Exercises and Excesses

Frank Kermode

  • Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Faber, 221 pp, £14.99, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 571 24498 0

In this brilliant new book Kazuo Ishiguro maintains his preference for first-person narrative. The voice of both the first and last of this suite of five stories is that of a guitarist who plays in a café orchestra in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. He knows a lot about guitars and enough about the class of music appropriate to the setting. The first tale he tells concerns a crooner, and when he returns in the fifth, the least successful of the five, he is revealing an interest in the life of a classical cellist.

Here Ishiguro has concerned himself with devising fragile connections – of language, plot or atmosphere – between disparate stories or parts of stories. As his title and subtitle suggest, all five are concerned with music, especially guitar music. There are many allusions to American popular songs and recordings, and to favourite singers, some fictional and some historical, such as Ray Charles or Sarah Vaughan. Much of the action takes place at night, or in darkness. A more substantial recurrent theme is that of threatened or collapsing marriages or relationships, some of which are sad and some heartlessly funny. Much of the pleasure of the reader derives from these recurrences of detail, and from the virtuosity of the dialogue.

It was possible to complain of Ishiguro’s last novel, Never Let Me Go, that the monotony of the first-person narrator rather drastically reduced the author’s rhetorical range, especially by comparison with the painful magnificence of The Unconsoled. The central character of that novel is a distraught musician, a man who bears an intolerable burden of responsibility, all the more hopeless in that he tends to miss appointments by hours, gets lost in the city he is under obligation to save from disaster, and cannot find a piano on which to prepare his unbearably important performance.

The effect is of tragic farce, and Ishiguro, unlike his characters, works well in that destructive setting. The Unconsoled is a sort of novelist’s nightmare – a man confronted by an impossible world, faced at every turn with new temptations and invitations to disaster, seeking wild solutions to the problem of producing, in this insane context, a performance that must be perfect even if the conductor has recently suffered the amputation of his wooden leg and needs to support himself on the podium with an ironing-board as a crutch.

Nocturnes is an altogether less agonising read, but the possibility of descent or ascent into farce, and the disasters that constitute it, is never far away. ‘Crooner’ is the tale of a faded singing star encountered by the guitarist narrator at his café in the piazza. The crooner is about to break up his marriage because it is time for him to make a comeback unencumbered by his present wife, whom he loves. He hires a gondola and commissions the guitarist to go along with him and play favourite old songs – a sort of Americanised serenata notturna – under the window of the room where the wife sadly sits. Neither wants a divorce, but the cultural rules of Hollywood require it. The guitarist, teller of this melancholy tale, is described as not Italian and not American, though his language is much affected by American song. And he hopes that his newly liberated country in Eastern Europe will before long enjoy the full benefits of civilisation.

American popular music prepared the way, and there are no real difficulties of understanding between the young guitarist and his sad Americans. Their story is packed with detail about guitars, gondolas and what girls must do to make it in Hollywood, but the mood remains nocturnal. One’s interest is in the sadness of the partners’ relationship and the absurdity of their plan to end it, rather than in the question of what is to become of them the day after.

‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, the second story, requires a change of dialect, since it concerns an English marriage, though the characters remain obsessed with ‘the Great American Songbook’. The narrator, an English teacher who lives in Spain, visits married friends in London, not much minding that they despise him and will use him if they can. Like so many couples in this book, they are in ‘a sticky patch’. Their guest is allotted an insultingly slovenly room, but far from being offended, he lends himself to a plot devised by the husband. He is about to go abroad and wants the narrator to stay in his house and do what he can to pacify the wife in his absence. The visitor is for good reason sceptical about his ability to do this; he knows they both despise him as a ‘non-achiever’, and he discovers more injurious comment on his failings when he finds a diary of the wife’s. There follows a series of increasingly absurd events, like the mauling of the diary by an angry dog, and discussion as to whether the wife’s threat to saw her husband’s balls off was meant to be carried out while he was alive or posthumously. Meanwhile, Sarah Vaughan sings along (her 1954 version of ‘April in Paris’, with Clifford Brown on trumpet) and sacralises the declarations of continuing love between the spouses. Nothing much is achieved, but wife and friend dance in imitation of Astaire and Rogers, a temporary escape for both the friend and the wife, who still, in spite of all, loves her probably unfaithful husband.

Summary thins a story which is plump with implication, not sacrificing character to farce or a charming wildness of dialogue to plausibility. In fact, the dialogue is distinguished by fascinating moments when remarks are ignored, or understood only after the talk has moved on to other subjects – which I take to be a novel variation on traditional practice.

The third story, ‘Malvern Hills’, is told by another guitarist, this time a selfish young man with dreams of glory who goes to Malvern to prepare for London. He lodges with his sister, who runs a busy café in the Malvern Hills. He is supposed to work for his keep, but prefers to award priority to his own compositions, and is therefore on poor terms with his brother-in-law. A pair of Swiss tourists arrive and claim his attention by admiring an incomplete song they have heard him singing. They are also musicians, a duo, but their marriage or whatever it is turns out to be in shreds. While the narrator is having a pleasant talk with Sonja, her husband, Tilo, who has exhausted his English vocabulary in praising the Malvern Hills, walks moodily off in the direction of Wales. Our man returns to the study of the guitar. Ishiguro is keen on artists and admits they can be terribly selfish.

With ‘Nocturne’, the fourth story, we are back in the nightmare world of Ishiguro’s farcical imagination. A young musician (‘a jobbing tenor man’) is talked into having an operation on his face, because his not having good looks will exclude him from the Big League. To recover from the operation he must go and stay, always masked, in a secluded part of an enormous hotel. Next door lives a famous female star, also masked and naturally a recent divorcee, who is bored enough to ask him in. Among other pastimes, she likes to wander about the vaults of the great hotel, including parts of it not open to anybody, and on one such excursion steals a statuette due to be awarded the next day to the Jazz Musician of the Year. Her excuse for doing so is that her guest and neighbour, our narrator, has persuaded her that he is a far superior performer to the man who has actually been awarded the trophy. Under pressure from Security, she stuffs the statuette into a roast turkey. At a critical moment our hero, trying to retrieve the trophy, gets his arm firmly stuck inside the bird. And so on. We never see him unmasked, or find out how his rocky marriage is getting on; or, for that matter, her divorce. It would be absurd to inquire.

‘Cellists’, the fifth story, returns to the Piazza San Marco and the original narrator. To be sure we recognise this, a remark to the effect that the orchestra might play the Godfather theme three or even nine times a session is repeated. The story concerns a splendidly promising young Hungarian cellist, Tibor, who is taken up by a woman, a self-proclaimed cello virtuoso, who means to teach him to be truly great. This she does without touching a cello herself. She is given a name (Eloise McCormack) and a habitation (Portland, Oregon, though she spends a lot of time in the most expensive hotel in Venice); but one has to resist the temptation to make her an allegory, something suggesting a distinction between the rewards of mere hard labour and the higher, indeed inaccessible, rewards of genius. She is older than the boy and the notion that there is sexual love between the two is expressly dismissed. But there is something, while between her and her amiable businessman fiancé there is nothing. The something is frustrated, as the tone of this book demands. It appears from the last scene that Tibor doesn’t make it to the top, reluctantly choosing to accept a humdrum job in an Amsterdam hotel band.

‘Cellists’ seems in some ways the most transparent of the tales. It is about talent and inspiration, and joins all the other stories in making one think of artists, their gifts and their failures. There are musicians of various grades in Nocturnes, mostly the competent workaday musicians of the piazza band, and the band of the hotel in Amsterdam, which they would love to be in. What they do for a living has no relation to the long painful effort, success by no means guaranteed, of the aspiring virtuoso, always confronting a silence beyond his hearing. There are exercises and excesses, failures, represented as failures of human feeling, that threaten the enterprise. The virtuosi care about them.

Years later, the narrator of ‘Cellists’, the guitarist from the piazza band, sees Tibor in the café, now grown heavy and seemingly discontented. As a boy he would carry his cello into the café, carefully turning it to prevent its exposure to direct sunlight. Now he has no cello, and is wearing a suit. The narrator might have a word with him if he happens to return to the piazza at a convenient moment, but there’s no hurry; to the piazza guitarist it’s not an important failure. Yet, if you cared, it might be seen as a threat to the whole enterprise of art, its dangers, its pains and its gaiety – all topics seriously considered in this accomplished book.