Nocturnes

Five Stories of Music and Nightfall

Kazuo Ishiguro

Alfred A. Knopf: 222 pp., $25

Although Kazuo Ishiguro has spent much of his career writing about small events in the lives of modest people, there is nothing modest about his accomplishments. His immaculate prose is unassuming to the point of near-invisibility, like a lake whose still surface belies the turbulent currents beneath. And he has mastered the art of creating characters whose statements mean more than they say. The butler Stevens from his 1989 novel "The Remains of the Day" is still the paradigmatic Ishiguro figure: the quiet, repressed man who shows a certain interest -- but not too keen an interest -- in those around him, and whose own emotions are considerably more dramatic and unsettled than he realizes.

"Noctures" -- Ishiguro's first collection of short fiction, after half a dozen novels -- offers, as the subtitle puts it, "five stories of music and nightfall." Indeed, four of the five pieces here concern musicians, while the fifth features a couple both united and separated by a shared love of song. Why nightfall, though? The opening story takes place largely at night, and so do parts of the others. But the nightfall Ishiguro has in mind is more metaphorical: the encroachment of the darkness of age, and the dimming of the hopes of youth, set in counterpoint against those whose aspirations still burn brightly -- the young, the foolish, the not-yet-disillusioned.

In "Nocturne," two characters undergo radical plastic surgery to change their faces, one hoping to achieve stardom, the other trying to maintain her grip on the fame that is threatening to abandon her. In "Crooner," a Venetian piazza guitarist gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to accompany Tony Gardner, a Tony Bennett-esque singer whom his mother idolized, in a private performance for Gardner's wife -- a performance that turns out quite differently than the musician expects. And in "Malvern Hills," a young singer-songwriter, entirely convinced of his own talent, encounters a middle-aged couple who have spent their lives living out a version of their, and his, dream.

"As it is, life will bring enough disappointments," the wife in "Malvern Hills" says to the aspiring musician. "If on top, you have such dreams as this . . . . " She means the dream of music, a dream that mixes two irreconcilable elements: the beauty and purity of sound, and the disappointing, sometimes sordid reality of what success requires. In their strivings after success, the characters in these stories accept multiple indignities, sometimes compromising their very identities. They put on ridiculous costumes or sequester themselves in tiny soundproof rooms so they can practice their instruments without disturbing others. They put up with unpleasant and difficult marriages, or walk away from happy ones.

"Nocturnes" could have been subtitled "Five Stories of Nightfall, Music, and Marriage." The unions it depicts are far from ecstatic; several appear to be on the verge of dissolution. In each case, the marriage is observed by an outsider, who usually acts as the story's narrator. These observers have few if any significant attachments: They stand apart not just from the marriages they are observing, but almost from relationships altogether. Not that this shelters them, as Ray, the itinerant teacher who narrates "Come Rain or Come Shine," comes to realize. "Then before you know it," he mourns, "you're forty-seven years old, and the people you started out with have long ago been replaced by a generation who gossip about different things, take different drugs and listen to different music."

In the end, the "dim, airless cubicle" into which one of Ishiguro's characters, a saxophonist, retreats to hone his talent serves as a metaphor for the condition that afflicts nearly everyone in the book: a self-inflicted isolation, a fear of engaging in the perilous enterprise of life. This theme reappears in a surprising way in the memorable concluding story, "Cellists," in which a talented young cellist finds himself receiving instruction from a gifted teacher who, for reasons she will not explain, refuses to play in front of him.

Characters in contemporary fiction often suffer from Multiple Epiphany Disorder. Part of what makes Ishiguro so refreshing is that he leaves the epiphanies to the reader. We emerge feeling as if we have grasped insights that elude the characters, as if we have glimpsed the shapes of their lives and perhaps something significant about life itself. The characters, meanwhile, must be content with the genuine but ephemeral solaces provided by music -- and, if they are lucky, by equally ephemeral connections with other people.

"This was Sarah Vaughan's 1954 version of 'April in Paris,' " Ray observes at the end of "Come Rain or Come Shine," as he dances with a friend who might have been his lover had the world taken a different course. "So I knew it was a long track, at least eight minutes. I felt pleased about that, because I knew after the song ended, we wouldn't dance any more. . . . [F]or another few minutes at least, we were safe." Fame, success and lasting love may evade Ishiguro's characters. But they will always have "April in Paris."

Jollimore is the author of "Tom Thomson in Purgatory," which won a 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry.