Kazuo Ishiguro — Nocturnes
Kazuo Ishiguro is a proper writer: a book every four or five years, and, when they come along, they matter. His seven books, spanning thirty years, are the milestones of a lifelong meditation on longing, nostalgia, regret, emptiness, and how on earth to cope with it all.
His new book, Nocturnes (2009), has the usual Ishiguro trademarks. First-person confessional narration, a conversational tone, nostalgic themes, oddly formal dialogue: a style reassuringly simple and instantly familiar, refined and polished over a stellar career.
Perhaps “reassuringly simple” is not a hallmark of a great author. If I wanted to be uncharitable, I’d say that Ishiguro has been peddling the same wares for three decades. But whatever you make of his prose, his stories touch the heart and stay in the mind, and that’s a boast flashier writers can rarely make.
Reading Nocturnes, described on the jacket as a short-story “cycle”, is like reading five Ishiguro novels in miniature. He’s still the quintessence of himself, but here that essence is condensed and compressed into small, 30-page doses.
Like the nocturnes of Chopin, Fauré et al. from which the title derives, these are mood pieces, Romantic and pensive, evoking thoughts of finality and transience, of the passing of the day. Troubled relationships, usually marriages, lie in the background throughout.
The “nocturnes” are surprisingly uneventful, with a tendency to end on quiet, anticlimactic notes. In all five pieces, the characters come first. Fiction is all too often about authors moving their characters around like chess pieces; but Ishiguro’s world is populated by free agents who flitter briefly across the page, fail to behave in a particularly novelistic way, then disappear back into the gloom of their real, monotonous lives. This wonderful, non-chessy writing is the secret to Ishiguro’s success, and it’s much in evidence here.
But there’s a niggling feeling that Ishiguro is capable of more than this. There’s enough overlap between the stories to make me wonder why he didn’t stitch them together: there’s little to distinguish the various narrators, and characters from earlier stories reappear later on. I don’t know whether to be impressed that Ishiguro didn’t feel the need to merge the stories into a novel, or disappointed that he didn’t bother.
Expect a work as distinctive and unforgettable as The Remains of the Day (1990) or Never Let Me Go (2005) and Nocturnes will fall short. But it’s not some miscellaneous collection of unpublished scraps. Nocturnes is a finely crafted whole; cultured, elegant and captivating.