The Lion, The Witch and Ishiguro

September 2, 2009 | 4 books mentioned 3 3 min read

Tragically, I had already arrived at the beach by the time my last essay went up (the one about a reading rut, for those of you who don’t keep a scrapbook).  Like a fool, I had packed the William Vollmann, taking up space that could have been used for an economy-size block of cheese or some charming article of lounge wear.  My beach day goes like this: Bud heavies and scads of potato chips. A crab encounter.  Bocce injury, and several restoratives. A sand sandwich, and a sunburn.  In this context, Europe Central was as useful, to use the bewildering colloquialism, as tits on a boar.  Meanwhile, the wonderful suggestions piling up in the comment section of my post mocked me, in my bookless universe.

The beach rental, like a hostel, had a little library–a ragtag gang of abandoned holiday volumes.  I found a Harry Potter, which was cold comfort, but easy to read while napping.  Three hundred pages in, I realized I had already read it.  Cedric’s death left me unmoved, again.  The day before we departed the beach, I found and purloined, a water-swollen copy of A Perfect Spy.  I love John Le Carre.  Whenever I read one of his novels, I spend the whole time feeling as though I missed something crucial, but according to him in this marvelous article, that’s how the actual spies felt too.  I had wasted five jobless days on warmed-over Potter, another week in the rut, While Edan was eating her frittata, I spent my holiday eating stale eggy-sandy from that restaurant with the yellow arches.  Although I did develop the approximation of a tan.

coverWhen I got home, Nocturnes was sitting in my mailbox, a small package representing a great change in my fortunes.  As I began reading, I felt the clouds breaking up above my trench.  Nicole Krauss said a thing about Roberto Bolaño, a thing that I’ve seen so often on his dust jackets that it’s actually started to annoy me (like Updike on Nabokov writing ecstacially): purportedly, Bolaño made her believe “Everything is possible again.”  I’ve made it clear before that a flame burns eternal in my bosom for Roberto Bolaño, but Krauss’ soundbite better describes how I feel about Kazuo Ishiguro.

It is a great thing to be surprised by a novelist.  I don’t mean surprised like you feel surprised when Cedric dies, or when Lydia runs off with Wickham, or Piggy falls off the cliff.  The surprise in a large part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work is that he changes the very quality of the world in some subtle but deeply alarming way; suddenly the sky is a gray shade, your own voice vibrates at a slightly different frequency, and an atonal humming sound wafts on the breeze.  Imagine the Pevensie children entering a wardrobe that led to an ordinary dining room, on another planet.  That’s an Ishiguro Narnia.

covercoverThe ease with which he shifts between the heimlich and unheimlich, within his oeuvre as a whole (say, from Artist of the Floating World to Never Let Me Go), and within a given novel (When We Were Orphans, or The Unconsoled, or here, in Nocturnes), is phenomenal.  Truly, Ishiguro makes me believe in the limitless possibilities of the written word.  And the thing that I love about Kazuo Ishiguro is that, for someone who tampers with the way the world is made, he does not sacrifice the cherished conventions of English prose.  This means that, for me, he does not sacrifice readability.  Anyone can turn things weird when he or she decides that pronouns are unnecessary and the second person singular is preferred.

Nocturnes, comprising five medium-length, loosely-related stories, is not a giant work, but Ishiguro manages to suggest a lot, while saying not a lot.  It is brief and lovely and achy, like smelling a long-forgotten smell, or hearing a snatch of song you recognize (to borrow one of its themes).  Nonetheless, it retains the bizarre quality of which I am so fond.  To me, the world of Nocturnes is not the world; the people, simulacra.

I realized I’ve said about Ishiguro generally, and very little about Nocturnes specifically, but I don’t have much else to say.  Like telling someone else your dream, describing the stories in any detail would be sort of incoherent, and boring.  And I think, had I not been in my reading rut, that I might have felt bereft at the end of the book.  It is short, and while I sometimes confuse length with quality, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that it’s a touch spare.  But, given the listless summer I’ve had, Nocturnes was the perfect thing, a real rut-breaker.  Acting upon me like an exquisite and prudently-sized hors d’oeuvre, it left me, finally, ravenous for reading and anxious to see what else is possible.

I’ve got a John Le Carre to finish.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. I’ve been really excited to read this since I heard it was coming out. I read Never Let Me Go in Paris and the book took me inside the strangest world–I felt its ache and loss all the time, in a good way.

    (And, shame on you for bringing Vollmann to the beach. Are you nuts?)

  2. I’d already had this on my mental wish list, but you’ve moved it up to the top. I agree that one of the pleasures of Ishiguro is that he manages to do new things, to take us to new mental and emotional places, without sacrificing readability. I wouldn’t say he is a conventional writer, but as you say, he still uses conventions. (I think Ian McEwan also does this, and, like Ishiguro, always gives me the sense that he has chosen and placed each word precisely.) And though Ishiguro is spare, he isn’t so elliptical that you can’t be in it with him. He gives a great interview, unsurprisingly.

  3. Lydia, I just finished Nocturnes, and I am sorry to say, I didn’t think much of it. It was a strange reading experience, as the stories were readable and a couple even very funny, but overall none of them made any significant impression on me. I could have been reading some old magazine in a dentist’s office. The prose was simple, but also bland to me–and I didn’t believe all the voices. I started to feel like Ishiguro was playing a trick, or pulling a prank, as if he’d written some blah stories to see how people would react. I’m feeling like I’m the only one who had this experience. I’m mystified by the book, and also, my own feelings about it.

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