In one story in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book Nocturnes, the narrator, a small-time musician who plays in cafés, looks around at his supporting cast and explains, “Playing together every day like this, you came to think of the band as a kind of family.”
High notes: Ishiguro’s protagonists prefer Broadway hits and classics. AFP
Of course, it is not only among musicians that music generates feelings of intimacy, tenderness, brotherhood.
To an extent that the rational parts of ourselves can never fully explain, our moods can vault dramatically when we hear a melody, the tremor in a singer’s voice can make a hundred memories and regrets come flooding back, and the shape of a tune can make the most banal phrases appear as if they are exploding with significance.
In his new book, Ishiguro—who in his youth nurtured dreams of being a singer-songwriter—conjures up a set of stories about the power of music to bind, console and heal.
The word “nocturne” means “a musical composition of a dreamy character”. It struck me that the protagonists of the stories here are not just players of nocturnes; their lives themselves are nocturnes. Some of them are young musicians of modest talent who know that they will never be stars; others are middle-aged drifters whose lives are gently washed by regret. Ishiguro explores the implications of this for their marriages, their friendships, their self-perceptions, in a voice that is simultaneously tender and comic.
Like a vibrating guitar string, these stories are never stable. There is a twist or turn, usually minor but slowly expanding in significance, on nearly every page, as the narrators (all the stories are told in the first person) work out what is happening in their lives.
In the story called Nocturne, we see a middle-aged saxophonist, Steve, whose career has come to a standstill not because he is not good enough, but perhaps because he is not good-looking. Steve’s wife eventually falls for the charms of a richer and better-looking man, but both of them feel so guilty that her paramour offers, as a kind of compensation, to pay for some plastic surgery for Steve. Steve’s agent thinks this is a good deal, and finally Steve succumbs.
Recovering after his operation, Steve finds himself in the room next to Lindy Gardner, who is one of those children of the media age who are famous despite having done nothing of significance.
Seeing that he and Lindy are now in the same boat, Steve realizes “the scale of my moral descent”. But the despised Lindy turns out to be surprisingly good company, and eventually turns into a kind of confessor figure for him. Ishiguro’s deceptively light and easy touch draws us in right away and keeps us hooked. Some of his dialogues are of an exceptionally high order.
Another story, Malvern Hills, offers the pleasures of a familiar Ishiguro device seen, for instance, in his novel The Remains of the Day—the unreliable narrator.
This kind of story features a complex first-person narration where, although we have no other information than that provided by the person who is telling the story, we can nevertheless tell that he is not interpreting life accurately. When carried out skilfully, this makes fiction more exciting because it is as if we are reading a story and writing an alternative version of it at the same time. Simultaneously, we come to understand how our sense of the world depends so much on subjective perception. The narrator of Malvern Hills is a young, self-involved, hard-up songwriter who goes to spend the summer in a hotel in the countryside run by his sister and her husband. Although he is the one who is being helped out, he quickly comes to resent the few duties thrust upon him, and feels that the artist in him is being suffocated. “It seemed clear I’d been invited here on false pretences,” he thinks, and we laugh at this and commiserate with him at the same time.
At a number of points in Nocturnes, the characters express a preference for evergreen ballads, Broadway hits, the work of “those old pros (who) knew how to do it”—over more challenging and difficult forms.
The implicit idea is that we often overlook the extent to which music we think of as “easy” is itself the result of great craft and discipline. After six novels, Ishiguro is now an old pro, and as these smoothly tossed-off and beguiling stories demonstrate, he too knows just how to do it.
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