Kazuo Ishiguro is best known for the masterful Remains of the Day. He tends to specialize in novels with unreliable, self-deluded narrators, and part of the pleasure of reading them lies in figuring out the truth, which is usually very different from what the narrator believes to be the case.
Unfortunately, there has been a sense in his recent work of a craftsman losing his touch. Ishiguro retains the rare ability of capturing an entire character through the narrative voice he creates for him. His writing is always clear and evocative – but the message has become tired and world-weary rather than self-affirming. He displays his talent again in this book, but it is not enough to save it.
The five stories that make up Nocturnes are loosely linked, like movements of a symphony. Music plays a major part in all five, and some characters show up in more than one story. They also each share what is supposed to be a wistful longing tone, but more often it comes across as tiresome whining.
In the first story, “Crooner,” a café musician from Eastern Europe is hired by an aging American singer to accompany him while he serenades his much younger wife in Venice from a gondola. It turns out the crooner loves his wife but has decided to replace her with a younger model to revive his fading career.
The second, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” tells of a failed middle-aged foreign language teacher, Ray, who returns to England to spend a weekend with old college friends Charlie and Emily. We understand that Ray and Emily, who share a love of jazz standards, were in love but never admitted it to themselves. Now Charlie and Emily’s marriage is in trouble, so Charlie hatches a plan for Ray to spend a weekend alone with Emily. He figures his wife will see him in a better light after spending 48 hours with a verified loser like Ray.
In “Malvern Hills,” an aspiring musician working as a kitchen hand in an English country hotel runs into a Swiss couple. They admire his talent but infect him with their own sense of failure.
“Nocturne” brings back the spurned wife from the first story, who winds up in a swanky hotel recovering from radical cosmetic surgery. In the next room is a talented saxophonist who has agreed to the same plastic surgery because his agent and ex-wife feel he is too ugly to succeed on musical talent alone. The two characters meet, bond, and share a comical adventure but are unable to forge a lasting connection.
Finally, in “Cellists,” a talented young musician meets a woman who presents herself as a virtuoso of the instrument. She begins to teach him, and he feels he is making enormous progress. But it turns out she has never actually learned the instrument, although she feels she was born to be a supremely gifted cellist. By refusing to play, she says, she has preserved the purity of her gift.
What links these five short tales, apart from the overwhelming sense of failure that surrounds each of them, is the belief that talent alone does not ensure success. Indeed, without youth and good looks and good fortune, talent alone can be a blessing rather than a curse. The final story seems to suggest that the mere act of creation is always accompanied by artistic compromise and disillusionment.
It’s a supremely cynical view of the world, and one can’t help thinking that the author may be expressing some deeply-held bitterness of his own. That would be a shame, because Ishiguro is talented – but talent linked to self-pity does not serve any author well.