Kazuo Ishiguro’s characters often say things “with a laugh”, or laugh instead of saying things. Most of the time this laughter is used to register awkwardness or to ward it off, to be polite or
encouraging, to enervate or unnerve. In The Unconsoled, the fourth of Ishiguro’s six novels, a famous pianist named Ryder arrives in a European town whose inhabitants are in a state of almost continual mirthless laughter.
Ryder encounters Hoffman, a hotel manager with family problems, who “seemed about to say something else, but then stopped himself, gave a laugh and hit me lightly on the shoulder”, and there are similar emissions throughout this novel and the others. They suggest not only desperation and despair, but also a lack, or loss, of proportion and perspective, indicating that despite the politeness and the hush, things are actually a little off-kilter in Ishiguro’s world.
At one end of the spectrum of denial, there is counterfeit laughter, which Ishiguro’s narrators rarely recoil from and often partake in; at the other, justified tears, which they take great pains to suppress, and respond to with bewilderment bordering on revulsion.
In his best-known novel, The Remains of the Day, the butler Stevens recalls the morning on which the housekeeper informed him of the death of her aunt. Stevens excuses himself, realises almost immediately that he has forgotten to offer his condolences, but decides that it is already too late, reflecting that “it was not impossible that Miss Kenton, at that very moment, and only a few feet away from me, was actually crying”.
This attitude is shared by Kathy H, the narrator of Never Let Me Go, a novel about clones written almost entirely in euphemism and innuendo: “I was upset, no doubt about it, though I don’t know if I actually cried.” In the novel’s penultimate sentence, as she recalls weeping for the death of her best friends, she assures the reader: “I wasn’t sobbing or out of control.”
The author’s interest in acts of emotional absenteeism is usually explained, and explained away, as an interest in particular national cultures: that of Japan in his first two novels (A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World), England in the rest.
But this is not how things work in his fiction.
Theme pushes plot around. Period and setting are treated almost as bureaucratic requirements, obstacles in the way of the universal. Ishiguro has expressed the belief, when discussing The Remains of the Day, that “we are all in some sense butlers, at an ethical and political level”.
Novelists don’t usually say things like that. Tolstoy would scarcely have said, of Levin in Anna Karenina, that we are all, in some sense, aristocratic landowners with intellectual pretensions and an obsession with farming. He would have been content for the character to be himself, and only a little more.
Increasingly, Ishiguro has specialised in a kind of surreal allegory, in which the devices of surrealism – broadly, anything that disorientates – are relieved of their traditional satirical duties and put to symbolic use.
The effect is to give renewed power and unfamiliarity to, for example, the human acceptance of mortality (Never Let Me Go). This emphasis on estrangement can be traced back to The Unconsoled, a novel which resulted from a conscious desire on Ishiguro’s part to introduce new risk and mischief into his work.
In many ways, it resembles his other novels – it has a narrator who is also the protagonist; it concerns a present reckoning with past events; it is written very sparely, without adverbial or adjectival fuss, in a tone that makes no concession to melodrama.
But it differs quite significantly in taking the form of a 500-page anxiety dream about modern music, civic policy and football.
The precedents for this extraordinary novel were set by Kafka and Beckett, and though Ishiguro has often denied their influence, he isn’t fooling too many people.
His first published story was called “Waiting for J”. Kathy H, the “carer” nearing “retirement” in Never Let Me Go, is 31 years old, the same age as Joseph K in The Trial. Ishiguro’s use of incongruous laughter recalls both writers, especially Beckett, who as well as giving Nagg in Endgame a “high forced laugh” and Henry in Embers “a long horrible laugh”, gave Winnie in Happy Days a smile that looks as if it would “culminate in laugh” but is suddenly “replaced by expression of anxiety”.
And the Ishiguro who made up most of the details about butlering in The Remains of the Day and some of the details about Shanghai in When We Were Orphans is surely not all that different from the Kafka who wrote a short-story cycle set in China and a novel set in America, despite having travelled no further from his native Prague than France and northern Italy.
Certainly the resemblance is not always obvious.
Ishiguro’s monologues are closer to The End of the Affair or even Brideshead Revisited than Krapp’s Last Tape. With the exception of Ryder, who suffers three days of dashed hopes and bewilderment, all of the narrators are looking back on their lives as if from after them.
Stevens may insist that he will try to “make the most of what remains of my day”, and other narrators make similar declarations of resolve, but they clearly protest too much. These characters have retired from life to become memoirists, enjoying the advantages of retrospective construal, but reinhabiting their earlier ignorance for the sake of the reader, who is baited with allusions to future events, some of them tantalising (“one incident from the Thirties that has been blown up out of all proportion”), others comically mundane (“the time Tommy got the gash on his elbow”).
Even hindsight has its blind spots, though, and the narrators are repeatedly drawn to those moments and actions that remain inscrutable even under the lamplight glare of memory.
Ishiguro is an exacting and ambitious writer, whose novels resemble refined versions of their predecessors.
Nocturnes is not an improvement on Never Let Me Go, however. Indeed it is the kind of book one might expect from a writer recovering from a masterpiece – a diffident, even bashful collection of stories that frequently seems to be apologising for itself.
There are two partial exceptions to this – “Nocturne”, about a struggling saxophonist who has plastic surgery to improve his career, combines Ishiguro’s customary brand of defeated comedy with American hardboiled world-weariness; “Come Rain or Come Shine”, in which a sadsack language teacher is called to London under false pretences, reveals the unlikely but appealing figure of Ishiguro the farceur.
Otherwise, the stories have the same pallor and self-cancelling pointlessness as those in Borges’s late collection Dr Brodie’s Report – the difference being that whereas Borges offered his book as a conscious exercise in predictable plainness from an author known for trickery and surprise, Ishiguro is resisting his strengths to no obvious purpose.
Borges wisely retained some of his resistance to realism; the stories contained errors, he confessed, that would rankle the “trivia police”.
Ishiguro surrenders too much. It has long been a point of principle in his work to make up as much as possible.
When Ryder goes to the cinema in The Unconsoled, he sees a version of 2001 starring Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner; his references to modern music include Mullery’s Verticalities and Kazan’s Grotesqueries for Cello and Three Flutes.
It is rather a different set-up in the new book. There are references to a number of real composers, singers and musicians, as well as to Meg Ryan and Bang & Olufsen and “Philip Bloody Roth”, which amply justify Ishiguro’s previous resistance to doing this.
When, elsewhere in the book, he reverts to fabricated figures or makes a point of withholding place names - “a university campus in the south of England”, “this city of ours” – it seems like bloody-mindedness, or a grab for mystique.
These opposing approaches can be juxtaposed to good effect, as when a dazed Ryder spots a tourist reading Newsweek, but the merely proximate relationship they have here only serves to expose the frailties of both.
Despite the title, Nocturnes is not especially concerned with, or inspired by, music and musical form. It does not belong to the small but lively genre of musicological fiction that includes Tolstoy’s novella “The Kreutzer Sonata”, Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony, and Milan Kundera’s “novel in variations” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
This is not a case of false packaging.
Music, variously represented as private passion and public spectacle, work and play, features in all of the stories, but often as backdrop or springboard. They are more strongly connected by the subject of marital discord – which would seem to be promising material for Ishiguro, whose pet themes are the impossibility of perfection and the inevitability of regret, and whose fiction has returned repeatedly to the idea of the marriage of convenience where the love comes later, or not at all.
But his habits are far more comfortably accommodated by the short novel than the short story. It seems almost wasteful for him to create idiosyncratic yet coherent voices, only to silence them after 20 or 30 pages, and this length is insufficient anyway, since it allows him to establish a patina, but not to insinuate what it might be concealing.
Such problems are only exacerbated by Ishiguro’s attempts to write the kind of Russian tale that found its ideal English – or Irish – form, and perfect title, in James Joyce’s “An Encounter”.
Ishiguro is attempting to reconcile wonderment and wistfulness, but he fails because – again – the relationship is a merely proximate one. The narrator seems to be saying, “I never was the same after that summer . . .” but ends up saying “It’s a funny old world”.
The final story, “Cellists”, is even guiltier in this regard. It concerns Tibor, a Hungarian cellist who embarks on a strange, unacknowledged courtship with an American woman. The tale is told by a former colleague of Tibor who spots him in the audience as he plays The Godfather theme tune in a piazza in an unnamed city. The relationship between Tibor and the American ends with a revelation that ought to change everything but doesn’t, and the story ends with the narrator musing in the present day:
I would have gone over and talked with him, but by the end of our set he’d already gone. For all I know, he was here only for the afternoon. He was wearing a suit – nothing very grand, just a regular one – so perhaps he has a day job now behind a desk somewhere. Maybe he had some business to do nearby and came through our city just for old times’ sake, who knows? If he comes back to the square, and I’m not playing, I’ll go over and have a word with him.
Ishiguro has become very accomplished at conjuring this mood of gentle regret, but here the situation does not justify it; the mood is conjured by words like “would” and “maybe” and “perhaps” and “if”, rather than Tibor’s feelings for the American woman, or the narrator’s feelings for Tibor.
It is sadly typical of Ishiguro’s tendencies in this book, and an indication of how far it is from his best work, that the tale of a love-that-might-have-been ends not with a laugh that conceals despair or a tear that couldn’t be suppressed, but a shrug that is just a shrug.
Leo Robson is the New Stateman's new lead fiction reviewer
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
Faber & Faber, 240pp, £14.99