Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

February 16, 2010

Knopf, 2009

Failed to finish: early February, 2010

Source: library browsing

Genre: short story

On the Scales: N/A

I have had such a sense of shame hanging over me.  Here is a writer I love, and I can’t even finish his book.  The reasons will make me sound bad.  If this were my old paper book log, I’d just write, “Didn’t finish.  Dumb Americans.  Musicians.”

First embarrassing admission:  I don’t usually like short stories.  I’m hard wired for longer narratives.  Short stories whiz past my slow-moving brain like TV commercials.  There are a few writers whose stories can be so dense and so perfect (Saki, Eleanor Farjeon, Tobias Wolff, Kelly Link, Lydia Davis) that I love them in spite of their length.  I hoped Kazuo Ishiguro might fit into the same category.

Second embarrassing admission:  I HATE the “American songbook” featured in the first two stories.  I have no appreciation for Jazz.  Jazz ballads make me barf.  Oops.  Sorry.  Did I get your tie?  It’s not the schmalz, it’s just something about that particular blonde, glamourous, mid twentieth century kind of schmaltz.  The mystique goes right over my head.

Third embarrassing admission:  While I love classical music, I don’t like classical musicians.  I studied classical piano for eight years, into college, where I began to perceive something alien in the outlook of performance musicians.  My emotional axes were visual and verbal.  Theirs were something else.  They really were like a different species: bafflingly ruthless and inconsistent when dealing with each other; just plain weird when dealing with earthlings.  Ishiguro is describing points along these alien emotional axes in his stories.

Which is quite a feat.  But I am the worst possible audience.

The subtitle of Noctures is “five stories of music and nightfall.”  It could just as well have been “five stories of music and messed-up love.”  The narrators are either musicians or music lovers.  Love, fame, and ambition variously tantalize them, evade them, desert them.  They act a-logically, then seem to regard their actions as inevitable in a dreamy, selfish way that reminds me a lot of music; they’re not writing the notes, just interpreting them.  Performing.

The first story is about what happens when an aging American crooner turns an encounter with an admiring young street performer in Venice into a chance to bare his soul.  The next is a farce about a language teacher who allows himself to be drawn into the marital problems of his old college friends.  The third story, “Malvern Hills” was the most appealing.   The musician/songwriter who tells it has more self-awareness than the other narrators.  He’s flakey, but anyone who has spent time living with or working for relatives after leaving school would empathize with him.  The messed-up love in “Malvern Hills” belongs to a couple of Swiss tourists who stop at his sister’s country inn.

“Nocturne” is the longest story.   It’s about a jazz saxaphonist and a no-talent Hollywood celebrity recovering from plastic surgery in a luxury hotel, but that’s not the reason I couldn’t stand it.  Partly it was the tension of a Brit assuming a slangy American voice.  Ishiguro never quite slipped up, but he was never quite on target either, so the tension never went away.  Mostly I couldn’t bear Lindy.  Her whining self-assertions wore me out.  When they bounced off the saxaphonist’s snobbery and passive aggression, I found myself in the company of two people I thoroughly disliked.

I skimmed the ends of “Nocturne” and the last story, “Cellists”–another about a musical manipulator and manipulate-ee.  And that’s it.  Back to the library.