The short story is an undervalued fictional form. With more writers dabbling in it, Brian Donaldson wonders if Kazuo Ishiguro can take it further
It’s a well-worn belief within literary circles that knocking out a short story collection is a sure-fire way to financial ruin. They just don’t sell well. Never have and probably never will. Yet many of literature’s towering figures have dabbled in the short story form (Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, Herman Melville, Nikolai Gogol) while some have been mainly associated with them: Raymond Carver and Jorge Luis Borges for two. These days, short stories are often viewed as a taster to an author’s work. Jhumpa Lahiri believes readers see them as a ‘chocolate box’ that pales into insignificance beside the real meat of a sprawling novel, while San Francisco literary agent Nathan Bransford advises writers to get short stories published in a magazine or journal as agents simply won’t touch them.
Yet something seems to be shifting on the short story front. On the surface, it appears that more writers have been indulging in the form with the acclaimed likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Lasdun and Wells Tower all being featured on these pages this year with collections and now Nagasaki-born, Guildford-raised Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro has popped up with a new set called Nocturnes. Subtitled ‘Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’, this book marks Ishiguro’s return to the theme of music he previously tackled with The Unconsoled (whose suffering pianist haunts the plot) and Never Let Me Go (with its image of a lone woman dancing to a beloved piece of music).
This handful of tales features a series of recurring motifs and near-identical scenarios as a couple (often middle-aged) appear to be on the verge of breaking up and enlisting a stranger to either facilitate their split or help salvage the relationship. So, in ‘Crooner’ a fading singer hires a local Venice musician to assist in his serenading of a wife he no longer wants while in ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ a pair who are drifting apart drag an old friend back into their lives to try and save the day.
Keeping it simple has been Ishiguro’s mantra ever since shooting to fame with Remains of the Day and there is little clutter getting in the way of understanding this quintet. If you’re cruel, you could describe all of this as artless. If you want to be crueller, you might wish to echo the words of critic James Wood when he dubbed 1995’s The Unconsoled as having ‘invented its own category of badness’. None of which is to say that Ishiguro can’t knock out a compelling short story and with the book’s final piece, ‘Cellists’, he checks out with a sense of loss which struggles to leave the reader for days afterwards. Indeed, his unfussy approach is arguably the ideal method to quickly getting to the heart of a short tale’s matter. Unfortunately, Nocturnes fails at one of the genre’s most obvious impediments. Getting a short story right is an underrated craft with readers caring deeply about people and situations they’ve only just encountered. But getting things wrong and rendering it irrelevant is almost too easy. With Kazuo Ishiguro’s flat prose and often incredibly docile creations, he all too often lands in the latter camp.
Nocturnes is published by Faber on Thu 7 May.