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Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

by Kazuo Ishiguro (Faber & Faber, 2009)

The five stories presented in Kazuo Ishiguro's new book establish disappointment as this powerful writer's abiding theme. Indeed, without the strength and interest of the writing itself, Mr Ishiguro's stories would be unbearable, perhaps even unreadable. They are almost unbearable as it is, not because the topics or treatments are glum with failure, but because the writer is preoccupied by one skill that most of us possess in force but prefer to remain unaware of: the ability to conceive of ourselves as more productive, profitable, and generally worthwhile than we truly are. He doesn't need to know where we stow our secret flops, because he knows how we stow them, and he catches us in the act. Like any great writer, Mr Ishiguro is preternaturally entertaining, and we read him with compulsive, occasionally horrified interest. It's in that way that what he has to tell us about ourselves gets under our skin. In the end, he is telling stories about us.

Formally, the five stories fall into a tight composition: first, the framing pair, both set in Italy, and both involving itinerant musicians; second, a tragicomic pair of episodes (the second and third stories in the collection); and, finally, an exploration of the tension between amour propre and the artistic marketplace. This centerpiece, entitled "Nocturne," and linked by common characters to the first story, is a long short story that is not quite a novella. All the stories except the second feature working musicians, and even the exception involves the recordings of great popular singers. The second theme identified in the subtitle is also salient in every story. But whereas musical nocturnes tend toward the dreamily lyrical, reverie is here replaced by ridicule, and pathos by bathos. Curl up with this book at the risk of finding it bristling with the spines of urchins.

Although it is a very easy read, Nocturnes also bears a strong family resemblance to two of Mr Ishiguro's more difficult fictions, The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans. Without being grounded in the surreal zone where the whole of Unconsoled and the latter part of Orphans take place, all five stories pit protagonists against characters who don't listen, who manifest alarming attention deficits, and who sometimes seem not to be entirely in the same room. In "Come Rain or Come Shine," Mr Ishiguro pushes the absurdist comedy of trying to catch up with old friends whom one has somehow outgrown toward a bittersweet resolution. In "Nocturne," a man recovering from extensive cosmetic surgery follows a fellow patient (who happens to be a celebrity) on a bizarre junket a tournament of inconsequence through the banqueting rooms of a luxury hotel. In "Cellists," an American tourist makes an "incredible" but not unforeseen disclosure that it is very hard not to laugh at. The twist at the end of "Crooner" would be funny if it were not so cold-blooded. And although nothing funny happens in "Malvern Hills," the narrator himself is painfully risible.

And none of these stories is told by a reliable voice. Consider the narrator of "Nocturne."

Money aside, I didn't like the idea of someone cutting me up. I'm not so good with that kind of thing. One time, early in my relationship with Helen, she invited me to go running with her. It was a crisp winter's morning, and I've never been much of a jogger, but I was taken by her and anxious to impress. So there we were running around the park, and I was doing fine keeping up with her, when suddenly my shoe hit something very hard jutting up out of the ground. I could feel a pain in my foot, which wasn't so bad, but when I took off my sneaker and sock, and saw the nail on my big toe rearing up from the flesh like it was doing a Hitler-style salute, I got nauseous and fainted. That's the way I am. So you can see, I wasn't wild about face surgery.

Then, naturally, there was the principle of the thing. Okay, I've told you before, I'm no stickler for artistic integrity. I play every kind of bubble-gum for the pay. But this proposition was of another order, and I did have some pride left. Bradley was right about one thing: I was twice as talented as most other people in this town. But it seemed that didn't count for much these days. Because it has to do with image, marketability, being in magazines and on TV shows, about parties and who you ate lunch with. It all made me sick. I was a musician, why should I have to join in this game? Why couldn't I just play my music the best way I knew, and keep getting better, if only in my cubicle, and maybe some day, just maybe, genuine music lovers would hear me and appreciate what I was doing. What did I want with a plastic surgeon?

Although we are probably inclined to approve of the narrator's distaste for "parties and who you at lunch with," we may wonder why an all-purpose instrumentalist would worry much about his looks. One wonders what kind of an excuse Bradley (the narrator's agent) will come up with when the plastic surgery fails to make the phone ring. Is the narrator all that gifted? And isn't the sick-making stuff part of the deal that any serious professional musician agrees to shoulder? Isn't there something infantile about this complaint? There is certainly something infantile about waiting for "some day, just maybe."

All of this may induce us to forget the preceding paragraph, with its very disagreeable ending. An important part of musicianship, as of any entertaining, is the ability to judge an audience. It does not appear that the narrator here is even trying to judge his audience (us). He wants to work his little joke about the Hitler-style salute into the story, because he thinks it's funny or whatever, but doesn't care enough that we might find it disgusting. First of all, we don't want to know about his toenail. "I hurt my foot" will do. To go on make Nazi references is as puerile as the image is disagreeable. What kind of musician is this guy?

He's the kind of musician whose wife has left him for a more successful man, and then persuaded that man to pay for plastic surgery by a top LA specialist. At least that's what we're told. How do we know that "Boris," as the doctor is called, is a top specialist? Isn't it rather odd, not to say unprofessional, for this doctor to stash his recovering patients in the top floor of a "luxury hotel" (but a luxury hotel in which industry banquets are held), with plenty of room service but no visible medical attendants?

The narrators of the three central stories the native Anglophones of the collection address us in the tone of voice common to traveling bores. They also share the faint whine of someone who has, in his own view, unfairly been asked to apologize; and who is now determined to explain to you why he oughtn't to be asked to apologize. In life, what makes such talkers boring lies not in their stories but in their desire for the correct response. As readers, we're invisible, but one of Mr Ishiguro's magic touches is to make us feel that we're not, that, in fact, there will be a test of our sympathy when the story is done, gruellingly administered by the narrator. But perhaps these raconteurs would not be interested in our reactions even if we were sitting next to them on a plane. They live in moral terrariums, closed, self-sustaining systems. We pass across the sky over their little greenhouses like a sun that they have no thought of engaging in two-way conversation.

The first and the last stories are narrated by itinerant musicians. The first is Jan, a Pole whose mother adored the recordings of a popular singer whom Jan is amazed to encounter as he is playing in the Piazza San Marco. Because, as I say, the story's ending comes as a surprise, I shall say no more about it here.

The narrator of the final story remains as anonymous as the city in which he lives; a hasty reader might easily suppose that Mr Ishiguro has returned to Venice, or that the narrator, like the cellist at the center of the story, is Hungarian or even that the cellist, like the narrator, is an itinerant musician. We're obliged for the sake of our own sanity that the narrator is a reasonably reliable witness, for the story abounds in others who are not, but his being in possession of the facts of this story is scarcely credible. Without being careless or sloppy, Mr Ishiguro seems to be saying that such details don't matter. At the same time, he clearly enjoys playing with narrative devices, much as a child will play with beads in a window seat.

In the story proper, Tibor, the young cellist is approached by Eloise McCormack, an American woman, a tourist perhaps fifteen years older than he is. She says that she has heard one of the recitals that he has been giving in the town during the summer (sponsored by an Arts festival), and she assures him that he has "potential." She tells him that he is waiting for "that one person"

the person who'll make you blossom. The person who'll hear you and realize that you're not just another well-trained mediocrity. That even though you're still in your chrysalis, with just a little help, you'll emerge as a butterfly.

Tibor's response passes from cynical dismissal to open curiosity to oasis-quenched thirst. He accepts the American's invitation to call on her at her hotel, and there he plays for her in her suite, while she listens with what one might imagine to be the attentiveness of a muse. When he finishes, she makes suggestions, and we're to infer that her comments are musically literate, for Tibor has studied with a great instrumentalist in Vienna. (Our narrator, a humble saxophonist playing the Godfather theme over and over, plays in a very different corner of the musical world.)

For the next several days, he returned to her hotel each afternoon and always came away, if not with the same sense of revelation he'd experienced on that first visit, then at least filled with fresh energy and hope. Her comments grew bolder, and to an outsider, had there been one, might have seemed presumptuous, but Tibor was no longer capable of regarding her interventions in such terms. His fear now that that her visit to the city would come to an end, and this thought began to haunt him, disturbing his sleep, and casting a shadow as he walked out into the square after another exhilarating session.

Tibor wonders who she can be, and he is very puzzled that she appears not to have an instrument in her rooms. But her listening is spellbinding.

But as he'd continued to return to the suite for further sessions, the suspicions had grown. He'd done his best to push them out of his mind, for by this time, he'd lost any lingering reservations about their meetings. The mere fact that she was listening to him seemed to draw fresh layers from his imagination, and in the hours between these afternoon sessions, he'd often find himself preparing a piece in his mind, anticipating her comments, her shakes of the head, her frown, the affirming nod, and most gratifying of all, those instances she became transported by a passage he was playing, when her eyes would close and her hands, almost against her will, began shadowing the movements he was making. All the same, the suspicions wouldn't go away, and then one day he came into the room and the bedroom door had been left ajar. He could see more stone walls, what looked to be a medieval four-poster bed, but no trace of a cello. Would a virtuoso, even on holiday, go so long without touching her instrument? But this question, too, he pushed out of his mind.

The reader, of course, does no so thing, and when Eloise confesses that she does not play the cello at all, a muted anticlimax takes the place of surprise.

Please don't be angry. I know it sounds a little crazy. But that's how it is, it's the truth. My mother, she recognized my gift straight away, when I was tiny. I'm grateful to her for that at least. But the teachers she found for me, when I was four, when I was seven, when I was eleven, they were no good. Mom didn't know that, but I did. Even as a small girl, I had this instinct. I knew I had to protect my gift against people who, however well-intentioned they were, could completely destroy it. So I shut them out. You've got to do the same. Your gift is precious.

"Remember that, Tibor" she tells him in conclusion, "it's always better to wait." But wait for what? "Some day, just maybe"?

Tibor goes away for a few days, but he resumes the lessons when he returns and finds them more satisfying than ever: "and he felt sure he'd never played better in his life." That feeling plagues the musicians in "Malvern Hills" and "Nocturne" as well the feeling that they can play very well. That their greatness awaits discovery. Tibor has been discovered by someone who has not touched his instrument since she was eleven years old. The delusion crackles almost unbearably against the actuality of Tibor's next gig, which will involve playing with a small ensemble in the minstrels' gallery of a hotel dining room, playing for well-heeled visitors to Amsterdam. Having arrived in the narrator's town as a concert artist, he leaves as an itinerant, no different from the narrator.

The narrator's memory of Tibor's summer in the town is triggered by Tibor's return, seven years later.

Until I spotted him in the piazza the other day, I hadn't thought about our young Hungarian maestro for a long time. He wasn't so hard to recognize. He'd put on weight, certainly, and was looking a lot thicker around the neck. And the way he gestured with his finger, calling for a waiter, there was something maybe I imagined this something of the impatience, the off-handedness that comes with a certain kind of bitterness. But maybe that's unfair. After all, I only glimpsed him. Even so, it seemed to me he'd lost that youthful anxiety to please, and those careful manners he had back then. No bad thing in this world, you might say.

I would have gone over and talked with him, but by the end of our set he'd already goner. For all I know, he was here only for the afternoon. He was wearing a suit nothing very grand, just a regular one so perhaps he has a day job now behind a desk somewhere. Maybe he had some business to do nearby and came through out city just for old times' sake, who knows? If he comes back to the square, and I'm not playing, I'll go over and have a word with him.

In this way, the reader is obliged to share something of the disappointment that palls the lives exposed in this collection: just as they don't know when "some day" will come, we're not to know what becomes of Tibor. Hints are dropped, to be sure, that his life has not been a great success, but we what we want to know is this: did the enchantment woven by the woman who didn't play the cello, but who had the presumption to conduct master classes in her ritzy hotel suite did that help Tibor, or did it hurt him?

Or did it make no difference at all? (June 2009)

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