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Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

A-NocturnesBritish novelist Kazuo Ishiguro won the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day (1989). Three of his other works—An Artist of the Floating World (1986), When We Were Orphans (2000), and Never Let Me Go ( 4 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2005)—were short-listed for that prize. Nocturnes is his first collection of short fiction.

The Story: In the five stories collected here, musicians and music lovers endure the exasperating, often bleak, and sometimes absurd quest for fame and fortune. "Crooner" features a roving guitarist in Venice who jumps at the chance to accompany a legendary American singer in an unusual private performance. A man goes to great lengths to hide a mistake in "Come Rain or Come Shine," and a talented young cellist takes lessons from an unconventional teacher in "Cellists." "Nocturnes" tells the story of two performers who undergo plastic surgery for very different reasons. Each character in this collection attempts to bridge the chasm between the beauty and purity of music and the sordid reality of life.
Knopf. 240 pages. $25. ISBN: 9780307271020

Guardian (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"[W]hat most binds these stories [is] the conflict between what music promises and what life delivers. … Each of these stories is heartbreaking in its own way, but some have moments of great comedy, and they all require a level of attention that, typically, Ishiguro’s writing rewards." Tom Fleming

Independent (UK) 4 of 5 Stars
"Nocturnes pays no more than peppercorn rent to the traditional story cycle in the same way that When We Were Orphans was barely a detective yarn. … Ultimately this is a lovely, clever book about the passage of time and the soaring notes that make its journey worthwhile." Christian House

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Part of what makes Ishiguro so refreshing is that he leaves the epiphanies to the reader. We emerge feeling as if we have grasped insights that elude the characters, as if we have glimpsed the shapes of their lives and perhaps something significant about life itself." Troy Jollimore

Telegraph (UK) 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Kazuo Ishiguro’s reticence and intense, inward, self-containment are conspicuous in these stories. … One turns away, thinking the narratives one-note. Yet they resonate long after the book is set aside." Jane Shilling

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"After so many masterful novels full of wistfulness, remorse, and dread—The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go being personal favorites—he has set the bar so high that you can’t help but be underwhelmed by these five tales, most of which revolve around some naive, music-loving man getting an unpleasant glimpse into somebody else’s relationship." Jeff Giles

Miami Herald 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, the stories can’t quite match the dazzling bravado of Ishiguro’s novels. … But as a suite of work, they’re more pop hit—engaging but inconsequential—than masterpiece." Connie Ogle

Spectator (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"There are disappointingly few highlights. … Part of the problem is that each of the stories is narrated in the first person by an almost willfully uninteresting character; Ishiguro achieves verisimilitude at a high price, because the prose seems underwritten, at times even mundane." Simon Baker

Critical Summary

Ishiguro blends musical concepts with their literary counterparts in his latest work, and Nocturnes has the ephemeral quality of a song cycle with recurring themes and motifs developed in different prose keys. Though critics admired Ishiguro’s lovely writing, "unassuming to the point of near-invisibility, like a lake whose still surface belies the turbulent currents beneath" (Los Angeles Times), they took issue with his characters—insubstantial and unconvincing when compared to the haunting creations found in his novels—and his implausible plot developments. Perhaps Entertainment Weekly summed it up best by stating that Nocturnes, by any other writer, would be praiseworthy; by a celebrated author like Ishiguro, it can best be likened to a minor work from a master composer.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. General Questions:
• In each story, at least one character is deluding him- or herself. Who is the worst offender? How does Ishiguro signal this to the reader?
• All five stories are told in first-person narration. Which of the narrators is most trustworthy, and why?
• How does Ishiguro use humor, even farce, to illuminate his characters’ psyches?
• Webster defines nocturne as “a work of art dealing with evening or night; especially: a dreamy pensive composition for the piano.” How does each story qualify as a nocturne? How does Ishiguro use night as a metaphor?
2. “Crooner”:
• Why is Janeck’s nationality important? Why does Tony think it’s important? How does Ishiguro use Eastern vs. Western attitudes to further the story?
• On page 12, Janeck says, “In fact it was so sweet an idea it almost, but not quite made me forget the scene I’d just witnessed between them. What I mean is, even at that stage, I knew deep down that things wouldn’t be as straightforward as he was making out.” Why does Ishiguro offer this bit of foreshadowing? What does it make you think as you’re reading?
• How would you describe Tony and Lindy’s relationship? How do you think Lindy would describe it?
3. “Come Rain or Come Shine”:
• On page 38, Ray says, “We were especially pleased when we found a recording—like Ray Charles singing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’—where the words themselves were happy, but the interpretation was pure heartbreak.” What does this tell us about Ray and Emily? How does it come into play later in the story?
• Do you think Ray is really as much of a loser as Charlie and Emily believe him to be? How does your perception of him change over the course of the story?
• What does Ray’s trashing of the apartment symbolize? How does Sarah Vaughan smooth things over?
4. “Malvern Hills”:
• “I quickly discovered that breakfast at the cafe was a nightmare, with customers wanting eggs done this way, toast like that, everything getting overcooked. So I made a point of never appearing until around eleven” (page 93). What does this tell us about the narrator? Who’s doing whom a favor here?
• What do you think of Tilo and Sonja? Are they artists who have suffered for their music? Or does their relationship with their son hint at something different?
• Sonja says to the narrator on page 122, “As it is, life will bring enough disappointments. If on top, you have such dreams as this . . . But I should not say these things. I am not a good example to you. Besides, I can see you are much more like Tilo.” What do you think the narrator learns from his encounters with Sonja and Tilo? Do you imagine he’ll press on with his music?
5. “Nocturne”
• Why do you think Ishiguro chose to reintroduce Lindy Gardner? How does reading this story change your understanding of “Crooner”?
• “If there was one figure who epitomised for me everything that was shallow and sickening about the world, it was Lindy Gardner: a person with negligible talent . . . who’s managed all the same to become famous” (page 137). In what ways is this idea connected to the other stories in the collection? How much does talent matter in Ishiguro’s world?
• How does being wrapped in bandages and hidden away from the world affect Steve and Lindy’s behavior? Do you think things might have gone differently if their faces were exposed?
6. “Cellists”
• How does Eloise influence, and seemingly improve, Tibor’s playing? What power does she hold?
• Eloise says, “You have to understand, I am a virtuoso. But I’m one who’s yet to be unwrapped” (page 212). Why is she convinced of this? Do you believe she’s a virtuoso? Does Tibor?
• What similarities can you find among Eloise, Lindy, and Sonja? Does Emily fit into this vein, too?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.