Sometimes that’s the way it is. Like in Alice. You think you’re going into a rabbit hole – a simple white rabbit’s hole – and you end up on a croquet field with the Queen of England! That’s life – there are secret passages between walls.
In art, it’s the same thing. You can have this experience with Kazuo Ishiguro. You thought you had bought his most recent book? In fact, it’s a seat at a concert. In the blink of an eye the doors spin. And there you are in an exclusively sonorous universe. Don’t think about it. Close your eyes. Read with your ears…
Because they are already in tune. Who? A somewhat baroque ensemble, with a guitar, a tenor sax, an imaginary cello, an old crooner making a comeback. The key? Minor, C minor, the key if destiny. The tempo? Slow, as it always is with Ishiguro. And the atmosphere? Melancholic, distinguished. Music that laughs with one eye and cries with the other.
Seated at a table in Richoux, a tea room near Picadilly in London, Ish, as his friends call him, agrees – it isn’t easy to place his book in a literary niche.
“While writing it I thought of the singer Tom Waits, whose mix of blues, jazz and vaudeville, and his distinctive vocal sounds I really like! And also of Tati, Woody Allen, Chaplin. That strange form of humour where you never know if you should laugh or cry is particularly difficult to achieve in writing. And it’s strange, I can’t think of any other writer doing it. Perhaps because laughing is shared? And it’s very difficult to create a ‘private laugh?’”
Subtitled Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, Nocturnes (2009) is Ishiguro’s seventh book. An English writer of Japanese origin, born in Nagasaki in 1954, he has been described in the New York Times as “an original and remarkable genius”. He won the Whitbread Prize for An Artist of the Floating World (1986) and the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day (1989 – adapted for the screen by James Ivory). But when Ish was young, he dreamt for a long time of being a musician. At 15, he wrote songs, lived only with and for his guitar, played in the Paris Metro, adored Bob Dylan, tried over and over to be recorded…in vain.
“At 24, I had to give up trying to be a professional musician,” he says. “I signed up for a course in creative writing at the University of East Anglia and I began to write.”
At the time, that course (one of the best creative writing courses in England) wasn’t as well known as it is today. “There were only six of us, a handful more than a few years earlier, when Ian McEwan was the only student of Malcolm Bradbury – and when the classes always ended in the pub next door…but even so, I was really intimidated. What I didn’t know was how much musical composition had prepared me for writing. There is very little difference for me between a song and a short story. I write in the first person, my voice is the same. And with the short form, the meaning must emerge without breaking through the surface of the words – you can’t say too much. The singer, like the writer, must be able to express himself as well. All of these constraints, paradoxically, continue to give me an amazing sense of freedom.’
Music has always fed Ishiguro’s work, ever since The Unconsoled (1995), in which the narrator is a world-renowned pianist, to Never Let Me Go (2005), whose heroine plays the same record over and over. But the writer has never gone so far in fusing the two arts. Not only because the five short stories in this collection portray musicians – in these cases fallen stars, or street musicians – but, above all, because each text arises from a specific state of mind. It’s jazzy, it swings, it cries, it rocks…But in the end, like movements of a sonata, the stories ultimately respond to one another and create a whole. In that whole, there are a few recurring themes: art, love, attachment, the choices one makes and that life destroys, the passing of time…And, as if to accentuate this unity, the collection opens and ends in Venice, so that one is occasionally reminded of Henry James or Thomas Mann. With, superimposed on the soundtrack, the slapping of the water of the Grand Canal.
There are many remarkable characters in this collection. For example, Tony Gardner, who was once a famous singer and who serenades his wife in a gondola. Not to win her back but to say goodbye. For even if he loves her madly, he wants to organise his comeback. And the laws of marketing are clear – in order to do that he has to marry a younger woman! There is Tibor, a young Hungarian cellist whom an American virtuoso gradually takes under her wing. Tibor is ashamed not to know her but he has always lived behind the iron curtain and barely knows who Pablo Casals is! She advises him like no one else, becomes his mentor, alters his life forever. But soon he becomes doubtful – has she ever held a bow?
Ishiguro’s characters have something in common – they cross a threshold in their lives when they must “acknowledge that their dreams are fading”.
It’s not easy to play for tourists when one has seen Carnegie Hall! That is music at dusk, “the gradual erosion of hope”. Which doesn’t prevent Ishiguro’s from remaining intact. A few years ago he wrote four songs for an album by the jazz singer Stacey Kent. “Do you know Breakfast on the Morning Tram? I wrote that,” he says with a tremor in his voice, as if all that was more important than the Booker Prize. In a way, it’s his revenge – and he won’t stop there. It is so heady to play on words.
This piece was written in May, 2010.
Excerpted with permission from Literary Miniatures, Florence Noiville, translated from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan, Seagull Books.