I enjoyed reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s well-regarded Never Let Me Go a number of years ago. I wasn’t up for a novel the other week, but this collection of his, Nocturnes, struck me for two reasons. First, the subtitle of “Five Stories of Music and Nightfall,” a no-brainer for a musican, don’t you think? And shorter stories–not a novel. I read one a night over a series of late evenings. These were satisfying reads, so skillfully constructed and presented by a fine author.
Other things link these stories besides the musician-narrator of each, and the presence of nightfall. Mr Ishiguro’s stories are steeped in lament. These characters draw in the reader/listener. But the music is not at all a satisfactory resolution. There is the potential of love, but the characters often get in their own way. Is this something of a cliché–good musicians and poor in love? Maybe. But there’s enough of a grasp in these characters’ lives of something they can see and express in the music. But it just eludes them as they try earnestly to move that next step beyond the present.
Many musicians reach the point where they realize they are not the best at what they do. They possess enough experience and skill to know they stand fairly high up on the ascent. But others, stars and teachers and geniuses inhabit the summit. For some, the competitive types, that is a source of great sadness. For the characters of Nocturnes, it means tales of melancholy.
I have to admit I have played laments late, late at night in a church. But I also have to concede I find more joy in music playing with others in ensembles. And while Mr Ishiguro writes convincingly of characters who play well with others, each of these tales is a sonata for solo instrument. There are only vanishingly frustrating glances at ensemble play. These characters work with other musicians. There is no play.
These stories are masterfully drawn, but the characters fail in their best exploits because they insist on gong it alone. That’s a portrait of a loner, buzzed from a not-quite-finished third drink, under a single hotel room lamp, staring at the ceiling with the night’s music just a faint hum in the ears. These are sad stories. But unfortunately, they are all too true.