It is always depressing to see a great writer coast on his fame, whether it be from lack of trying, or just having lost it. Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of two great novels: The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World. Some of his earlier and later works show some potential, and contain some great moments in them, but he has not quite captured the consistent greatness of those two works in any of his other books. And that goes for this collection of stories titled Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, which would not have gotten published were it not for his built-in fame.
It is not that this book is bad or that any of these stories are, in particular, bad. But none of them are really all that good either. For one thing, it is clear that Ishiguro is not a master of the short story form, since many of these tales are just too long and full of dull moments and mediocre dialogue exchanges. There is very little insight throughout, and really, while reading, I got the sense that he was just writing words to write words. The endings of the tales are mostly flaccid, and each tale is told in the first person. One would think that amid a collection, a writer would attempt a different form, or at least play around with different points of view, lest result in the text sounding monotonous, which it does. It is possible that some of these tales would have been better if expanded to the novel form, for then at least he might have had the opportunity to develop the characters better. Short stories should be distilled to pointed moments, and it is the job of the writer to illustrate these moments well. Just think of the best stories by Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Irwin Shaw, or Anton Chekhov. All of these writers have at one time written great short stories. Yet for Ishiguro, at least in this collection, he doesn’t even come close to those names listed.
All these tales involve musicians and their privileged, upper crust lives. None of the characters are particularly deep or compelling, and instead they are shallow and self-centered. People are dissatisfied with their lives and marriages, and believe that more ephemeral things will make them happy, such as taking on a younger lover or having plastic surgery. While there have been many short stories presenting the lives of losers quite well (think Raymond Carver or Richard Yates), Ishiguro’s characters come across as unsympathetic and not worthy of concern. In reality, these people’s problems are not really problems, but instead the results of their own mediocre choices in life.
In the Woody Allen film, Interiors, one of the central characters is a woman named Joey who does not have any artistic talent, yet has some “need to express something.” In the arts, you will find far more Joeys than real artists, and many of the characters in this book are Joeys, for even those that the narrator claims to have real talent, one is never really sure, since the narrators are very often self-pitying and shallow themselves. Ultimately, Nocturnes is both underwhelming and full of despond (but not in the way that earns your empathy).
After reading, I just have to wonder if this is what most people think being an artist is like. One would think there would be more passion for the actual subject at hand — that is, music, rather than always focusing on neuroses. For despite having much dialogue, the book lacks any deeper, philosophical discussions among the characters. At least when Woody Allen is writing about these privileged, upper crust types in Interiors, he exposes the characters’ own faux intellectualism and pretension via way of having them engage in some deeper discussions on art. Imagine reading a book about filmmakers who never really discuss film on a deeper level, but instead merely toss in a reference or name here or there. The most that is made of these kinds of discussions within Nocturnes is merely a passing reference of a particular music or singer. Hell, at least in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, while not a great film, there are moments where Salieri illuminates what makes Mozart’s music great, and at least within the context of the film, the Salieri character is passionate about music and art, even though it is ultimately his own envy that hurts him.
The point is, if one is going to write a book about artists, what better platform is there to engage in deeper conversations among characters, or allow for deeper rumination and observation than in a book with artists about artists? Overall, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall lacks much of the highs from Ishiguro’s great novels, and the tales leave one feeling deflated. It is a decent collection, but not up to the standard of typical Ishiguro. Here’s to hoping he writes another great novel, and fast.