THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Five uneasy pieces amid a twilight world

By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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Kazuo Ishiguro writes at the verge where dreams, in all their brightness and fragile logic, are turning into nightmare. In “The Remains of the Day,’’ a crepuscular shadow lies just out of sight of the butler’s engaging if melancholy storytelling. Hovering for a while at the edges of “Never Let Me Go,’’ a futuristic horror surges suddenly into the ease of a privileged British boarding school.

“Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’’ is the subtitle of “Nocturnes,’’ Ishiguro’s first collection of short pieces. Music, mainly pop (the writer is a devotee and amateur practitioner), provides the common plot link. But nightfall is the deeper connection.

The musicians (or a pop-music lover in one of the stories) are failures of one sort or another: second-raters, has-beens, obscure strugglers. Music is art, and redeems; even as life - the halfway reach of an artist’s talent, the remote chances of worldly success, the compromises needed just to survive - curdles.

Ishiguro, whose complex ambiguity is his form of affirmation, simultaneously shatters and restores characters. He reduces them to dust but, as in the Spanish poet Francisco Quevedo’s sonnet, it is “enamored dust.’’ No consolation there, for them or us.

The protagonist of “Malvern Hills’’ is a young songwriter who looks for a rock band to join but is rebuffed because the bands prefer “safe’’ covers and don’t want to be saddled with original material. Unabashed, he retreats to his married sister’s country café where he helps out while working up a batch of new songs.

Soon there is friction: The brother-in-law resents his taking time off from duties to compose. Here, as in the commercial bent of the rock bands, “real life’’ has no patience for art’s explorations.

Easy enough, but Ishiguro is never easy. Two Swiss hikers come upon the young man practicing one of his songs. They are entranced; their praise takes on value when they disclose that they too are musicians. Hacks, though; they make a living traveling around Europe playing standards at weddings.

Life has curdled, then, in a story that surmounts a certain didactic simplicity with its unexpectably moving glimpse of the two failed artists. At the end - Ishiguro’s endings end nothing - the young man goes back to working on his music; neither heroic nor defiant but simply because it is what he does.

“Nocturne’’ sets out similar alternatives in a far more elaborate way. Here it is the protagonist who settles for hackery. A brilliant jazz saxophonist, he makes his living doing movie music and occasional backup gigs, and exercises his real art only in private.

His agent and his ex-wife convince him that the only bar to a triumphant jazz career is his mediocre looks; they arrange plastic reconstruction by a surgeon favored by Hollywood’s stars. From a dubious premise Ishiguro advances into the kind of surreal grotesquerie that mars his weakest book, “The Unconsoled.’’

His face bandaged, the saxophonist finds himself secluded in a luxury hotel next door to a similarly bandaged woman TV celebrity. At night the two of them patrol the hotel corridors, battling out a kind of art vs. success psychodrama.

Much simpler, and far more suggestive, is the exquisite “Crooner.’’ An aging singer of ballads, his popularity fading, hires a young café guitarist in Venice to accompany him on a nighttime gondola ride to his palazzo. Gently rocking in the canal, they serenade his wife, who briefly appears at the window.

Bittersweet is too simple for the many implications of a story that is both comedy and elegy. For the awed guitarist, the former star stands as the master of his art; for the crooner himself, merely the resigned victim of decaying fashion - and also, it turns out, a decaying marriage.

Part space visitor in his odd remove and vision, part our brother in knowing us better than we know ourselves, Ishiguro possesses a muted comic vein. In “Come Rain or Shine,’’ the comedy is masterful slapstick.

Its theme is essentially the life/art struggle of the other stories. At college Ray and Emily were joined in their passion for the great jazz and blues singers. Afterward Ray drifts among the footloose fellowship that teaches English abroad. Emily is an ambitious achiever, married to the equally ambitious Charles. Both patronize Ray as a failure.

Then, about to leave on a trip after a bitter quarrel, Charles asks Ray to stay with Emily in hopes their friend’s supine hopelessness will provide her an alternate target. For reasons too wackily complex to spell out here, Ray, without quite meaning to, smashes up the apartment while she is at work. It is Kingsley Amis’s Lord Jim, hapless and hilarious, blundering among the Marx brothers.

Yet when Emily returns, no explosion. Instead they dance to a Peggy Lee song. Life has curdled itself past the point of destruction; art creeps back among the ruins.

Richard Eder writes reviews for several publications.

NOCTURNES: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Knopf, 240 pp., $25

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