How many subjects are there really in fiction? Love, death, sex, God, art. "By Nightfall" by Michael Cunningham doesn't have much, if anything, to say about God, but it has plenty to say about the other four big topics. Love is the heart's home, death is the frightful separation, sex is the lightning strike that briefly connects heaven and earth, and art is the vessel for every human thing.
"Isn't this part of what you keep looking for in art--rescue from solitude and subjectivity; the sense of company in history and the greater world; the human mystery simultaneously illuminated and deepened....The art of the past tried to give us something like what's happening to Peter right now--a look into the depths of the human other." (p. 115)
The ancient Roman playwright Terence said, "Nothing human is alien to me." Time, place, gender, race--nothing alters what is essentially human when art pierces with its eternal truth. You don't need to be an ancient Greek to understand Andromache's fear when her husband goes out to meet Achilles in battle. You don't need to be an insane Dutchman to apprehend the power of "Starry Night." You don't need a college education to feel your skin prickle to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." Great art works its magic and makes life, if not possible, bearable to a greater degree than life without it. That is why is it more disturbing (this is hard to admit) to see the treasures in the Cairo museum destroyed or threatened, to lose the artifacts of the great civilization that was Iraq, to see the museums in Florence flooded into ruin than to hear on the news of the deaths of strangers in faraway lands. Art can carry us beyond our own circumstances and show us ourselves at the same time. It can challenge us or lead us into quiet places where we can be comforted.
"Maybe it's not, in the end, the virtues of others that so wrenches our hearts as it is the sense of almost unbearably poignant recognition when we see them at their most base, in their sorrow and gluttony and foolishness. You need the virtues, too--some sort of virtues--but we don't care about Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov because they're good. We care about them because they're not admirable, because they're US, and because great writers have forgiven them for it." (p. 119)
Tragedy is "available only to the young....it's different entirely from the tragedies of age, even of middle age, when any hint of downfall is shaded by gravity, by wounds, by the simple, maddening failure to stay young. Youth is the only sexy tragedy. It's James Dean jumping into his Porsche Spyder, it's Marilyn heading off to bed." (p. 120) I would say that Cunningham is a Romantic, and this quote surely demonstrates that. First of all, I believe real tragedy almost requires a certain level of knowledge and understanding. The death of a child is unbearably sad, and it may indeed be a tragedy for the grieving parents, but the self-destruction of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe is not the tragedy of youth. These were old souls wrestling with demons that have been around forever. The Romantics were wrong to believe that children are necessarily innocent, and Cunningham is surely wrong to think that leaving youth behind is tragic. From the moment we are born, we are all in the process of getting ready to leave. It is art that sustains us on this journey, transforms the solitary suffering of loss into a shared fate that is given meaning through beauty. Of course, this is not the only way to think about art, and not all art is beautiful, but this is the definition, if that is the right word, of art that I embrace. Reading Cunningham's novel, I felt that he embraces it too.
You can tell from these quotes that Michael Cunningham is a marvelous writer. He does what all good writers do: puts common thoughts into uncommon words and makes them new. In just these three selections, he encapsulates the scourge of loneliness, ubiquitous human frailty, and the inevitable tragedy that is life. What makes all these bearable? Family. Friends. Vocation. Art.
"Nightfall"'s protagonist, Peter Harris, is a mid-western transplant in New York who owns a moderately successful art gallery. He is in a settled marriage with Rebecca, who owns and manages an art magazine, not one of the big ones. Their daughter is grown, a college drop-out, living in Boston in queasy circumstances. The plot turns upon the arrival of Rebecca's much younger, drug-addicted brother at their SoHo loft. Rebecca is solicitous but wary; Peter is supportive but not optimistic about Ethan's future. Ethan (Mizzy) is a compelling and infuriating character: beautiful, sexually ambiguous, soulful, lost. The novel's crisis is Peter's falling in love with him.
In many ways, "By Nightfall" is an old-fashioned novel that juxtaposes the comfortable happiness of "normal" life with the Romantic exhilaration of breaking out, overturning the status quo, and risking everything for the chance of a moment of transcendent joy. The one abiding value is art, at least Peter's devotion to the beautiful, to "real genius." Mizzy represents art, his older sister Rebecca reality. "Mizzy, who might be cast in bronze, and Rebecca, his older girl-twin, who has with age taken on a human patina, a hint of mortal weariness that's never more apparent than it is in the morning light; a deep, heartbreaking humanness that's the source and the opposite of art." (p. 142)
Cunningham has written beautifully here about the amazing power of art to illuminate the quotidian: "Isn't it the task of art to acclaim these people [ordinary, decent folks], to ennoble them? Consider [Manet's] Olympia. A girl of the streets becomes a deity." (p. 176) The mistake would be to choose art over life, as Peter nearly does. He desires the sickly surrender that forbidden love and great art demand, at least from the Romantic point of view. His struggle is poignant, not least because both he and the reader realize that everything--love, beauty, life itself--is "evanescent."
I am reminded of a film that came out some years ago, starring Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche. It's called, appropriately enough, "Damage." Binoche is engaged to Irons' son, but the moment the father and the fiancee meet, their fate is sealed. They descend into passionate, desperate sex, helpless to deny themselves or to consider others. Their passion is convincing, in large part perhaps because both actors are so beautiful, and its destructiveness is perversely part of its power. It all ends very badly, as anyone can tell it would. The question "By Nightfall" asks is the relative value of different kinds of happiness: brief but intense vs. enduring and tranquil. This question is left unresolved, and we are left at what is the beginning of another story, an even more significant one: what will happen now between Peter and Rebecca.