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Book review: By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

Michael Cunningham

Jason DeCrow/Jason DeCrow

Peter Harris, the protagonist in Michael Cunningham's new novel, By Nightfall, is a middle-aged art curator in New York, on the cusp of achieving the sort of success that will solidify his career.

Harris is straight and strait-laced; he has been happily married to an attractive, intelligent woman for a couple of decades. He is about to reap the benefits of a perceptive intuition about the art market coupled with an ironclad integrity that has - up until now - allowed him to represent only those artists in whom he believes wholly.

Then he falls in love with his wife's younger, drug-addicted, exceptionally beautiful brother.

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Cunningham's novel is a homage to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. Mann's protagonist, Gustav Von Aschenbach, is a renowned literary theorist and author. Like Peter Harris, Aschenbach is heterosexual, has been married for a long time and is also in the clutches of paralyzing doubt about his life's achievement.

Aschenbach's inspiration has dried up and he is hungry for beauty. He has, as Mann describes, "bridled and tempered his sensibilities, knowing full well that feeling is prone to be content with easy gains and blithe half-perfection."

Instead of "feeling," Aschenbach builds his literary career on fastidiousness. Peter Harris, like Aschenbach, is also craving beauty, artistic genius and the unexpected - just as he is beginning to feel the clammy hand of mortality.

In the introduction to a recent translation of Death in Venice, Cunningham points out that, although Thomas Mann was a contemporary of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald, he, unlike them, did not become the sort of stylist who foregrounds language - a foregrounding that broke ground; changed the course of modern literature.

Mann's contemporaries trusted "feeling," brought their characters' thoughts to the reader with a lightning spontaneity, an invented stream of consciousness that favoured a sensuous understanding of the emotional world, a close-up subjectivity that allowed a new kind of access to those characters' intimate thoughts, feelings and passions.

By contrast, Mann is reserved and austere, not known for his beautifully modelled sentences or lush language, but his solid, stolid construction.

The invisible beams and struts of moral decrepitude rise sturdily, are tapped gently into position around poor Aschenbach. His demise is airtight, unassailable, is reported on from above and outside.

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It's the omniscient authority in Mann that sounds antiquated, the bridle of fastidiousness in his language and sentence structure that makes his protagonist's efforts to break free all the more pathetic and impotent.

Aschenbach falls in love with a very beautiful 14-year-old Polish boy, and even endangers the boy's life by contriving to keep the child's family in Venice while it is in the shadow of a cholera epidemic.

How much more telling that an artist destroyed by untamable desire be constrained by sentences that hold back even while they hold forth. It's his examination of this authority of tone that lends Cunningham's homage its poignancy and keen intelligence.

Peter Harris's desire for his self-destructive, beautiful brother-in-law - like Aschenbach's desire for the boy - is fuelled by the inherent ephemerality of beauty.

Though Cunningham tours the reader through a contemporary New York just as Mann brings us a tourist's Venice - both locales are alive in these novels with a creeping, underground anxiety - he doesn't focus on the fall of the World Trade Center, as so many recent New York novels have done. Rather, the anxiety in By Nightfall dates back further, goes deeper; is more globally ubiquitous as a concern. This story is tinged with the deep loss of lives taken by the AIDS epidemic.

There are other stylistic similarities throughout: Cunningham is as adroit as Mann in summing up minor characters with slicing wit. Here is a description of Peter Harris's hairstylist: "Bobby is like the girls in forties comedies, pretty and avid and calculating, still young enough to be confident that the big surprises are yet to come, worried only about whether or not to go to Argentina with some lothario."

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Bobby suggests that Peter dye his hair to hide the grey, thereby causing a moment of existential nausea and echoing Aschenbach's desperately dyed black hair (that runs so grotesquely down Dirk Bogart's sweat-soaked brow in the Visconti film adaptation of Mann's novel.)

The coupling of decay with male vanity and the hunger for lost youth is withering in both novels.

Cunningham has already explored the lush modern language of Woolf in his homage to that writer with his brilliant Pulitzer/PEN Faulkner award-winning novel, The Hours.

In an earlier novel, A Home at the End of the World, he also delves into bisexuality - the unknowable nature of sexual desire, how sexual love can shift between genders unexpectedly, sometimes uncontrollably, to shake up identity, cause betrayal and eventually forge deeper, more meaningful relationships.

With By Nightfall, Cunningham deliberately glances back toward Mann's stylistic austerity and subject matter to evoke a kind of autumnal despair. Here is decay, mortality, the longing for youth and beauty; here is what happens when one denies passion, goes quietly into that good nightfall. Here is what happens when one acquiesces to old age, rather than raging against it. But Cunningham also allows for another very real truth: It is absurd to rail against it. The impressive feat of his novel is that it convincingly holds both positions at once.

Harris learns from Aschenbach, is spared the final humiliation of a punishment that comes down from above, delivered by an omniscient narrator who sits in judgment.

Lisa Moore's most recent novel, February, was long-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize.

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