Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (2009) feels like light relief in the midst of what seems determined to remain a rather gloomy February and a rather morose series of reads so far this year. A collection of five short stories, connected by the thread of music, these stories are also emphatically about fragile human relationships and the nature of genius. There are numerous other elements that one could mention: fame, ambition, self-loathing even. Whimsical and breezy at first, these stories in fact linger; their notes hang in the air, threateningly.
In ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, for example, we witness a trio of forty-somethings, friends since their university days, carefully, almost methodically, tear each other apart with jealousies and feelings of inadequacy; in ‘Malvern Hills’ a young and aspiring song-writer performs a beautiful, romantic song in the hills which Elgar once wrote about for an audience of two German tourists at the end of a long marriage. In the opening story ‘Crooner’, set in Venice, another couple on their last holiday together falls apart to the sound of music played from a gondola. Moving from one short story to another is reminiscent of walking around an Italian piazza filled with buskers, music drifting in and out of one’s peripheries…
Perhaps only by some coincidence, in each story the character with musical genius is a man, hampered by life and opportunity to be sure but brilliant nonetheless. The female characters are sad reflections; they have an ear for musical virtuosity but have none of their own (as in ‘Nocturnes’ and ‘Cellists’, in which an American woman coaches a Hungarian cellist for weeks before revealing she cannot play the cello herself; her genius was so great that no teacher could teach her to play); or they push and goad their men through criticisms, driving them away in some cases and leaving them in another (as in ‘Nocturnes’, ‘Malvern Hills’, and ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’). Ishiguro shows that self-delusion and hunger for fame and recognition are just as wont amongst those who know they have no “talent” as those who do not. It really is a story about the chronically unfulfilled.
In an interview from 2009 he suggests that this is something he can draw on from his own coterie of friends (though not his personal experiences, it seems):
I don’t hang out with the glitteringly successful people, I hang out with people who’ve been friends for many years, and to some extent I feel my worldly success is a bit uncomfortable for them. I’m almost like an indictment. It’s difficult for me – when I meet certain old friends, I try not to make any reference at all to certain things I do in this world. One of my oldest friends comes round to play music and we’re still close. He’s a person I’ve known since I was 12, and we’ve managed to keep that friendship going really by pretending that I’m not a successful writer. Well, we’re not pretending that I’m not. We just don’t refer to it. So I’m aware that some people are having experiences like the people in this book, they have built up quite carefully a protection around them, or they comfort each other by saying it’s impossible to achieve dreams without severely compromising yourself.
This account of these two childhood friends hanging out with each other – all the while neither mentioning the worldwide literary success of one of them – seems ripe material for a short story itself. Is it just me or does his very retelling of such an intimate relationship suggest that some of the themes in this collection might be found closer to home than one might first think?
The evanescent nature of this collection is appropriate and deliberate – this is not a random collection of a writer’s odds and ends, but a set of stories meant to be considered in their entirety. They capture the way pieces of music attach themselves to moments in our lives; familiar chords immediately conjure up the old feelings, bitter or sweet. Even music that once reminded us of euphoric moments – of love and all the rest – can sooner induce melancholia with the passing of time.
A snap of Venice, taken during the briefest of visits two summers ago.
It was raining at the time.