Kazuo Ishiguro: The writer's musical short-story collection belies his love for warrior tales

Friday 08 May 2009 00:00 BST

So simple on first hearing, so dependent on glitch-free phrasing, timing and delivery, bossa nova can scupper the nimblest songwriters and the tightest bands. For a masterclass in how to do it that the shades of Tom Jobim and Stan Getz might applaud, listen to "I Wish I Could Go Travelling Again" on the jazz singer Stacey Kent's most recent recording, Breakfast on the Morning Tram. Not only do the laid-back vocals and subtly shifting melody (by her saxophonist, arranger – and husband – Jim Tomlinson) craft a shot-silk mood of delicious regret, but the lyrics fix that gently-stirred cocktail blend of wistful longing, sweet-sour nostalgia and a hint of silliness that many standards share: "I want to be awakened by a faulty fire alarm/ In an overpriced hotel devoid of charm/ Then fall asleep back in your arms... I wish I could go travelling again". This guy, who wrote the lyrics for four songs on this album, really knows how words and music ought to match, in harmony but not in unison. The credit? "K Ishiguro".

Placid surfaces, perfect pitch, finely controlled rhythms and a pervasive sense of the secret hope or heartbreak that lingers between everyday lines – the mid-century masterworks of popular song and the fictional tuning that created The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go do seem to fit as snugly as Sammy Cahn's love and marriage.

But Kazuo Ishiguro, whose "terrifically good fun" collaboration with Stacey Kent and Jim Tomlinson will segue into a second album, never contents himself with mere pastiche. Just as the novelist's eerily exact inhabitation of an ageing Japanese artist's sensibility (in An Artist of the Floating World), a butler's shattered world-view (in Remains) or a Golden Age detective's deluded mindset (in When We Were Orphans) far surpassed mere facsimiles, so his take on the classical style of Broadway always aims to make it new.

"Partly because I've been doing this myself, I am quite interested in the question of how you create a modern jazz song," he says, a writer (now 54) as trim, ageless and accessible as the music he loves, clad in his never-changing black and still happily at home in suburban Golders Green. "When you come to the words in songs, because you have so few, and because there's such an intimate relationship between the words and the music, you have to allow a lot of the emotion and the meaning to fall between the lines".

"I think we've got the distance now from those Broadway songs for people to think of them as a kind of genre," he says. "When I was young they were still too much in the mainstream – the songs that our parents listened to." He can now go back to "the great American singers from the Forties and Fifties – Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McCrae, Betty Carter – you hear the music in a different way". Yet, "to be absolutely frank, I do like the modern reinterpretation of those songs."

Yesterday's corn, reworked by a maestro of today, becomes tomorrow's canon. The musician's regenerating skill can put a stamp of immortality on some time-worn ballad or torch-song. In Ishiguro's new book, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (Faber, £14.99), singers and instrumentalists steeped in the tarnished magic of the standard strive to overcome the setbacks that scar their lives, play it again – and play it better. "It's not Ingmar Bergman nightfall," he says of the prevailing twilight mood. "It's more Frank Sinatra nightfall."

For this collection, Ishiguro did not gather a collection of separate stray tales but "sat down and wrote them all in one go as a book", conceived as a set. "I'm still a pre-iPod person. I think of contemporary music in terms of albums. So it felt very natural to me, that concept of things that were discrete but were supposed to go together – and were more than the sum of their parts."

Although the resilient "jobbing musicians" we meet range from a young classical cellist with a mysterious teacher ("Cellists") to a wannabe Nick Drake ("Malvern Hills"), Broadway melodies haunt the volume. In "Crooner", an out-of-fashion smoothie serenades his soon-to-be-ex-wife from a gondola in Venice with "One For My Baby". In the title story, a sax player, bandage-swaddled after the plastic surgery that might rescue his stalled career, gives his trademark recording of "The Nearness of You" to the anxious chat-show diva recovering in the next suite.

"A lot of the songs these people play are from the great American songbook," Ishiguro comments about his tales of tricky transitions ("the bridge passage," as one narrator says). "The titles speak for themselves," he adds. "'It Was Just One of Those Things'; 'One For My Baby, One For The Road'. It's trying to bring perspective to a moment where the singer feels like the world has come to an end".

In truth, he continues: "We're on a rather romantic American highway, and this is just one of those things that happen by the side of the road. You take a drink, you have an uplifting bittersweet conversation with the bartender, you get back on the highway and you carry on."

Music has always meant a lot to "Ish". Before the idea of fiction beckoned, he wrote tangled-up Dylan-esque songs as a teenager in Guildford. Although he name-checks Leonard Cohen (whose Live in London album "reduced me to tears"), Steve Earle and Gillian Welch ("a terrific songwriter and a wonderful performer"), Dylan remains a touchstone. He buys every new album on the day of release in the hope of revelations. From Time out of Mind, he salutes the 15-minute "Highlands": "You think it's very indulgent that he's included such a long, rambling track." But in it a waitress in a diner asks the narrator: "I know you're an artist, draw a picture of me'/ I said, 'I would if I could but I don't do sketches from memory".

For Ishiguro, "It's one of those absolutely astonishing moments" – and one, I realise later, when past and present, experience and reminiscence, slip and blur as uncannily as they do in a certain Booker-winning writer's fictional domain.

Ishiguro is the child of Japanese parents (his father is an oceanographer) who came from Nagasaki to Surrey for a research post when he was five. He studied literature and philosophy at Kent, and worked as a social worker with homeless people for the Cyrenians in Glasgow and London. Via this job he met his wife, Lorna; they have a teenage daughter. After starring on the creative-writing MA course at UEA in Norwich, taught by Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, he published A Pale View of Hills in 1982 and almost immediately became a full-time novelist, focused on his craft and impatient of all distractions.

Ish's "signature sound" (to quote his "jobbing tenor man"in Nocturnes) arrived early and endured, but not without plenty of backstage sweat. "I've been writing for almost three decades now," he jokes, "and by some counts it's rather meagre collection of books to show for it. This is only my seventh volume in all that time." As in jazz, invisible practice makes perfect. "Almost at every stage I have apprentice periods," he says. It's just that no one sees the discarded drafts.

"At every stage, I feel I'm trying to work it out. And every time I feel, 'Phew! I've got away with it'." Mostly, the quality-control unit lies within: "It's usually just me." One other person has a leading part to play in the genesis of the Ishiguro sound. "My relationship with Lorna predates my being any kind of writer. The very first time I tried to write a short story, she was there to look at it.

She still remains a very effective first editor," although, "I never show her work in progress. And then I always listen to her very carefully... Right from the beginning, my writing was built up with her giving me feedback."

Heirs to several crisis-stricken artists in Ishiguro's work (even Stevens the butler took heart-breaking pride in his virtuoso servitude), the musos of Nocturnes stand at that point where chords, and lives, change key. These characters often wrestle with the meanings of success and failure. "Music is often entwined with glamorous careers – but you can indeed just be a guy who plays in a café, or just an aspiring musician". Ishiguro thinks that the title story's sax man "can be seen as something like an archetypal writer, or any artist. It's a classic problem he has: fidelity to his art, but there's a part of him that wants worldly success and recognition for it as well. How far do you go? Is it dishonourable to try to market your art?"

Whether he depicts has-beens, wannabes or never-weres, Ishiguro never stints on his sympathy for the thwarted artist. "If I had to ask, 'Where does it come from?', perhaps it comes from thinking what would have happened to me had I not been allowed to practise my writing... or thinking about myself when I as younger, or looking at a lot of people I know." Some of them "continue to write very diligently, when they've got other jobs and other responsibilities. And they're no longer young. But they don't want to let go of that valuable part of themselves." These friends "must know that it's getting less and less likely they'll be published – or, in some cases, they have published but nothing much has happened. But nevertheless that part of themselves is something that they prize and they feel some duty to... I have a lot of respect for that aspect of people."

This loneliness shadows times of celebrity as much as obscurity, he thinks. And Nocturnes movingly captures the solitude of any craft. As we practise whatever skill we have, how do we know we've got it right? "I think that it is the case – and most writers would probably agree with this – that even if you have lot of acclaim, you always have this private, secret set of criteria going on inside you. And you're always asking, 'Was this quite what I was trying to do?'". This author, remember, doggedly veered off, after The Remains of the Day had conquered not only prize juries, bestseller lists but – thanks to Merchant-Ivory – Hollywood as well, into the surreal detour of The Unconsoled. He remarks that: "If you're sensible, you distrust even what seems to be a universally held view at a given point in your career. It's almost beside the point at times."

Always jealous of his writing time, Ishiguro will not go on the road to flog Nocturnes. Another larger-scale novel waits on his desk, "a bit odder" than this book. And he hankers to return to an set-aside novella about – of all things – England at the dawn off the Anglo-Saxon age: "the point when these people have been abandoned by the Romans". But surely, I suggest, he, of all writers must be tempted by another backdrop for stirring warrior yarns? "I love samurai movies," he acknowledges, "and I guess I feel some of that in my bones, or something. I come from samurai families on both sides. We have ceremonial swords and things that have passed down. But it's also just as a genre – I rather like Westerns too."

From stranded café orchestras as the summer fades to the early-medieval clash of arms, Ishiguro's uniquely haunting tone can evidently embrace a vast array of themes. But we can be sure that his sword-brandishing Dark Age hero will pause to ponder at a crossroads on the passage of time, the frailty of skill and the pain of memory. "There's nothing conclusive," Ishiguro says, as he recalls one of his "mentor" Chekhov's tales, "Ionich". "But you know that you've just gone past a crucial turning-point in this man's life. You can speculate about how he might go from there. I love stories like that."

'Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall' is published by Faber at £14.99

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