Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro is a lyrical collection of stories following five different people as they navigate the world and music around them. Each story is set in a different time and place. The first, “Crooner,” is set in Venice, where readers meet a fading American pop star and a Polish cafe musician. The coincidence and connection that brings them together gives a sad glimpse into the desperation to stay relevant and what people are willing to sacrifice along the way. The story is a romance along the canals that ends beautifully yet unsatisfyingly. Through dialogue and watching the characters along their short journey, they become so real that readers are left with the same disappointment as that which they would feel for a loved one.
The next short story takes the reader to Spain to meet a single, forty-something, unambitious, expatriate EFL teacher, who is about to go visit two of his old university friends in London. What ensues is equal parts awkward and calamitous. After arriving, Ray shortly discovers his visit was meant to soothe the straining relationship between his once-close friends. The thin string connecting Ray to these friends, Emily and Charlie, is the mutual love for old American music he shares with Emily. The slapstick havoc that ensues makes the reader cringe and laugh at the same time. While comical, the story is also tinged with the sadness of people growing apart and losing once precious connections. Such a mundane yet exciting story does feel like being a part of the lives of ordinary people, whose dreams, disappointment and sorrow feel as clear as your own.
In the next tale, “Malvern Hills,” the reader follows a struggling guitarist who leaves the pressures of London behind to stay with his sister- and brother-in-law and help with their countryside cafe during tourist season. His encounter with an oddly behaved Swiss couple causes him to reflect on his present and contemplate his future. Music connects the struggling guitarist to the Swiss couple throughout the story, as he listens to the couple’s own unique journey with music through the years.
The three met by chance but connected through their shared passion: music. Even through the toughest times in their marriage, the couple always found each other again through their music. Readers, along with the young guitarist, feel reinvigorated and refreshed after hearing their story. Suddenly, though, the couple informs their new friend that they are ending their marriage. Both he and readers are devastated about the breakup of their beloved new friends. The ease with which the couple announce this is abrupt and disarming. Ishiguro keeps readers on their toes with the frankness with which he discusses personal relationships and the lack of fanfare surrounding the end of a long partnership, whether in London or Malvern Hills.
The title story, “Nocturne,” follows a gifted saxophonist with an unsightly face. After the desperate decision to seek a plastic surgeon, he recovers in a Beverly Hills hotel and becomes involved with a wealthy American woman (the now ex-wife of the songster from the first story). Uncomfortable together at first, they soon develop an intimate platonic relationship. Their boredom-driven escapades in the hotel see them stealing a statuette and attempting to return it. The result is, naturally, comical.
These two characters, whom readers have watched grow ever closer, are also seen in the melancholy phase after the excitement wears off and the attachment fades. They were each a brief spark in each other’s lives, and as quickly as it began, it ended. This leaves readers feeling bereft. “Cellist” is the final story, where a Hungarian cellist falls under the spell of a fellow cellist – an older, American self-proclaimed virtuoso who tutors him. After having suspicions and dancing around the topic, he eventually realizes that she cannot play the cello at all. Convinced of her own exceptional “gift,” no teacher ever seemed equal to it, and so rather than ruin her gift with bad teachings, she decided never to cultivate it, while still proclaiming to be a musical genius.
The last and least compelling of the stories is told from a third-person perspective by an old acquaintance of the cellist, several years after the events take place. Like the others, it is a story of intimacy and music, and the confusing and fragile friendships people make in all stages of their lives.
With his truly beautiful book, Ishiguro manages to detail the complexities of relationships and friendships over distance and time. Possibly the perfect pick to cuddle up with and read in one sitting.