Bittersweet symphony

Piazza (image credit: Polina Kostova /Pexels)

Nocturnes:
Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
by Kazuo Ishiguro,
Faber and Faber 2010 (2009)

This quintet of brief narratives told by different musicians and one music-lover, all told in the first person, describe relationships and acquaintances which never quite run smooth. Though ‘nocturne’ strictly describes a nighttime piece of music some of these stories have a daytime feel even when their tones can be dark.

The settings vary, moving from Venice to London, the Welsh Marches to Beverly Hills, and ending in an unnamed Italian town piazza.

Photo © C A Lovegrove

In ‘Crooner’ the narrator is Janeck, a guitarist who plays in a café ensemble entertaining customers and tourists in a Venetian piazza and who one day spots Tony Gardner, a middle-aged crooner whom the narrator’s mother was a fan of. The singer hires Janeck to accompany him as he serenades his wife Lindy from a gondola outside her window, but all is not as romantic as it seems. Our attention shifts to London in ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ when Ray goes to stay with his longterm friends Emily and Charlie: Ray and Emily had shared a love for old Broadway songs in their student days before she married Charlie. But when Ray arrives he discovers he is expected to play the go-between in a marriage that appears to be on the rocks.

Another guitarist and aspiring singer-composer who hails from the English side of the Welsh border recounts a summer staying with his sister and brother-in-law in ‘Malvern Hills’. In between stints helping out in their café he continues trying out new songs, which attracts the attention of a couple of middle-aged Swiss musicians on holiday. Though appreciative of his music their relationship seems more scratchy than a romantic vacation in Elgar country would suggest.

We renew our acquaintance with Lindy Gardner in ‘Nocturne’ in which saxophonist Steve is recuperating from facial plastic surgery in a Beverly Hills hotel. Swathed in bandages so that only eyes, noses and mouths are visible, the pair conduct an odd couple relationship during their enforced confinement, and especially during night times when the hotel is in darkness. The set of pieces concludes with ‘Cellists’ in which we find ourselves back in Italy with another café musician observing the progress of a young Hungarian’s tutelage with an American who may or may not be the virtuoso she says she is.

The thing about short stories and novellas is that they needn’t follow the usual expectations for full-blown novels. The items in Nocturnes have beginnings and middles but not necessarily endings in which conclusions are neatly tied up with a bow; instead they’re focused on characters and relationships, sometimes tragic but often comedic, and could perhaps compared to certain European art films. So here we have well-drawn individuals (though visually rather vague) who bicker before reaching temporary rapprochements, who talk at cross purposes and so end up confused, who cross paths before what may be a final parting. Music may bind them together for a short while, but it rarely if ever proves a permanent glue; any sweetness always has a bitter counterpoint.

The five tales, although spread around Europe and North America, have a unity about them which the reader may or mayn’t approve of: for example several narratives share a common tone, that of the jobbing male musician who, frustrated by lack of success, seems equally unable to make connections. This lack of variety may irk some, but as an idée fixe it works well in making the stories function as movements in a verbal symphonie fantastique.


1/ A first read from my personal Library of Brief Narratives. If you’d like to join in this ongoing project, to use the tag and feature the image (or devise your own) then do feel free!

26 thoughts on “Bittersweet symphony

    1. I agree, Harriet, you characterise it very well. Also the penultimate tale of the two who’ve had plastic surgery but have the results hidden from view seems symbolic to me, as I guess it’s intended to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think your characterisation of ‘Nocturnes’ as a symphonie fantastique is spot on. The stories work well enough in themselves but the connections between them, and the reflections within them, make the whole far more than a set of stories.

        “O wad some Power the giftie gie us
        To see oursels as ithers see us!
        It wad frae mony a blunder free us,”

        One of the recurring themes in Ishiguro’s work, surely, is that inability of his characters to recognise themselves as they are. Such quiet tragedies, the lot of them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Previous to this I’d only read The Buried Giant but I’ve got Never Let Me Go ready as a read for next year, when I’m in the mood for another quiet tragedy! (And that reminds me, I should pick up that selection of Burns’ poems sometime too.)

          Liked by 1 person

          1. jjlothin

            I really enjoyed ‘Never let me go’, and also ‘When we were orphans’ and ‘The remains of the day’.

            You’ve intrigued me enough to give this one a go when I’m in short-story mood!

            Liked by 1 person

    1. As Harriet above says, he’s a master depictor of the alienated and the disconnected and thus there’s a tinge of melancholy about all the pieces. But then, this is what Ishiguro is known for I suppose!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the themes are more the thing as the stories themselves are inconsequential from a reader’s point of view (though not necessarily the characters’ of course). I enjoyed your review very much, which encouraged me to get on with this when the time was right. And as you say, it’s the five ‘movements’ working together that make this work, episodes in a longer novel rather than independent tales.

      Did I on the whole enjoy it? That mayn’t be the right word—‘admired’ is better—because I felt so sorry for all the participants, their hopes frustrated if not exactly dashed, bitter that they hadn’t got to the stage in life they’d hoped. Yes, admired may describe my response more accurately.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. piotrek

    What a coincidence, I bought this recently, by accident really… I wanted another book, but it was too cheap to qualify for free shipping, and I ended up buying mine from a very fine (and cheap! total price was 42 Polish zloty, around 8 GBP!) second-hand bookshop, including this. I was pretty certain Ishiguro is a safe choice, now I’m sure, thanks!
    Back to “Nocturnes” – I like such stories, where plot is a background, and it’s all about atmosphere. Bittersweet symphonies…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope you enjoy the Ishiguro, Piotrek, I find I keep thinking about certain scenes even though at the time I missed any true resolutions for each story—but I suppose in that respect it’s like life!

      What was the other boom you got? I assume it was a Polish title as you don’t mention its name.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        It was quite a diverse stack, Herman Wouk’s Israeli duology (Hope/Glory), Stefan Zweig’s biography of Marie Anoinette, Jean Delumeau’s seminal work on Renaissance, and a few Polish authors 🙂

        And I was initially just looking for memoirs of Czeslaw Milosz’s (the Nobel-laureate poet) friend… a very interesting guy, a Pole, and a Jew, poet, communist and dissident, who ended up in Berkeley 😉

        Browsing the website of that shop felt almost as good as if I was in a regular, offline bookshop 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Ah, I’ve heard about the Stefan Zweig biog, which reminds me to push my Antal Szerb history of Marie Antoinette’s necklace closer to the top of my notional TBR pile. And the Delumeau would be tempting if I hadn’t already got a few (now quite aged) studies offering overviews of the Renaissance which I haven’t looked at for—whisper it—decades.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. piotrek

            I know the feeling… I have on my shelf a great volume on late Middle Ages, from the same series, unread. And Zweig’s memoir on early XX century Vienna, also unread.

            Really, I’d feel guilty… but! I did save on shipping 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this around the time it came out, so it was interesting to have my vague memories of the stories reignited by your review. I’ve read most of his books (but not yet ‘Never Let Me Go’, and I confess I gave up on ‘The Unconsoled’, though I still remember scenes from it…) and agree with what’s being said here. I like the fact that, with ‘The Remains of the Day’, he took possession of something quintessentially English.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve only seen the film of Remains, but as I already have Never Let Me Go waiting that’ll be my next Ishiguro. I can’t say I actually ‘enjoyed’ The Buried Giant but it was interestingly enigmatic, and I’m glad to have read it. The fact that he’s prepared to switch direction tells of a writer who’s at least adventurous and never predictable so I shall persevere!

      Liked by 1 person

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