Monday, October 05, 2009

On Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes

In one story in Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book Nocturnes, the narrator, a small-time musician who plays in cafés, looks around at his supporting cast and explains, “Playing together every day like this, you came to think of the band as a kind of family.” Of course, it is not only among musicians that music generates feelings of intimacy, tenderness, fraternality—a kind of higher awareness of both the present moment and an overarching continuity. To an extent that the rational side of our minds can never fully explain, our moods sometimes vault dramatically when we hear a melody, the tremor in a singer’s voice makes a hundred memories or regrets come flooding back, and the shape of a tune can make the most banal phrases appear as if they are exploding with significance.

In his new book, Ishiguro, who in his youth nurtured dreams of being a singer-songwriter, conjures up a set of stories about the power of music to bind, console and heal. The word “nocturne” means “a musical composition of a dreamy character”. It struck me that the protagonists of the stories here are not just players of nocturnes; their lives are themselves nocturnes. Some of them are young musicians of modest talent who know that they will never be stars; others are middle-aged drifters whose lives are gently washed by regret. Ishiguro explores the implications of this for their self-perceptions, their friendships, and their marriages in a way that is simultaneously tender and comic.

Like a vibrating guitar string, these stories are never stable or stationary. There is a twist or turn, usually minor but slowly expanding in significance, on nearly every page, as the narrators (all the stories are told in the first person) work out, sometimes not very well, what is happening to their lives. In the story called "Nocturne", we see a middle-aged saxophonist, Steve, whose career has come to a standstill not because he is not good enough, but perhaps because he is not good-looking. Steve’s wife eventually falls for the charms of a richer and better-looking man, but both of them feel so guilty that her paramour offers, as a kind of compensation, to pay for some plastic surgery for Steve. Steve’s agent thinks this is quite a good deal given that Steve is going to lose his wife anyway. After some resistance, Steve finally succumbs and gives himself a new face in the mirror.

Recovering after his operation, Steve finds himself in the room next to the celebrity Lindy Gardner, who is one of those children of the media age who are famous despite having done nothing of significance. Seeing that he and Lindy are now in the same boat, Steve realizes “the scale of my moral descent”. But the despised Lindy turns out to be surprisingly good company, and eventually turns into a kind of confessor figure for him. Ishiguro’s deceptively light and easy touch draws the reader in right away, and much of his dialogue is of an exceptionally high order.

Another story, "Malvern Hills", offers the pleasures of a familiar Ishiguro device seen, for instance, in his novel The Remains of the Day— that of the unreliable narrator. This kind of story features a complex first-person narration where, although we have no other information than that which is being provided by the person who is telling the story, we can nevertheless tell that he is not interpreting life accurately. When carried out skillfully, this makes fiction more stimulating and rouses the reader to activity, because it is as if we are reading a story and constructing an alternative version of it at the same time. Simultaneously, we come to understand, philosophically, how our sense of the world depends so much on subjective perception.

The narrator of "Malvern Hills" is a young, self-involved, hard-up songwriter who goes to spend the summer in a hotel in the countryside run by his sister and her husband. Although he is the one who is being helped out, he quickly comes to resent the few duties thrust upon him, and feels that the artist in him is being suffocated. “It seemed clear I’d been invited here on false pretences,” he thinks, and we laugh at this and commiserate with him at the same time.

At a number of points in Nocturnes, the characters express a preference popular music— evergreen ballads, Broadway hits, the work of “those old pros [who] knew how to do it”—over more challenging and difficult forms. The idea implicit in these gestures is that we often overlook the extent to which music we think of as “easy” is itself the result of great craft and discipline. After six novels, Ishiguro is now an old pro, and as these smoothly tossed-off and beguiling stories demonstrate, he too knows just how to do it.


Aditya Mani Jha said...

Ishiguro's narratives are slippery things.. there might be seemingly nothing going on, but often he'll slip in major facts about the chracters or their pasts, nonchalantly, almost as if he were expecting the reader to know already. The movements in time and space add to the already subtle touches.. Both "Remains Of The Day" and "An Artist Of The Floating World" are testament to that... haven't read any short stories by him though... I did see it in a store yesterday, but picked out "A Mercy" by Toni Morrison instead.. :)

pinaki said...

a very good perceptive review...this is vintage ishiguro...a slow burner although i think it is a tad over worked...finicky to last detail...almost too delicate to touch...

inscribed said...

'To an extent that the rational side of our minds can never fully explain, our moods sometimes vault dramatically when we hear a melody, the tremor in a singer’s voice makes a hundred memories or regrets come flooding back, and the shape of a tune can make the most banal phrases appear as if they are exploding with significance.' Beautiful! Your writing totally shines in lines like these. :)

Uncertain said...

Like Inscribed, I too found those lines very poignant. Just wonder why rationality is even invoked in that sentence .. as if all our impressions, sensations and emotions need 'justifying' and 'explaining' by moth-eaten enlightenment ideologies.

I was reading something by Tagore recently where he was wondering at the effusion of joy and marvel in him when he witnesses God's creations .. I was happy to note that he didn't feel he had to 'rationally' explain his 'preferences'.

BlueBasin said...

Though I enjoyed reading the book, there wasn't too much that touched me, even though I waited and waited. Ishiguro is otherwise one of my favourite writers, and this read smoothly, but it didn't do much for me. I regret that. Wonder if anyone had a similar experience with this novel.

Also, apart from two or three tasteful sentences, this review read more like a blurb, not like some of your other, actually interesting, posts.

BlueBasin said...

Ugh...I meant collection of stories. Oops!

Chandrahas said...

Aditya - There are some very perceptive remarks in your little paragraph, and you should follow them through into something larger and more complete. "Slippery" and "nonchalant" seem to me to be exactly right; make sure you never lose the readerly and writerly ambition you display here.

Pinaki - Every writer has his own distinctive hue and tone, and this, I think, is Ishiguro's. I thought all the nonchalant detailing (to borrow an adjective from Aditya) was hugely impressive.

Inscribed - Pleased you liked some of the writing. I don't see why literary criticism shouldn't be essayistic; it's best when we can see two minds meeting or clashing, so sometimes I offer up a thought or two of my own from outside the usual well-defined field of readerly response.

Uncertain - You certainly have a point here, and as you've been trying to score a goal on this field for several years now, this should be the time when I hear the referee's whistle and boot the ball up back to the centre of the field, even as you do a double-somersault near the corner flag and throw your jersey into the crowd.

At the same time, I should point out that I never said that all emotions have to be explained by rational means or that emotions don't have an autonomous life; but only that we are sometimes, when roused by music, puzzled by a swelling of emotion disproportionate to our immediate circumstances, and we wonder about this at the same time as we find wonder in it. Nor, really, is the Enlightenment only about "Reason" except in a kind of caricature.

BlueBasin - This review read like a blurb? An 800-word blurb? I can't see that it's different from any of my other reviews, except that I didn't actually quote a passage from the book, having left it behind in the second of my two homes.

BlueBasin said...

No offence meant, Chandrahas, and I hope none is taken. Didn't mean *all* of it, some, in parts. I do enjoy your writing, though.