“We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep – it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority, are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning; we hope, more than anything, for more” (The Hours 225).
Several years ago I read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, while away in a shack in Port Fairy. I was at one of those cross-roads we come to in life and the content of the novel intersected sharply with the deliberations I was making; this novel is so acutely focussed on the painful beauty of being a mortal being who has only one life to live. I read it hot on the heels of reading Hermione Lee’s tremendous biography of Virginia Woolf. After The Hours I read Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, from which The Hours takes its key reference, and then I watched the film adaptation of The Hours the same night I returned home to Melbourne. The result was that I felt like a piano wire that had been tightened and tightened to such a taut sensibility that I was certain I was going to snap. No one does the aliveness to detail and the existential pressure of trying to make one’s life like Cunningham. It was one of the most dramatic experiences of how literature can transform one’s own psychological climate that I had ever undergone.
So it was with mixed feelings that I spied the new Cunningham novel, nestled with other tempting titles, at the Little Bookroom stall at the VATE conference in December. There I was, with other English teachers, tired from a year at the chalkface, and looking for a little diversionary reading to enhance the summer break. Could Cunningham do it? Or would reading him precipitate another crisis? And it is not because I do not like him that he has such a significant place in my reading history, but because he is so good, and that he conveys the complexity of loving life while struggling with its shortcomings. His style is also Woolfian, where even ordinary things become luminous by virtue of the attention paid to them, so that when I read him (or Woolf) I go about in a hallucinatory daze which is profound, but which makes practical living more abrasive.
The outcome was that I loved By Nightfall, almost as much as I loved The Hours, but with less wear and tear on the psyche. It could easily have been subtitled ‘On Beauty’ or ‘Mid-Life Crisis’ or ‘Why Some Of Us Care About Art’ because any of these point more directly to some of the novel’s central concerns. However, such directness is not really Cunningham’s style, which is honed to convey a mood or mental atmosphere out of which his novel’s central concerns emerge. In By Nightfall Cunningham immerses the reader in a series of days in the life of a reasonably successful, middle-aged man who is faced with a number of pressing questions. What is beauty and why do we seek it so much? Why does the potential of youth fascinate us? What do we make of our imperfect accomplishments in later life? Can art rescue us?
The narrative point of view is daring, and perfectly chosen for what Cunningham sets out to achieve. The story is told in a hybrid of third-person with stream-of-consciousness so that we are plunged into the thoughts, perplexities, perceptions, worries, deliberations and insights of the protagonist, but we are given some critical distance from the man himself. The story is told through Peter Harris, who, at forty-four, is a middle-ranking art dealer in New York. His predicament is clear: his gallery is prosperous enough, but he feels a pressure to make the leap into the big league because, at forty-four, there is a now-or-never quality to his enterprise. His gallery shows artists who are not yet big – and when they are, they move on to a bigger dealer – or second-tier artists whose work captures merely a single idea or lacks the depth and complexity to make an important contribution. Peter has doubts about the worth of his own efforts and he is looking for redemption. For him, his life as an art dealer will be redeemed if he can find that great, genius artist at the flowering of their career and be responsible for curating them, nurturing their talent and bringing their work to the world. He wants to salvage his role as commercial go-between and interpreter: his is not a life of genius, but he wants to help a genius and thereby justify his own existence.
Peter’s wife, Rebecca, is also an art interpreter and promoter in her role as editor of a small but influential arts journal. Her messed-up younger brother Ethan comes to stay, ostensibly to straighten out after a failed quest for mystical experience at a Japanese Shinto shrine, and drug rehab. Ethan’s family call him ‘Mizzy’, short for ‘The Mistake’ as he was born many years after the three daughters when the parents were in late middle age. Despite the disparaging moniker, Mizzy was a child prodigy and, as the doted-on youngest son of an academic family, expected to fulfil his potential for brilliance in some astonishing and definite way.
Instead, all he has done is be beautiful, become drug addicted, travel, and have many lovers, male and female. He has a brief, brilliant, but inconclusive undergraduate career at Yale, which he terminates by running away to Denmark and then living an itinerant existence as a beautiful, well-connected youth. In By Nightfall we meet him at the end of what could be called his period of nascency. In his mid-twenties, the burnish of potential has begun to fade and he is experiencing some kind of crisis. The family expectation is that he is a genius, but he is not. He is beautiful and talented and clever, but feels no strong, particular call to any professional or creative endeavour. He is just another smart, middle-class kid confounded by too many opportunities and choices, unable to commit to a specific path and forego the renounced possibilities.
Peter Harris develops a fascination for Mizzy. He seems beauty incarnate and he compares him to a sculpture by Rodin of a youth cast in bronze. It is this work of capturing forever the fleetingness of human life that is one of the roles Harris accords to art, and, by implication, that Cunnigham gives to his own work. Mizzy’s appearance also recalls a younger version of Harris’s wife, now forty and fading, although she apparently has a strong enough sense of herself to be at ease with her transition into middle-age. Despite being in the New York art world, she eschews collagen. To Peter, Mizzy is a living work of art and Peter longs to ‘curate’ him as nascent brilliance personified. He is also in clear contrast to the passing, manifest world of the middle-aged, who now know the main shape of their lives and are living them in the fallen world of compromise.
Peter’s fascination with Mizzy is partly erotic and, although not identifying himself as gay, he believes himself capable of running away with Mizzy if he got the chance. Peter buried his brother Matthew twenty-five years before. Matthew was gay and one of the early victims of AIDS. Matthew’s lover Dan followed him into death less than a year later. This doomed couple and Peter’s grief cast a particular light over the proceedings. Peter is aware that Mizzy reminds him of his dead brother, who was also beautiful and talented, but who was given a short stay in life. Yet, there is more to Peter’s falling for Mizzy than displaced desire for the girl his wife once was, and mourning for his lost brother. Peter had a vision of pure aliveness and transcendent beauty on the shores of Lake Michigan in his late teens, that he has carried with him as a talisman ever since. Matthew waded in the shallows with his female friend Joanna, while Peter watched, suddenly transported by a Blakean moment of eternity revealed in the creations of time:
… as Peter watches from the sand he is taken by a sea-swell of feeling, utterly unexpected, a sensation that starts in his bowels and fluoresces through his body, dizzying, giddying. It’s not lust, not precisely lust, though it has lust in it. It’s a pure, thrilling, and slightly terrifying apprehension of what he will later call beauty, though the word is insufficient. It’s a tingling sense of divine presence, of the unspeakable perfection of everything that exists now and will exist in the future, embodied by Joanna and his brother. … Peter will never fully understand why, at that ordinary moment, the world decided to reveal itself, briefly, to him, but he will associate it with Matthew and Joanna together, an enchanted couple, mythic, perfect and eternal and chaste as Dante and Beatrice (110 – 111).
All his life Peter has been searching for some way to make this vision realised – but age and compromise and the demands of the world have blunted that teenage feeling of being blessed, of being part of something significant and beautiful. And then Mizzy arrives, seemingly the resurrection of that lost paradise.
Cunningham’s protagonist is mourning the loss of several things: his own youth; the vision of meaning and perfection that is now far in his past; his brother; his once-young wife; his relationship with his estranged daughter (called Beatrice). In addition to this, it becomes plain that Peter is also mourning Mizzy, because, as the reader intuits, his potential will come to nothing and a likely early death is written in his drug habit.
This is a complex novel that handles these big themes with surprising economy and deftness. Cunningham’s tendency to be ponderous is offset by Peter’s sharp observations of the New York art world he lives in and Cunningham’s wry rendering of dialogue. In some ways the entire novel is like a vanitas painting with a skull hidden in the folds of its richly detailed images – the hustle and striving of the art scene is shadowed by momento mori. Harris is in many ways an unsympathetic character, but Cunningham gives him enough humility and love to make him, if not likeable in a straightforward way, someone whom the reader cares about. Some of his flaws he is aware of — vanity, fumbled parenting – and some he remains blind to, such as his tendency to disapprove of his wife merely because she is aging and known to him and self-sufficient. She, unlike Mizzy, is no longer ‘potential’ but what she has become. Peter, of course, has suffered the same fate and he is a willing, self-aware fool as he becomes entangled with Mizzy in a doomed attempt to cut the webs of his life and return to the promise of that moment by the lake. Cunningham’s novel suggests that salvation must come from somewhere other than perfection; it is something rescued in the fallen world and cherished because of, rather than despite, its impermanence.