Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 24; 13 October 2021

Kazuo Ishiguro’s short stories: Nocturnes

“The wrong kind of ugly”

In the last three weeks, I’ve posted two pieces of book discussion on my website, both of them about books that were set in the future when they were published, but whose timeframes are now part of our past. The books are Brian Moore’s Catholics and Philip Kerr’s A Philosophical Investigation. Catholics was published in 1972 and set in or about 1999, while Kerr’s novel came out in 1992 and is set in 2013. While I was writing the post about Catholics, I noticed that the books have something in common that I hadn’t expected.

They both feature characters who are doing a particular job, and doing it well and conscientiously, but who are really not sure why they’re doing so. The abbot in Catholics sees himself as

… a sort of foreman here, a sort of manager. It’s not a lot different from a secular job. The monks work hard and my job is to keep them together and see that they make a go of it.

Speaking to an emissary from Rome who has come to tell him that he must bring his abbey into conformity with the doctrinal changes brought in by the Fourth Vatican Council, he adds:

It’s only when someone like yourself comes along that we ask ourselves what we are here for.

The abbot no longer prays or says Mass and he doesn’t exactly believe in God, though he does believe in a kind of hell, the “hell of no feeling”, a void. He remains in place because he feels that he is needed to perform his management role.

Though the two characters do not otherwise resemble each other, the abbot’s lack of purpose is shared by DCI Isadora Jacowicz, who leads the investigation in Kerr’s novel. Jake agrees with her therapist, Doctor Blackwell, when the latter says “you’re here because you think your life has no meaning” (p. 136).

She prevents a suspected murderer from killing himself even though she knows that if he lives he will suffer a worse fate: punitive coma, a brutal punishment of which she disapproves.

At first, I wondered if Jake insisted on forcing the killer to face the legally prescribed punishment out of unacknowledged vindictiveness, but this seems unlikely as she is quite sympathetic to him as he prepares to be deprived of consciousness — permanently in all likelihood. It is more likely that, rather like Brian Moore’s abbot, she follows procedure and sticks to the rules because they take the place of a sense of purpose which is otherwise missing.

The main business of this issue of the newsletter, however, is to discuss some of the fiction of Kazuo Ishiguro. I usually confine myself to discussing authors I like and books that I’ve enjoyed: there seems to be little point in spending much time on work from which I don’t derive much pleasure. Kazuo Ishiguro is something of an exception. When I read An Artist of the Floating World (1986) and The Remains of the Day (1989) more than 30 years ago, I admired rather than liked his writing.

I haven’t reread either of those books since, and don’t remember enough about either of them to say much that is useful. I’ve never read either The Unconsoled (1995) or The Buried Giant (2015). (I have the second of these on reserve at the library but it won’t be available until late November.) I’ve already posted what I wanted to say about Never Let Me Go (2005), which I described as “the most restrained and understated horror story imaginable”.

The four novels that I have read have given me the impression that Ishiguro subjects his characters to a cold and merciless scrutiny, exposing their failures and shortcomings in a way that makes them seem not so much sympathetic as merely pathetic. They come across as leading limited lives, largely because of their own limitations as characters: the blinkered, self-congratulating detective in When We Were Orphans (2000), the butler who takes pride in how well he served a would-be fascist collaborator in The Remains of the Day. But I’m not really confident in this judgment (except in the case of Never Let Me Go) until I’ve done some further reading and rereading. I’ll just note that, having reread The Remains of the Day 23 years on, Salman Rushdie describes it as “a story both beautiful and cruel”. I suppose beauty and cruelty aren’t necessarily the things I look for most in a novel.

So, in the meantime I’ve decided to take a look at the short stories that make up Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (2009), to see if the author is perhaps a bit more forgiving of his characters when he writes about them in the short form. And I think he is, though as a reader I still felt a certain chilly distance from their predicaments. Each of the five stories is told in the first-person, though in the last one, “Cellists”, the narrator is not directly involved in the action but observes from a distance. In that story, the narrator’s primary function is to tell the reader how their fellow musicians felt about the central character, Tibor.

This use of the first person reflects his novels, all but one of which are narrated from the central character’s point of view. The exception, The Buried Giant, has a narrator who says “I” and “we”, but is not directly involved in the story of the protagonists, who are observed from outside, in much the same way as Tibor is in “Cellists”.

The stories in Nocturnes are arranged in the shape of an arch or bow: the first and last are about poorly paid musicians working in caffè bands in northern Italy; the second and fourth are farcical tales of escalating desperation on the part of characters engaged in increasingly embarrassing behaviour and the third is clearly the centrepiece of the collection. That story, “Malvern Hills”, is about a guitarist and songwriter whose musical career hasn’t (yet) been successful. He’s been going around to auditions for bands but, to his annoyance, finds that the fact that he writes his own songs is putting people off. I suppose the term “singer-songwriter” has unfortunate associations for some people.

The guitarist is prickly and defensive about “not having achieved everything I set out to”. Fed up of having to explain to old friends and acquaintances that he’s not really the failure he might look like to them, and running out of floors in London to sleep on, he goes to stay for the summer with his older sister Maggie and her husband Geoff who run a café in the Malvern Hills. They can’t afford to pay him but expect some work from him in return for his keep. “It was all a bit unclear,” he says, just how much he’s expected to contribute. It’s a fair bet, though, that Maggie and, in particular, Geoff feel that their vague understanding requires more from the narrator than he is willing to give.

He avoids the café during busy times, particularly breakfast, which he describes as “a nightmare, with customers wanting eggs done this way, toast like that, everything getting overcooked.” The guitarist is willing to pitch in, it seems, but only when his help is least needed. After one particularly busy day for his sister and brother-in-law, he is playing the guitar in his room, working on the bridge of a new song, when Maggie comes in and asks him to stop.

“But I’m working on something important here,” I said.
“I know. But he’s really tired tonight, and he says he can’t relax because of your guitar.”
“What Geoff needs to realise,” I said, “is that just as he’s got his work to do, I’ve got mine.”
My sister seemed to think about this. Then she did a big sigh. “I don’t think I ought to report that back to Geoff.”
“Why not? Why don’t you? It’s time he got the message.”
“Why not? Because I don’t think he’d be very pleased, that’s why not. And I don’t really think he’d accept that his work and your work are quite on the same level.”
I stared at Maggie for a moment, quite speechless.

He is incredulous that she can’t see the importance of his work, particularly now that “things are going well”.

“Things are going well for you, are they, love?” She kept looking at me in the half-light. “Well, all right,” she said in the end. “I won’t argue with you.”

The guitarist would presumably argue that, as an artist (songwriter-musician), he is already doing valuable work and shouldn’t be required to do a full share of manual work as well. However, there’s nothing to suggest that pulling his weight a bit more in the café would slow down his creative process, or that he’s been making more progress with his song by avoiding the café while it’s busy. The story leaves the reader in no doubt that its hero is a lazy, selfish freeloader; and yet … doesn’t he have the faintest hint of a point?

He meets two Swiss musicians, Tilo and Sonja, who have been slightly more successful than he has. Tilo tells him:

“I suppose what we like to do best is perform our traditional Swiss folk music, but in a contemporary manner. Sometimes even what you might call a radical manner. We take inspiration from great composers who took a similar path. Janácek, for instance. Your own Vaughan Williams.”

But they haven’t recently had much opportunity to play that kind of music.

“… in this real world, much of the time, we must play what our audience is most likely to appreciate. So we perform many hits. Beatles, the Carpenters, some more recent songs. This is perfectly satisfying.” (ellipsis added)

He learns that Tilo and Sonja have very different ways of coping with the dissatisfactions of their professional life. Tilo is relentlessly cheerful, always proclaiming how lucky they are, how splendidly things have worked out. Sonja, in contrast, has moments of fierce anger, when she refuses to play her part in the fiction that all is well.

“You know,” she said eventually, “when I was younger, nothing could make me angry. But now I get angry at many things. I do not know how I have become this way. It is not good.”

Shortly afterwards, before leaving him, she gives the narrator some advice.

“If Tilo were here,” she said, “he would say to you, never be discouraged. He would say, of course you must go to London and try and form your band. Of course you will be successful. That is what Tilo would say to you. Because that is his way.”

She is more doubtful.

“I would like to say the same. Because you are young and talented. But I am not so certain. As it is, life will bring enough disappointments. If on top, you have such dreams as this …” She smiled again and shrugged.” (original ellipsis)

In the end, she thinks that the guitarist is more like Tilo than like her and is likely to carry on in the face of setbacks. It sounds like a judicial sentence, or a malediction.

All but one of the stories feature musicians who are struggling economically, or close to it. The title story concerns a saxophone player who has been persuaded by his agent and his estranged wife that his difficulties in getting bookings will be easier to overcome if he has plastic surgery on his face. As things stand, he is “the wrong kind of ugly”. He agrees to have the work done, more out of desperation and a willingness to try anything that might conceivably help than because he really expects it to solve his problems.

In “Cellists”, Tibor allows himself to be influenced by a woman who hasn’t played the instrument since she was 11 years old, but believes herself to be a kind of (nonpractising) virtuoso. Some of the other players in the caffè band think he’s grown aloof as a result. One of them, Ernesto, says:

“He’s spent the summer being told he’s a genius. A hotel job, it’s a comedown. Sitting talking to us, that’s a comedown too. He was a nice kid at the start of the summer. But after what that woman’s done to him, I’m glad we’re seeing the back of him.”

The story that doesn’t feature a musician, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, is narrated by Ray, an English language teacher who lives in Madrid. His economic situation is as precarious as any of the musicians’. He’s now in his late 40s and finding that his earnings from the language school are not keeping pace with rents in the city. He visits London to stay with his old college friends Charlie and Emily. He has long shared with Emily a love of the Great American songbook.

Emily and Charlie seem to have their own reasons to need Ray to continue in his supposed ineptitude and helplessness. They take him to be constantly complaining (“Prince of Whiners”) though as far as the reader can see he’s just responding truthfully to their “interrogation”. When Ray does something embarrassing that he thinks will anger Emily, Charlie takes advantage of Ray’s attempted cover-up to try to get his friend to wreck the apartment. Emily finds Ray pretending to be a dog savaging some magazines and and concludes that her old friend has finally cracked under the pressure, not realizing that her husband is really the one with the problem.

I found this story almost impossible to read the first time, because of the horribly embarrassing behaviour of its protagonist. On second reading, though, I thought it might be one of the two strongest stories in the collection, despite the element of farce, the other being “Malvern Hills”. I might want to revisit it separately in the future.

Overall, I found these stories more satisfying than any of the novels I’ve read so far, including Never Let Me Go.

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 13-Oct-2021.