[I have been meaning to get to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go for some time now, yet have not managed to get a copy in front of my eyes. However, I recently did have to read his collection of short stories, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. Not loving all of the stories, I found most of the composition brilliant for its strange amalgamation of musical reference, tender relationship shift, somber invocation of dusk, and harkening to past readings. Having read and considered Nocturnes, I hope to pick up Never Let Me Go very soon.
In considering Ishiguro’s collection, I decided to dust off the web journal and tweaked the poe format slightly. Please read no further if you have not read Nocturnes, as this posting will do nothing but serve as a spoiler. If you have read the collection and have something to comment on, please do so.]
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (from here I will simply refer to the collection as Nocturnes for brevity, omitting the byline – the singular form references only the fourth story, Nocturne), we are afforded a collection of short stories to which music, and those who create and love music, are integral in creating a post-modern effect in which we are lost somewhere between music and prose. In this joining of forms, Ishiguro plays with invoking music and past traditions to give us a collection which is somber and reflective. We come to see that all of the stories are tied to the ideas of music and nightfall, which Ishiguro invokes in both a narrative style modeled on a musical composition and his characters and their circumstances. Interestingly, we also see Ishiguro reference past forms of short fiction, developing a composition which fuses prose and music in a uniquely post-modern fashion.
The overarching structure of Ishiguro’s collection is the initial reference to a musical composition, in that Ishiguro intentioned the five stories to be read as a single unit. This mimics the vinyl LP, from which the audience is intended to experience the entire album as a single auditory experience. Any individual song, and in the case of Nocturnes, any individual story, is not meant to be enjoyed singularly. As a collection, the five stories each bring a sense of musicality to the overall experience, with the stories themselves shifting in tone to create a different feeling in that musical reference. For example, a musical composition might have peaks and troughs of excitement, action, and sound, which the stories of Nocturnes mimic. Crooner starts us off slowly on an emotional note. Come Rain or Come Shine, the title itself taken from another musical composition, increases the intensity and gives us a zanier feel to match the content of the story, which we return to momentarily. Malvern Hills brings us back down to a more relaxing pace before we get the brassy, eerie feeling of the fourth story, Nocturne. Finally, we are again released from the intensity of this flow in the final story, Cellists, which takes a more closing and somber tone.
Another element which signifies the centrality of music to Ishiguro’s work is his cast of characters and the circumstances in which we find them. In considering the title of the collection, a nocturne itself is a musical piece appropriate for the night or evening, often with a dreamy or pensive character. In considering its definition, ‘nocturne’ is a highly apt title for the collection, as nightfall, or dusk, is the moment of universal transition in our day, a moment built into our consciousness. Simply, many of the stories take place during dusk or during the night, yet we catch the characters in Nocturnes in a series of awkward moments in terms of their personal relationships, with notes of transition and thoughtfulness that mirror the end of day. Tony and Lindy Gardner of Crooner are in the process of transition, each perceiving a need to move on from their seeming marriage of convenience. Janeck’s accompanying of Tony on the gondola-bound circling and then serenading of Lindy takes place at the end of day, mirroring the ultimate closing of Tony and Lindy’s marriage.
Later in the collection, Lindy still seems to be in transition, as we hear Tony’s records eerily coming through the hotel wall in Nocturne. She even loses herself for a moment with Steve in the room, “After a while, though, I’d stopped paying much attention to the music because there was Lindy in front of me, gone into a kind of dream, dancing slowly to the [Tony’s] song” (Ishiguro 142). Clearly, we could doubt that Lindy has entirely moved on, yet we might take her dreaminess to originate in the cocktail of medications she is presumably on after her plastic surgery. This note of possible drugged-dreaminess chimes throughout Nocturne. Especially in the more absurdist moments of Steve and Lindy’s nighttime adventure and conversations, “I tried again to pull the statuette out of the turkey” (Ishiguro 178), one might wonder if the pair are inebriated, sniping in the kitchen and being caught out, on stage, turkey on hand by a cell-phoned Hollywood type. This is one element of Nocturne which demonstrates Ishiguro’s mixture of story-telling traditions to create his composition. We get an image that is truly Kafkaesque, with mundane details like heightened air-conditioning because a head swathed in bandages gets warm juxtaposed with the image of Lindy and Steve playing chess and chatting with ghost-like masks on their faces. The masks turn increasingly creepy as the two run through the vast maze of the hotel in the night, as Ishiguro invokes the Gothic tradition and the idea of the monument to create general eeriness. The large hotel, segmented into many rooms with people presumably all around, is only inhabited in our view by our ghost-faced protagonists, “She led the way down hidden stairways, along back corridors, past sauna rooms and vending machines. We didn’t see or hear a soul” (Ishiguro 162). These moments in the story resonate with Truman Capote’s Miriam, which also featured a large monument which invoked spookiness. In that story, Capote isolated the elder Miriam within her large New York apartment building, creating the sense that she was powerless and helpless against the phantasmal younger Miriam despite being surrounded by neighbors. This blend of absurdist and Gothic tropes create a truly post-modern feeling in this particular story in Ishiguro’s composition.
This blending of traditions and the invocations of music and nightfall also shape Come Rain or Come Shine. In this story, we get a much more complex relationship in flux. Ray, Charlie and Emily are bound in a triangular relationship built on: past college friendship, Charlie and Emily’s marriage, and Ray and Emily’s college friendship based on a mutual love of music. Many years later they have reached new stages of their lives, and the old bonds that held them together have broken. Again, we have a completely Kafkaesque whirlwind of moments between these three characters. Charlie’s plot to reignite his marriage with Emily is absurd, being built on manipulation and lies. Ray is so passive in the face of Emily and Charlie’s constantly putting him down, we have to wonder why he remains connected to them. The events only unfold to become more absurd, with Ray’s odorous concoction brewing away on the stove as Ishiguro invokes Franz Kafka’s Samsa Gregor becoming the insect in The Metamorphosis:
“Encouraged, I knelt down, opened one of the magazines and scrunched up a page in a manner, I hoped, would find an echo when eventually Emily came across the diary. But this time the result was disappointing: too obviously the work of a human hand rather than canine teeth. I’d fallen into my earlier error again: I’d not merged sufficiently with Hendrix. / So I got down on all fours, and lowering my head towards the same magazine, sank my teeth into the pages. The taste was perfumy, and not at all unpleasant” (Ishiguro 76).
Ray has become the neighbor’s dog (whose name, most likely a reference to Jimi Hendrix, adding to the musical nature of the collection) in his ridiculous effort to cover up is earlier perceived transgression against Emily’s diary. Ray goes about his task in a practical way, adding to the silliness of the scene. Using his reasoning, he knows he must “merge” with Hendrix, and ultimately makes the move onto all fours (versus the two feet of the acceptable human mode) and bites the magazine as a dog. This exact moment of absurdity is then immediately followed by a banal observation as to the taste of the magazine, a comment which could easily have followed Ray sipping a glass of red wine with Emily. We melt back to reality when Emily eventually discovers Ray in this position, and Ishiguro switches traditions again into a more realist mode, as the pair spends the next part of their evening listening to music and negotiating their relationship through that music. Their mutual love of a particular genre of music acts to both bring them together and separate them. Emily’s incredulity at Ray’s comment that he does not listen to their music anymore shows the historical meaning it has for Emily. Charlie’s willingness to use it as a wedge between the two marks his willingness to let Ray go in order to ultimately have Emily to himself. We are left with the three in flux, the music playing, and the evening progressing. As will mark the collection, we are again left with a sense of impermanence, as though we are only catching this glimpse of this story, one bit of the song.
The other two stories in this collection, Malvern Hills and Cellists, similarly invoke the themes of transition and music. Our protagonist of Malvern Hills is himself continuously working on the bridge of a song, echoing his listless state as the bridge of a song represents a transition from one part to the next. Working on this bridge, he himself is stuck in this transitional space, somewhere between academics and adult life. This stagnancy is balanced against the transition that is going on for Tilo and Sonja, two fellow musicians whose marriage is unraveling in the company of our protagonist. Cellists also conjures references to music and change. Our two characters, the musician Tibor and the pseudo-virtuoso Eloise, are joined together for a moment in a teacher-student bond before the realities of their separate lives bring about change, with Tibor taking a job and Eloise returning from Venice to the United States.
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Throughout Nocturnes, Ishiguro manages to weave invocations of music into his stories. He does this with characters who are themselves music practitioners or lovers – music always plays a central role to their relationships in flux while their stories are littered with references to music. In keeping with the definition of a nocturne itself, Ishiguro keeps our stories in the somber mood of dusk, conjuring change and movement in each of the stories. Each is set in a transitional space as well, featuring tourists and people traveling, moving through and inhabiting spaces that evoke change. Ishiguro in effect affords us a truly post-modern fusion of sound and prose, rendering this ecphrasis while hitting the notes of realism and absurdity which add depth to his composition.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. New York: Vintage International, 2009. Print.