Kazuo Ishiguro is an eminent English novelist. Born in Nagasaki (32 degrees North, 129 degrees East) in 1954, he was raised in Britain. This nature-nurture combination equips him with gifts of the Orient and the Occident. He writes wonderful prose, telling stories of great power, drawn from his formidable imagination. His prize-winning novels garner acclaim across the world, achieving translations into over forty languages. Film versions of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are hugely successful.
The reader is drawn into the worlds he creates, thrilled by his deep insights, his pleasure in language, his freshness and his command of character, plot, location and time.
Then the reader buys Nocturnes, a collection of five short stories, and is dismayed by the thinness of the plots, the artless manner in which the characters hover on surfaces rather than inhabit worlds, the trite sentences, the gormless repetitive story devices and the sense that hackneyed old ground is being dug over carelessly. It is as if Kazuo Ishiguro is having an off-day.
The problem for the reader is that critics and reviewers writing in powerful organs of the media laud this collection. It won the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa International Literary Prize. In The Observer, The Times, The Evening Standard, The Financial Times, The Independent, The London Review of Books, The Irish Times and many other newspapers and periodicals, phrases such as 'each story resonates with emotion' draw the reader to the collection. Another reviewer writes 'This is a lovely, clever book about the passage of time.' Kazuo Ishiguro certainly writes lovely, clever books. The reader knows this. But Nocturnes is not one of them.
So what is the reader to do, browsing on Amazon or in a bookshop, considering what to buy? Can the reader be guided by reviewers who write 'Brilliant.....Art, its dangers, its pains and its gaiety are all topics seriously considered in this accomplished book' only to find that, having parted with stg￡7.99 for the Faber and Faber paperback edition, the book is not 'accomplished' but thoroughly underwhelming.
Rather than wondering about the role of the critic today, the reader is left to consider who to trust when it comes to recommending a good book. Past pleasure in the work of a particular writer offers some guidance, but, as with Nocturnes, no guarantee of future pleasure. Word of mouth and personal recommendations offer the reader a more tailored response, but they may mean the reader never experiences new and different work.
'Ishiguro is wise, witty and humane, one of our most accomplished story-tellers' – an utterly true and non-sycophantic statement from a reviewer of Nocturnes. Is there hope for the reader here?
Perhaps a re-working of the last sentence of the final story in the collection, Cellists, offers hope:
If he (Kazuo Ishiguro) comes back to the square, and I'm (the reader) not playing, I'll (the reader) go over and have a word with him (Kazuo Ishiguro).
Back to the novel then Kazuo.
Nocturnes – Five Stories of Music and Nightfall; Kazuo Ishiguro; Faber and Faber; 2009