From the Archives: Uppity Blues
By Kazuo Ishiguro
On the warm September night of my first graduate-level writer’s workshop, our instructor took us outside. We stood under the starry sky and listened to a limp pop song from the tinny speakers of her Jeep Wrangler. While the song and the rest of her workshop failed to impress, the comparison she drew that night between music and stories did. She spoke of each note as necessary to the whole song, in much the same way as each word in a story should carry weight and meaning, and should not be treated carelessly or used immoderately. Writers serve the story. Kazuo Ishiguro could teach a master class on this subject.
Ishiguro lamented in a recent interview in The Guardian that his literary portfolio is slim and his years are getting on. While he denied Martin Amis’ accusation that he keeps a chart on his wall showing the age of authors when they wrote their masterpieces, Ishiguro did ramble on about how most masterpieces were written by people under the age of forty and that, in some ways, he believes he himself has peaked as a writer. Reading this exchange is akin to the feeling you get when you are in the head of one of Ishiguro’s characters – you follow a serpentine path, find a geode you may or may not be able to crack open, then walk away befuddled but satisfied. Ishiguro has cornered the market on the befuddled character, and in his new short story collection Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, he has not abandoned his faithful flock of readers with a soft spot for the clueless and confused.
To date, Ishiguro has published six novels, including Booker winner The Remains of the Day and his 2005 Never Let Me Go. In his Guardian interview, Ishiguro was resistant to calling Nocturnes a short story collection and believes “story book” is a better description. Given significantly lower sales and readership for books released as story collections or, God forbid, linked story collections (in Nocturnes, a minor character in one story is a major character in another, and one character narrates two different stories), it is not surprising that Ishiguro is nervous. But what better way to reverse this trend of short stories being left behind than for established writers to stand proud in their assertion that, “Yes, this is a story collection!” Perhaps Ishiguro is wary because critics might dig into his writing past and find a short story from before he was anointed a “Granta Best Young British Novelist”? Say…a story called “Family Supper” in a compilation called Class Work edited by his East Anglia writing professor Malcolm Bradbury, and perhaps hold this early short story against him? Critics can be nasty that way, but not this one. It was a joy to find this early Ishiguro short story and celebrate his journey from a fine to an exceptional writer.
Nocturnes is five short stories linked by music, humor, and the recurrence of a few characters, some more confused than others. Unlike in The Unconsoled, the brilliant novel most Ishiguro’s fans and critics don’t quite know what to do with, where the fact that the main character is a pianist is almost incidental to the novel’s plot and themes, the main characters in Nocturnes are predominantly musicians and music aficionados; it is their love of this art that drives these stories in unique ways. Additionally, unlike Louise Erdrich in her recently released story collection, The Red Convertible, Ishiguro has paid careful attention to the order in which he has arranged Nocturnes‘ stories. The emotions at play in each work delightfully against the others, much like riffs coming at all the right times.
Kazuo Ishiguro, photographed by David Levene
In the opening story “Crooner,” Janeck, an East European street-musician, is suspect because he plays guitar in a café orchestra in the Piazza San Marco in Venice:
A guitar! The café managers get uneasy. It looks too modern, the tourists won’t like it. Last autumn I got myself a vintage jazz model with an oval sound-hole, the kind of thing Django Reinhardt might have played, so there was no way anyone would mistake me for a rock-and-roller. That made things a little easier, but the café managers, they still don’t like it. The truth is, if you’re a guitarist, you can be Joe Pass, they still wouldn’t give you a regular job in this square.
Even funnier than being suspected as a subversive because he plays guitar is the fact that this busker once played “The Godfather” nine times in one day to satisfy tourists craving for Italian-sounding ear candy. (This detail is used again at the start of the final story “Cellists.” While this could be a character-tag used to link Janeck to both stories, it could also be a different busker narrator from a different orchestra. Ultimately the “Godfather” detail falls flat the second time around and is a rare slip in Ishiguro’s performance.) In the middle of his set, Janeck is distracted from a chord change when he spots Tony Gardner, a superstar of an old crooner, sitting at a nearby table. He’s sure it’s the famous Tony Gardner because his hair, though once dark and shiny and now almost white, is still “immaculately groomed in the same style he’d had back then.” A slice of Vegas right there in the Venetian piazza.
Janeck’s head fills with childhood memories of his mother being soothed by Mr. Gardner’s mellifluous tunes and he approaches Mr. Gardner during intermission to proclaim his fan status “all in one big rush.” You can’t help but cringe at this blatant display of star worship. Just as you want to cover Janeck’s mouth, the decent Mr. Gardner invites him to take a seat and engages him in polite conversation. Then Gardner’s wife Lindy approaches the table. She is “one of those American ladies who are so classy, with great hair, clothes and figure, you don’t realize they’re not so young until you see them up close.” In a classic Ishiguro moment, a frost descends over the conversation. Janeck is confused by the change.
He [Gardner] hadn’t shouted exactly, but his voice was suddenly hard and angry, and now there was a strange silence. Then Mr. Gardner himself broke it, saying gently:
“I’m sorry, honey. I didn’t mean to snap at you.”
He reached out a hand and grasped one of hers. I’d kind of expected her to shake him off, but instead, she moved in her chair so she was closer to him, and put her free hand over their clasped pair. They sat there like that for a few seconds, Mr. Gardner, his head bowed, his wife gazing emptily past his shoulder, across the square towards the Basilica, though her eyes didn’t see to be seeing anything. For those few moments it was like they’d forgotten not just me sitting with them, but all the people in the piazza.
Janeck sees but doesn’t understand. This sets up the story’s perfect little mystery. Just when you think Janeck will somehow embarrass himself or that Gardner will break into his Vegas act, Ishiguro takes us for a gondola ride that’s Verdi-free and more martini than Chianti, and the threatening cliché clouds lift.
Mr. Gardner has plans for Janeck, nothing insidious, simply a job accompanying him on the guitar while he sings from a gondola beneath Lindy’s window later that evening. While they drift along waiting for Lindy to return to the hotel room, Gardner confides in Janeck and subverts the romance of the scene with sadness. In the hands of a lesser writer, Gardner’s confession might tarnish his stardom in Janeck’s or the reader’s eyes. Instead, all the complexities surrounding the price people pay for their choices shimmer from the page and everyone walks away with more dignity than you expected.
Dignity is also at issue in “Come Rain or Come Shine,” a story with romantic-comedy overtones. Ray, a gullible English teacher (is that an redundancy?) seems blissfully unaware of how much dignity he’s lost during a stay with his middle-aged married college chums, Charlie and Emil. Ray is between overseas teaching gigs and needs a free place to sleep while back in London, which is more than slightly pathetic given that he’s forty-seven. Charlie warns Ray that Emily is determined to help Ray grow up during the course of his stay and he needs to let her; their marriage is in trouble and Charlie convinces Ray that Emily’s immersion in this project would save their marriage. Like all good Ishiguro characters, Ray suspects something is up – “All the same, I could see there was something not quite right here, something he wasn’t telling me” – but he’s a good guy and good guy’s help their friends, right?
Charlie takes off on a business trip to Berlin, Emily goes to work, and Raymond is left alone in the house. In what feels like a Monty Python moment, Ray peeks into Emily’s memo book and discovers entries like “Raymond coming Monday. Groan. Groan.” In fury, he crinkles the pages, then panics. Charlie calls to give him last-minute instructions about how to behave and Ray tells him what happened. Charlie announces: “If she finds out, she’ll want to saw your balls off.” Right. Must keep those. Before helping Ray, Charlie makes Ray promise to deny his musical taste for old Broadway songs:
“Just about the only time she [Emily] ever uses you [Ray] to belittle me [Charlie] is in this area of musical taste. It’s the one respect in which you aren’t absolutely perfect for your current assignment. So, Ray, you’ve got to promise not to talk about this topic.”
“Oh, for God’s sake…”
“Just do it for me, Ray. It’s not much to ask. Just don’t start going on about that … that croony nostalgia music she likes. And if she brings it up, then you just play it dumb.”
Instead of suspecting he’s being played by a friend who is trying to distract his wife so she doesn’t suspect he’s having an affair, Ray agrees to deny his musical sensibilities and follows Charlie’s suggestion to make the house look and smell like the neighbor’s dog got in and chewed everything up, including the memo book. As Ray fumbles around the living room on all fours and chews up magazines and pillows, Emily comes home, shakes her head and says, “Let’s have dinner.” If the reader has any remaining fears over Ray missing a few tools from the shed, then that reaction should allay them. Unsurprisingly, Emily knows the real score. Emily puts on Sarah Vaughn’s “April in Paris” and takes our befuddled Ray for a twirl on the terrace. The scene fades to black; the reader’s laughter subsides – admittedly not the strongest of story endings, but then this is a romantic-comedy.
“Malvern Hills” shifts Nocturnes‘ mood to a sadder place. A struggling guitarist decides to spend the summer helping out at his sister and her husband’s cafe in exchange for free room and board so he can he work on his music. After witnessing a woman customer being rude to his sister, he recommends that the customer and her husband stay in a local hotel, which he knows is shoddily run by a hateful former school teacher he affectionately calls Hag Fraser. The couple takes his advice. The next day while on a hike through the Malvern Hills, they overhear him playing; it turns out that they are working musicians on a vacation and praise his original composition. The guitarist regrets his decision to recommend the dismal hotel and tries to dissuade them from returning. They won’t think of it. The next day the guitarist returns to the same spot and finds Sonja, the wife, sitting alone. When he asks her where her husband Tilo is, the mood changes:
While she [Sonja] wasn’t by any means the irate customer from the café, neither was she quite the same person who’d been so warm and encouraging to me the day before. There was definitely something up, and I started preparing my defence about Hag Fraser’s.
“By the way,” I said, “I’ve been working a bit more on that song. You can hear it if you like.”
She gave this consideration, then said: “If you do not mind, perhaps not just at this minute. You see, Tilo and I have just had a talk. You might call it a disagreement.”
“Oh okay. Sorry to hear that.”
“And now he has gone off for his walk.”
Again, we sat there not talking. Then I sighed and said: “I think maybe it is all my fault.”
Yes, the world centers on our poor narrator tormented by guilt over his petty act. Don’t be lulled by Sonja’s reaction into thinking nothing will come of his spiteful action; it’s the unforeseen consequences which are always the worst. Music can bring together or tear asunder. Our self-absorbed guitarist fails to register the full effect of what has happened, but the reader has.
The title story “Nocturne” is a different riff on the struggling artist theme, more comic than tragic. We leave behind the quiet strumming of a guitar and head for Hollywood to join Steve, a jazz musician forced by his wife and thin apartment walls to practice his saxophone in a closet. Steve’s wife leaves him for another man, but as a parting gift she arranges for Steve to get plastic surgery; his manager had been insisting that if he were less ugly, he’d have a better career. In his despondency over his flagging career and departed wife, Steve overcomes his fears of surgery and capitulates. As it turns out, Steve can be convinced to do almost anything to further his career – the perfect character for a madcap comedy.
Steve meets Lindy Gardner, now divorced from Tony, while they are recuperating on a private floor of a hotel after Dr. Boris’ procedure. There they are, ensconced in bandages and sipping coffee through straws, when Lindy puts on a Tony Gardner CD so Steve can hear the kind of sax playing she likes:
A few measures in, a sleepy, Ben Webster-ish tenor broke through and proceeded to lead the orchestra. If you didn’t know too much about these things, you could even have mistaken it for one of those Nelson Riddle intros for Sinatra. But the voice that eventually came on belonged to Tony Gardner. The song – I just about remember it – was something called “Back at Culver City,” a ballad that never quite made it and which no one plays much any more. All the time Tony Gardner sang, the sax kept up with him, replying to him line by line. The whole thing was utterly predictable, and way too sugary.
Steve puts aside his disdain at the urging of his manager, plays chess with Lindy, drinks with Lindy, and eventually plays his CD for Lindy. Her reception to his music is decidedly cool. Shortly after that, she appears drunk at his door and hands him an award that says, “Jazz Musician of the Year.” It turns out that Lindy feels bad about her reaction to his music and has stolen the award from a ballroom where a banquet will be held the next night. Steve finally takes a stand for his integrity and, much to Lindy’s chagrin, insists they return the award. A slapstick scene ensues involving a run-in with hotel security and a hand getting stuck in a turkey. In the end, while Steve seems wistful and optimistic about the day when he will emerge from his bandages with a new face and a new jazz career, the reader has less reason to be hopeful.
For the final story, “Cellist” we return to the Venetian piazza, this time accompanied by the somber sounds of the cello. Janeck narrates the story of the Hungarian cellist Tibor and his undoing at the hands of an American woman. Tibor has big dreams for his musical career and is despondent over his upcoming prospect of playing in hotels in Amsterdam. An American woman tells Tibor that she has heard him play and that, “Most definitely. You have … potential.” The dreaded “P’ word that can seduce any artist – poor Tibor doesn’t have a chance. Soon he’s coming to her room, playing his heart out, hanging on every bit of praise she holds out to him, even when he begins to suspect something is amiss:
The fact was, even at that first session, Tibor had been curious to hear her play, but had been too intimidated to ask her to do so. He’d felt only a tiny nudge of suspicion when, looking around her room, he’d seen no sign of her own cello. After all, it was perfectly natural she wouldn’t bring a cello on holiday with her. And then again, it was possible there was an instrument – perhaps a rented one – in the bedroom behind the closed door.
The reader knows the rhythm of this tune, but the freshness of this story and a fervent hope that a nice guy won’t finish last, or at least with the rest of the rabble, drives us forward. And still you will find yourself not quite believing “the mystery” when it is revealed. It is no wonder that poor Tibor, all these years later, doesn’t go over and strike up a conversation with Janeck and the ol’ gang of buskers. Shame and resignation to a life of mediocrity can be a powerfully long note held at the end of any song.
Ishiguro does himself a disservice by calling this collection a story book. Nocturnes’ reads like a good blues song with humorous uppity riffs to keep everything balanced and politely in perspective. Interestingly, for a writer who does not “do short stories,” Ishiguro avoids the common pitfall of linked short stories such as was found in last year’s The End of the World by Joan Silber. Silber’s stories read as chapters with shifting yet somehow related narrators, and they had more plot development between stories than character development within stories. Nocturne’s is more akin to this year’s Pulitzer winner of linked stories by Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge; within each story is a character whose world shifts in sometimes surprising, sometimes subtle, but always stirring ways. Yes, each major character in Nocturnes is a variation on a similar theme of naiveté, but each story is fresh and works contrary to expectations. Who doesn’t enjoy listening repeatedly to a song if each time you listen, you are surprised or entertained?
Karen Vanuska’s creative non-fiction has appeared in The Battered Suitcase. Her short fiction has appeared in UC Irvine’s Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She also reviews book for The Quarterly Conversation, where you can presently find her review of The Foundation Pit, by Andrey Platonov. Her literary blog can be found at http://karenvanuska.livejournal.com/.