This week a new book, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2009 Nocturnes, originally published in Britain and then by American publisher Knopf in the same year. It is dedicated to Deborah Rogers, Ishiguro’s long time literary agent.
Nocturnes is a collection of five stories that Ishiguro himself has said were conceived of as a whole, like a piece of music with five movements. It is not a short story collection, as, to Ishiguro, a short story is complete unto itself, and these tales are not. Indeed, each story in Nocturnes has to do both with music and the close of the day but they each have different emotional registers. There is considerable humor. Two of the stories share a character, all five are told by a first-person narrator, who, as we shall see, is in each case, charmingly unreliable. On the surface, perhaps during a cursory read, the book may seem simple, almost banal, but I believe a closer examination reveals exceptional insight into we humans.
The first section is entitled Crooner and is narrated by a young man named Jan who plays guitar in various café bands around Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. His narrative voice is casual, folksy; it’s difficult to give a sense of it without quoting long sections of the text, but I’ll try to give a briefer taste. “We’d completed our first full week outside in the piazza—a relief, let me tell you…” “I guess it showed in our music.” “But here I am talking like I’m a regular band member.” “Anyway there we were…”
What I’m trying to convey is that Jan has a particular voice which is not the implied author’s voice. He’s a character narrator; he’s young and naïve. The story is told entirely through his perspective, but in a sense, it is given to him by the implied author who reserves a position of omniscience so that we the readers experience more than what Jan tells us. It wants the reader to read the story through the consciousness of a somewhat naïve young man. The story is more than this narration.
What we learn is that Jan grew up in an Eastern European country, probably Poland. He was raised by a single mother whose favorite singer was American Tony Gardner. We learn that Jan’s mother is dead, but Jan is matter of fact about his life, expressing minimal regret or sadness. It’s difficult to tell from his narration how he feels about his life and his past.
He randomly meets Tony Gardner who’s visiting Venice with his wife Lindy. This random coincidence—Tony Gardner sitting at a table where Jan can see him—provides the inciting incident for the story. It would be a different story if Jan had sought Tony Gardner out. As it is, the man who was Jan’s mother’s favorite singer “happens” to appear in Venice where Jan is working as a musician.
Jan approaches Tony in the matter of a fan, and he and Tony talk in a friendly way. Tony’s wife, Lindy, joins them briefly. Jan observes some tension between the couple, Tony seems angry, but he and Lindy make up. After Lindy leaves, Tony has a proposition. He’d like to serenade her from one of the gondolas, with Jan accompanying him on guitar.
At this point, the reader is being told a story by the narrator about something that happened to him. The reader may begin to form questions and theories about what may be going on beyond the level of narration. Specifically, is the implied author conspiring with the reader against Jan? Using him somehow, setting him up in a way that the reader may be able to grasp. What are Tony Gardner’s motives for this serenade business? It does not seem like he is being transparent with Jan. He says that he and Lindy are visiting Venice for a special trip, and that he wants to do something romantic to please her. Is this the truth or is there more?
Jan is also curious.
“It’s your anniversary, Mr. Gardner?”
“Anniversary?” He looked startled.
…then he laughed, a big booming laugh, and suddenly I remembered this particular song my mother used to play all the time where he does a talking passage in the middle of the song, something about not caring that this woman left him, and he does this sardonic laugh. Now the same laugh was booming across the square.”
This is an interesting foreshadowing of what occurs, although Jan merely reports his association without making meaning of it.
Jan is delighted at being asked to accompany Tony Gardner.
“You can probably imagine, this was like a dream come true. And besides, it seemed such a sweet idea, this couple—he in his sixties, she in her fifties—behaving like teenagers in love. In fact, it was so sweet an idea it almost, but not quite, made me forget the scene I’d 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.”
An interesting comment. Jan is referring to the moment of tension he witnessed between Tony and Lindy. He says the idea of the serenade almost but not quite made him forget it (as this story is past tense—Jan is remembering what happened) and that deep down, he knew that things wouldn’t be so straightforward. This passage accomplishes more than one thing. It cues the reader that the tension between the couple is significant and that, in the narrator’s opinion as well, things are not what they appear to be—although we don’t know if he is “reading” things accurately.
Jan reminds me strongly of another Ishiguro character, Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day—a story we have looked at in the past. Mr. Stevens tends to underread his motives, that is, he does not consciously know or is unable to admit to himself what his feelings are. This is in contrast to underreporting where a narrator doesn’t admit what both he and the reader know about his emotions. For Mr. Stevens, the result of this is that he denies his feelings and misinterprets other characters’ actions.
Does Jan underread or underreport? Is he truly naïve or holding back on what he thinks?
Jan and Tony Gardner set out in a gondola that night. They agree on the songs they will perform and then Jan wonders what he’s getting himself into. “To be honest, I was now beginning to wonder…what this whole serenade thing was about. And these were Americans, after all. For all I knew, when Mr. Gardner started singing, Mrs. Gardner would come to the window with a gun and fire down at us.”
Tony tells Jan about his wife, how they met, the way that Lindy prepared herself carefully to meet and marry a famous man. He expresses some sadness and Jan says, “Mr. Gardner, it’s none of my business, I know. But I can see maybe things haven’t been so good between you and Mrs. Gardner lately.” He goes on to tell Tony about how his mother would get sad over a failed romance and then cheer herself up by listening to his recordings. “And Mrs. Gardner will hear us and who knows? Maybe things will start going fine between you again. Every couple goes through difficult times.”
This is a bit of a leap for Jan, in that Tony Gardner hasn’t said directly that the marriage is troubled. Perhaps this, along with the association to his mother, is evidence of Jan’s sensitivity.
The duo arrives at Mrs. Gardner’s window and Tony sings. Eventually they hear sobbing from Lindy’s open window. (Windows and doors recur in all five stories). “We did it, Mr. Gardner!” I whispered. “We did it. We got her by the heart.”
But Tony doesn’t seem pleased and tells the gondolier to move them away. Jan feels mad at being left out of what’s going on—he’s being treated like the hired musician, the hired help, which is a major theme throughout all of Ishiguro’s work—the loyal servant toiling for an employer who treats her/him as less than human.
Eventually they dock but remain sitting in the boat. Jan politely asks why Lindy was crying—was she moved by the songs or upset about something more? Tony tells him that she was crying because the couple will separate after this trip. Jan expresses dismay, and Tony explains that while they still love each other, Tony is trying to get his career going again and simply needs a younger wife. And he wants them to split up now while Lindy is still young enough to re-marry.
I think Jan is underreading. Tony Gardner makes him remember his mother, how she would have sad love affairs and console herself by listening to Tony’s records. “She needs to get out before it’s too late,” Tony says of Lindy. Jan responds: I don’t know what I would have said to that, but then he caught me by surprise, saying: “Your mother. I guess she never got out…I don’t want that to happen to my Lindy…I want Lindy to get out.”
Tony says he’ll try to come by to see Jan play again, but never does.
Hmmm. I think we have to stop today. We’ll pick up next week on Jan and Tony’s story.