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.
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!