In ‘Cellists’, the final, and the best story in Nocturnes, an American woman pretends to be a world-famous cellist and tutors a talented young Hungarian in her hotel room in an unnamed Italian city. Under her tutelage, his playing soars – both technically and emotionally – but he soon realises that she cannot play the cello at all, she merely believes that she is a virtuoso whose latent talent will be spoiled by being presented to the world. In this story, Ishiguro captures the main theme of the entire collection, that music is an ideal state which has no connection to the realities of life.
This collection is subtitled ‘Five Stories of Music and Nightfall‘ and all the stories are connected directly to music, but not all take place at nightfall. Yet they all explore a sense of melancholy – the ‘blues’ if you will – that come at that time of the evening and all are concerned with the passage of time and the movement from one sense of being to another. All explore aging and how youthful hopes often give way to disillusionment.
In ‘Crooner’, Jan – a young street musician working in an unnamed Italian city – meets famous lounge-singer Tony Gardner. When Tony asks Jan to help him serenade his wife Lindy, Jan is honoured, as his mother was a big fan, but what he has percieved as a romantic gesture hides a more bitter truth. Lindy appears again in the title story ‘Nocturene’, but now, she is recovering from plastic surgery in a swish hotel and befriends a talented yet embittered saxophone player. He has had work done on his face in an attempt to resurrect his career and his marriage and is trying not to dwell on the fact that his surgery has been paid for by his wife’s new boyfriend.
Marriages in this collection are far from happy – always on the verge of ending and always observed by an outsider. In ‘Malvern Hills’, an idealistic young singer-songwriter meets a Swedish couple holidaying in England whose shared love of music masks deeper divisions. In the farcical and humourous ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, Ray a single 47 year old English language teacher has been invited to the house of old friends for a reunion. What he comes to realise is that he has been asked to spend the weekend with them in order for them to feel better about their failing marriage in comparison to what they percieve as Ray’s failed life.
On their own, these stories feel like they don’t amount to much. They are all narrated in the first person, with little change in narrative voice from story to story. There are no great moments of revelation and the stories tend to peter out with no clear resolution. They don’t feel complete until all five are read together and then the beauty of the structure comes to the fore.
The links here are emotional ones. All the stories are permeated with a sense of loss and regret and with the knowledge that, even with all the talent in the world, success is not always guaranteed. With great talent comes great possiblity, but if that possibility is not fulfilled, what is left of the talent that remains? The Swedish couple in ‘Malvern Hills’ embody both sides of this conundrum. Tilo, the husband is happy with where their careers have taken them. His wife, not so much.
‘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. Besides, I can see you are much more like Tilo. If disappointments do come, you will carry on still. You will say, just as he does, I am so lucky’.
Like any good piece of classical music, Nocturnes is full of motifs and echoes, with themes that flow in an out of the narratives, sounding notes that ring true and humane. Even the funniest of the stories here are suffused with a sense of regret, of possibility lost and the understanding that now, at nightfall, it may be too late to change course.
Read in isolation, these five stories might seem inconsequential, or even slight, but together they create a narrative that is haunted by the fragility of love and the insubstantial nature of talent and how it is spent.
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Number Read: 270
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20 Books of Summer: 12/ 20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!