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from saturday's books section

I think Kazuo Ishiguro is a great novelist, maybe the best of our generation. By which I mean, I think he embodies an ideal, an approach to fiction that is deceptive: calm on the surface and treacherous beneath. He writes about dark and strange things, but his prose is always relaxed, friendly and on the side of the reader. His best novels ( Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, Pale View of the Hills ) stay with you long after the reading, in part because it never feels as if Ishiguro were straining to tell you something important, even when the work is overtly political. Instead, one feels a mysterious undercurrent, an emotion or idea that becomes stronger and stronger as one reads.

My own favourite of his books is The Unconsoled, a long, bizarre dream narrative that is pure undercurrent, and unlike anything else I've read. Nocturnes, which I don't think is among his best, shares some qualities with The Unconsoled, but it's missing that book's sense of threat. Nocturnes is lighter, in some ways more entertaining, an amusing read, at times very funny, but it feels a little inconsequential as well, a left-hand exercise.

  • Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Knopf Canada, 221 pages, $29.95

The book's full title is Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall. And the book is just that: a collection of stories evocative of music and of nightfall. A "nocturne" is usually a piece of music evocative of night, not nightfall, but "nightfall" is right. The stories are about slipping from one state to another. They are stories of passage: from past to present, from amateur to professional, from professional to forgotten. The relationships in the book are almost always on the verge of something and we're not quite sure where they'll lead.

I suppose the best way to give a sense of this is to give an account of the stories, so... In Nocturnes ' first story, Crooner, a young musician meets an older and once very popular singer whom he has long admired. The "crooner," an American Tony Bennett-like figure, asks the younger man to accompany him on guitar as he sings for his wife. Until the end of the story, we're not quite sure what the older man really wants from the younger.

In the second story, Come Rain or Come Shine, one of the funniest I've read in some time (imagine Wodehouse on psilocybin), music is the link between old friends from university who have reached a crucial moment in their lives, the moment when each feels the weight of the decisions they have made in life and are aware of death.

The third story, Malvern Hills, is a kind of restatement, in another key, so to speak, of the previous two. A young songwriter who has not had much success meets two older, German musicians who have spent their lives playing for money. There is a sadness, as well as joy, in their recognition of the young man's talent.

The title story is next, and in it a character from Crooner reappears. She is in a hospital having plastic surgery. Here she meets a saxophonist (the story's narrator) who is extremely talented but bitter that he has not had the recognition he deserves.

Finally, Cellist is about the encounter of a talented, professional cellist and a woman who calls herself a "virtuoso," though she is one in a very peculiar sense only.

That will give some sense of the collection's thematic unity, but of course there's much more to say about what Ishiguro has done. The book is full of echoes. Characters and situations come back, emotions, places and voices do as well. (Reading the beginning of the last story, I thought I was rereading the first.)

All five stories are first-person retellings of encounters, and there's little to distinguish the narrators' voices. This isn't to say Ishiguro doesn't do voices well. He does. One can hear the American or Eastern European accents. But there's a sameness of approach that helps with the echoes but slightly damages the collection, I think.

Then, there are the emotional links. Sadness, regret, a sense of loss. These feelings permeate the stories. There's no grief here, but there is a real sense of time's passage and each story has an implicit question to it: How does one deal with disappointment and what is one to do with talent, that somewhat poisoned gift?

I think it's safe to say that music, both as an art and as a phenomenon, is the inspiration behind Nocturnes. You could even say the collection is musically organized, but as enchanting as that is, I think it's also safe to say that the stories, as stories, would be less interesting on their own. They are, in some fundamental way, a novelist's stories. Brilliant moments, but slightly formless. Endings peter out, rather than come to essential conclusions. The stories feel like moments taken out of longer narratives. They're not at all complete. At the same time, they create no overriding narrative tension, so they don't hang together as well as, say, Nabokov's Pnin or Gregor von Rezzori's Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, two other narratuives made up of five discrete stories. That's what I mean by "inconsequential." The stories don't quite add up to anything deeper than the incidental pleasures they give.

Is this a fatal flaw? No, I don't think so. There are a number of scenes in Nocturnes that are almost worth the price of admission on their own. Curiously, most of them are scenes that would have fit very well in The Unconsoled - a novel that also deals with a musician: a man boiling a shoe and trying to bite a magazine as a dog would, two people becoming intimate though their faces are wrapped in bandages with holes for mouths and eyes, a man in a gondola singing to his wife, two people listening intently to music they love on first hearing.

In the end, I feel I'm in the odd position of saying negative things about a book I enjoyed. The thing is, of course, that my love for Ishiguro's previous work, his novels, has (along with my quibbles about his story writing) dampened my feelings for Nocturnes. So, if a friend were to ask me how I liked the book, I'd answer: It's good, but have you read Never Let Me Go ? Now that's a great book.

Contributing reviewer André Alexis's most recent book is the novel Asylum.

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