It’s been unseasonably cold these past few days, but I’m warm and toasty inside with my steaming cup of chai tea and a delicious Date Bar.
I have an audiobook to tell you about this week. I finished listening to By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham last week, and I have to say that it was a real treat for my ears. You may recall that Cunningham is the author of the award-winning novel The Hours, which was made into an award-nominated film in 2002. By Nightfall tells the story of Peter Harris, an art dealer in New York who, at age 44, is feeling somewhat let down by life. He realizes that it’s nearly too late for him to be one of the “great” art dealers, making the discovery of a “great” artistic talent, and that he may never make it up to his adult daughter Beatrice for not loving her more completely or not finding her beautiful enough. His relationship with his wife, Rebecca, who owns a small magazine (I can’t remember whether it focuses on literature or art), is just OK - after 20 years of marriage, after raising a daughter who arrived too soon, the spark and passion is gone. Enter Mizzy (short for “the Mistake”), Rebecca’s much-younger, much-doted-upon, and very charming brother (Ethan), who comes to stay with them for a while after being away in Japan, ostensibly trying to “find himself”. After years in and out of rehab, dealing with various addictions, it appears that Mizzy has finally decided to grow up and live life as an adult, maybe doing “something in the arts”. He tags along with Peter to observe the installation of a sculpture for a very wealthy client, and there propositions him. Peter, unhappy with the state of his life, is ripe for this type of adventure, this opportunity to shake things up, but, as we the reader know, this can never happen in the way he imagines it. But just when we think we know how the novel is going to end, we are treated to a compelling twist that may shock us (I was shocked!) and make us question our own lives and how well we really know the people closest to us. I downloaded this audiobook without knowing much about it, and almost didn’t listen to it, as the opening scene didn’t really grab me. But because I didn’t have anything else available that I'd rather listen to, I stuck with it, and I’m so glad I did. This novel is clearly about a man having a mid-life crisis, but it is so much more than that. Cunningham puts us inside Peter’s head and allows us to see the world from his point of view. It was so many things for me: a dramatic monologue, a running commentary on Peter’s life and the lives of those around him (or what he thinks those lives are about); it brought to mind T S Eliot’s poetry, particularly "The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock" (although I’m not sure why, as I barely remember this poem); it reminded this reader of Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot, perhaps due to the stripped-down language or the fact that it seemed to be about nothing in particular and everything in general, or that it questions the meaning of life and makes us consider what we are really waiting for, and asks us if this is, truly, as good as it gets, and if so, do we settle for this or go out and try to find something better? We could spend our whole lives searching for the thing that can make us truly happy, only to find that it was right here in our own home all along. This is a common literary theme, and Cunningham’s setting and characters are not unusual, but the fact that he puts the reader inside the mind of the main character and allows us to experience things through his eyes, and the fact that he uses language so sparsely and succinctly, made this a wonderful, insightful, thought-provoking listening experience for me. The characters are intriguing: Peter is at once insightful and comic, Mizzy is alluring and manipulative, and Rebecca seems shallow and naive (the word "fey" comes to mind... not sure why) but proves to have more depth than we are originally led to believe. These characters are nothing new, but with Cunningham’s treatment, they tell a moving story that will stay with me for some time. I read a few reviews of this book before I started writing this post, and they were generally unfavourable, mostly criticizing the author’s many, many literary references. I didn’t understand all of these references, but I got enough of them that it didn’t detract from my overall understanding of the novel. I also wonder whether I would have enjoyed reading this as a novel rather than listening to it as an audiobook. The narrator, Hugh Dancy, did an amazing job of reading aloud a novel that was probably very difficult to render faithfully, capturing the essence of Peter’s ever-shifting character and thought processes, his shifting views of people and art and the things that are going on around him. I’m curious to have a look at the physical book and read a few pages just to compare, but I’m so thankful to have come upon this novel in the audio format, because I may not have appreciated it as much otherwise.
That’s all for today. Bundle up and get outside before it rains (or snows!).
Bye for now…