Kazuo Ishiguro (2010) Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall.

I’m not a fan of Kazou Ishiguro. I know he’s won the Nobel Prize in Literature and that says something about me, as if I’m lacking in something. And I am.

The Remains of the Day. Universally lauded. This more than any other book got Ishiguro his major prize. It was also like Never Let Me Go made into a film. Here’s the thing, I liked the films better than the books and I didn’t like the films much either.

Art for Art’s Sake. You know the cracked Greek Urn  (there’s a style for fixing these kinds of things in Japan that adds more value than the original, but I can’t remember what it’s called). I guess that’s the theme of these short stories. The first and last stories in the collection are best. Nocturne isn’t too bad.

Let me tell you about Come Rain or Come Shine and Malvern Hills. In the former book, I open a random page (if there is such a thing):

‘You know Ray, there’s only so much other people can suggest to you. After a certain point you’ve got to take charge of your life.’

Ray had been buddies with Charles, who was married to Emily. Both are successful, but feel like failures. Charles wants Ray to save their marriage. He travels to London. Ray and Emily had at college shared a common taste in music, which bound them together. But he sees in her diary, she’s written about the arrival of the ‘whinger’ and he has inadvertently ripped the page out.

On the back cover, a quote from the Observer: ‘Each of these stories is heartbreaking in its own way, but some have moments of great comedy…’

Here’s the side-splitting, slapstick. Charles tells Ray to cook up an old boot and some other ingredients he and his friend made up when they were at school—to subliminally suggest the smell of damp dog. Ray could then blame the diary being ripped on the dog owner, whose dog is let loose in the flat and creates chaos (it once chewed a coffee-table book). Side-splitting?  I nearly peed myself and blamed the cat.

Malvern Hills. Here’s the sketch. All of the stories are told in first-person narrator.

‘I’d spent the Spring in London, and all in all, even if I hadn’t achieved everything I’d set out to, it had been an exciting interlude.’

He goes to stay with his sister, Maggie, in Malvern Hills to write more songs and polish those already written. He’s left university to be a troubadour. A common theme in each of these stories. One I’m overly familiar with, being a would-be writer (Art for Art’s Sake). His sister and her husband Geoff have a hotel. They can’t afford to pay the narrator, but he gets free room and board for helping out.

He meets an old school teacher, ‘Hag Fraser’. He felt she’d belittled him in sixth form and hadn’t spotted his potential. Indeed she’d worked to bring him down. Now she was in the shit and her husband had left her for a younger woman and she was forced to open her house as a bed-and-breakfast. It cheered him up it was failing, she was failing. He plays a cruel trick on the two ‘Kraut tourists’, Tilo and Sonja, and sends them to ‘Hag Fraser’s, when they tell him they’re looking for somewhere to stay. Ha, bloody ha.

Here we have it. I never got to sixth form. We left school in fourth year to work or sign on the dole. Often the latter. The Krauts turn out to be two fellow musicians that praise his work. He feels guilty about sending them to Hag Fraser’s. He felt guilty about leaving his sister Maggie, ‘holding the fort’, while he was away creating. Clichéd yawn.

Tilo is the super optimist, Sonja the pessimist. They are cardboard characters. But even cardboard characters can have their say, can be truth-teller:

‘If Tilo was here,’ she said. ‘he would say to you, never be discouraged. He would say, of course, you must go to London and try and form your band. Of course you will be successful. That is what Tilo would say to you because that is his way.

And what would you say?

I would like to say the same. Because you are young and talented. But I am not so certain. As it is, life will bring enough disappointments.’

I am not so certain either. In Nocturne, the narrator is a saxophone player. He’s incredibly talented. He practices every day. His manager, Bradley, tells him he’s the next big thing. But he’s rat ugly. His wife leaves him for an old childhood flame. She too agrees he’s rat ugly, and that’s holding him back. Her new boyfriend agrees to pay for cosmetic surgery. A cure-all not just for ugliness but a stepping stone to greatness and the recognition he deserves. And compensation, in an unjust world, for her leaving him.  

Lindy Gardner is also having surgery. She’s in the first story, Crooner. Tony Gardner serenades her from a boat in a Venetian canal. Tony Gardner, in this story, was the equivalent of late-fifties Dean Martin. He used to be big. Lindy married him for his money. It was a great career move. She was moving up in the world and Tony Gardner used to be something. Now he’s making a comeback and has to ditch Lindy, because she’s an old dame. The saddest part was they fell in love. But she understood. That was show business.

Now Lindy’s in Nocturnal, making do and mend. This is her third face lift. But she’s sure it’ll take twenty years off her. She’s got another marriage in her. Anyway, she’s the nation’s sweetheart. Meg Ryan gave her a chess set to kill time after her surgery. No members of the public can see her, but nobody can see the rat-boy saxophonist either.

He thinks he’s made a terrible mistake with Dr Boris’s surgery. It was a moment of weakness, hoping to win back his wife. Lindy is the optimist here. He grouches about a national award for greatest Jazz Player. He’d worked with him and he’d been an industry joke. Yet here he was in the hotel they’re staying in, being honoured.

I guess I feel like that about Kazuo Ishiguro. His characters have no real-life resonance and grit. His stories don’t hold me. They don’t, to me, ring true. But they may to you. Read on.

Arthur Golden (1998) Memoirs of a Geisha.

Arthur Golden (1998) Memoirs of a Geisha.

I’d already read Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate in the way I should the first time. A few things I remembered:  it was set in Japan, and it was seemingly a memoir about a Geisha. The sort of information that even the outgoing President of the United States would be able to pick up from flashcards, or the cover of the novel when prompted. Perhaps he would recognise that Japan wasn’t on his list of ‘shitty countries’ (that tend to be African) or on his axis of evil favoured by George W Bush. But the moron’s moron might confuse Japan with another country he was having a trade war with in the same way he had to be reminded what happened at Pearl Harbour.

Memoirs of a Geisha uses as a framing device a historian visiting an elderly Japanese woman, Sayuri, who has stayed in the Waldorf Tower in New York since 1956. In this way history becomes her-story. She asks him to write about her memories of Japan from her birth in 1920, through her training to be an apprentice Geisha girl in the hungry thirties of Kyoto. Her graduation, the selling of her virginity to the highest bidder which set a record in Japan. This allowed her to pay off all her debts before she was sixteen (although she claimed, modestly, her mentor Mameha’s virginity had sold for more in relative terms). The increasing militarisation of Kyoto. And the war years of deprivation, when the Geisha schools and tea houses were shut. Geisha girls were sent to work in factories. How the most celebrated of Kyoto’s Geisha’s elite scrambled to survive. The loss of the war, which brought the American’s, who didn’t rape and kill, as Sayuri  supposed they would, but were rather kind, flinging sweets to children (and detonating atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki which historians, and novelists, can contrast with Japanese troops’ attrocities in the annexation of Korea, the mass rape of ‘comfort girls’ and the genocidal Rape of Manchuria, but that’s another story or stories). So here we have post-feudal Japan from 1920 to1950 before it became one of the richest nations in the world around the 1980s, to be eclipsed by its rival China (which will soon eclipse America).

In terms of emotional plotting, it’s much simpler. It’s the tale of Cinderella. An older man, the Chairman, is kind to her when she is at her lowest, and gives her money to buy a sweet. He becomes the prince of her dreams, but Geisha girls don’t marry, although they did –or do—become paid consorts to the very rich. Prince Charming may have a wife, and a Geisha as consort and lover.   

Sayuri tells us there were over 800 Geisha houses in Gion when she began her training, and now there was less than sixty. The gei in geisha > means art. Her elder sister had been sold into prostitution, which was something different. Prostitution may be the oldest job in the world, but being a consort was a dying art. Geisha girls objectified the Japanese cultural idea of female beauty. Girls train from as young as three-years-old, for example, to play the lute, sing, and act in Geisha schools, and their studies continued after graduation. A spider’s web of industries evolved in small and larger cities which everyone including the tea houses were they perform has a cut of their fees for entertaining gentlemen.

Costumes that Geisha girls cost more than a year’s wages a labourer could hope to make. And any self-respecting Geisha, Mameha tells Sayuri, (and the reader) needs a varied collection of costumes so their clientele isn’t bored with the same old thing. Reputation is all.  Losing face isn’t just about getting old, but by selling sexual favours is to fall to the lowest rung of common prostitution. Geisha girls must be virginal, without being virgins and must learn to stir the pot of men’s needs and desires, in other words, to entertain. They must also find a rich man to fund their costly lifestyle, in which their time is metered. Each Geisha girl must become, in modern parlance, their own brand and pay their debts to their house mothers.

Each brand has its own house (okiya).

‘Whatever any of us thought about Hatsumomo she was like an empress in our okiya since she earned the income by which we all lived.’

Hatsumomo is the ugly sister in the Cinderella story. But although equal in beauty, to Sakuri’s ‘sister’— a term which applies to a Mameha who takes her from the closed world of being a maid to train and introduce into their enclosed world of Geisha—Hatsumomo is nasty and spiteful.

‘This is our foolish lower maid, said Hatsumomo. ‘She has a name, I think but why don’t you call her “Little Miss Stupid”.’  

The house brand with all its costumes is Hatsumumo’s. Her house ‘Mother’ and ‘Auntie’ are depended on her, as is the other trainee geisha and the servants, the lowest of which is ‘Litte Miss Stupid’.

Sayuri must knock Hatsumomo off her perch, claim the Chairman as her lover and become his consort. She must learn to be always a lady, but never seen with her claws out.  In a patriarchal, misogynist world, image matters more than substance. Love conquers all or something less meretricious that that. It follows the money? Read on.