By Nightfall – Michael Cunningham

I read The Hours years ago, and obviously watched the movie. Loved both at the time but have not read anything by Cunningham since then. I found this book in the local flea market, where I picked it up for 50p.

Reading it made me realize how I changed as a person. I’m still a bit torn about this book, to a point that I could probably write two reviews, one really mean and another praising the literary qualities of the text. This dichotomy comes from the subject matter. The book is a story of a New York middle-aged couple. He is a moderately successful art dealer, she is a moderately successful editor of an arts magazine. They are pretty rich, own a loft in Manhattan, have a grown up daughter. Nothing is missing. And yet the book is a story of unhappiness and misery.

One way to look at it is to focus on the first world problems. On how spoilt Peter, our main character, is, how self-pitying. It is clearly a story of middle-age crisis, Peter is in his mid-forties and he realizes he craves youth, freedom and beauty, he feels trapped in his current life, his wife does not understand him, he starts fearing death and becoming meaningless, you name it, all the classic symptoms. From this perspective it really is difficult to feel for him.

Even more amazing, then, is the trick that Cunningham manages (or almost) manages to pull off: we do pity Peter, we do sympathize with him. He becomes the voice of many of the feelings we also experience, but we do not talk about, because they are first-world problems. We are safe, have jobs, have our loving families and yet sometimes it feels like we could succumb to pure despair. Like our lives are worthless, boring, oppressive, like there will be nothing left when we die and we will die soon. How only beauty, youth and love can redeem us. Or can they?

The prose is beautiful, but it really is a book about the privileged, the well off, the elite. This is where my problem with it lies. Peter’s issues are very human they do happen, but as they say ‘it is not the end of the world’ even if it feels like it. It was a beautiful and moving read, even if I still feel a bit guilty about sympathizing with Peter.

Have you read any other Cunningham’s books? What did you think? Which ones would you recommend?

Quotes from By Nightfall

Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska 

3 thoughts on “By Nightfall – Michael Cunningham

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