Music and Ambition

NOCTURNES by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s most recent offering, 2009’s NOCTURNES, certainly whet my appetite for more from the author.  In fact, midway through reading these “Five Stories of Music and Nightfall” I placed a hold at the library on his Booker Prizewinner THE REMAINS OF THE DAY, which I can’t wait to pick up.  Aside from the content of the stories, Ishiguro’s writing style is a pleasure to read.  Each word feels as if it were artfully placed to make the perfect connection with the reader.  More than once I moved my eyes away from the page impressed with the poignancy of what I’d just read.

The title of this review, “Music and Ambition,” is an allusion to what I found to be the third major theme of the collection, the first two being the aforementioned music and nightfall.  First, music.  Each story presents a first-person narrator and protagonist–sometimes one and the same–whose lives are deeply entrenched with the playing of music.  This innate ability to conjure and articulate emotions allowed the characters to express themselves with greater than average acumen.

Nightfall, too, plays a pivotal part in each of the stories.  Most memorable for me was the role of night in the collection’s opener, “Crooner.”  In “Crooner,” an aging American standard singer, Tony Gardner, serenades the love of his life, and soon to be ex-wife, cloaked in the night.  The cover of night creates a cocoon for Tony, allowing him to bare his soul in what should be a devastating moment for him.  The absence of daylight appears throughout the collection, allowing the characters to come to realizations they would not be able to process otherwise.

Finally, there is ambition.  Each protagonist is faced with a critical decision involving the advancement of his/her ambition, whatever that ambtion may be.  In “Crooner” it is surely Tony’s belief that his career can make a comeback, a temptation powerful enough to convinve himself to leave his beloved wife for a much younger, more attention-getting, woman.  Lindy Gardner, the aftorementioned ex-wife, however is understanding of her husband’s need to advance himself.  In “Nocturne,” Lindy Gardner re-appears, newly divorced and post-op from plastic surgery.  She expresses the power of the desire to rise above mere daily contentedness, to elevate beyond the “public,” to her hapless companion.

My favorite story of the collection was the second, “Come Rain or Come Shine.”  In it, middle-aged Ray, not a monetarily successful man, but someone spiritually satisfied with the turns his life has taken, journeys back to his hometown of London to spend a holiday with old friends from college.  He finds them in metaphysical shambles, their marriage on the precipice of failure.  The crux of the issue, Ray comes to find, concerns wife Emily’s lifelong ambitious idealism unrealized in her husband.  There is a powerful passage in which Emily is able to relate her predicament.  She says:

You know Raymond, you’re at a party, at a dance.  And maybe it’s a slow dance, and you’re with the person you really want to be with, and the rest of the room’s supposed to vanish.  But somehow it doesn’t.  It just doesn’t.  You know there’s no one half as nice as the guy in your arms.  And yet… well, there are all these people everywhere else in the room….And so it gets hopeless, you can’t just dance quietly with your guy.

I really loved NOCTURNES. It is a quick read, but a thoughtful one, too. I am certain that music lovers, book lovers and everyone in between will find something to love in this collection.

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One response to “Music and Ambition

  1. Pingback: ‘When We Were Orphans’ by Kazuo Ishiguro « The Afterword

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