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.