its rooms. More generally, in each of the five stories the focus is on interactions between characters who appear to misunderstand one another in ways which suggest that they are implausibly stupid. I found some of this mildly amusing, but my stronger feeling was one of exasperation at what seemed to me to be artificial and unlikely confrontations. Unlike in the longer novels, moreover, it is hard to discern any substantial theme in any of the individual stories, let alone in the overall collection. Overall, therefore, this book doesn't seem to me likely to add to Ishiguro's reputation, regardless of whether or not that reputation is merited. It looks like a pot-boiler, which is rather surprising for an author who clearly hasn't in the past felt any need to rush out a new book.