Life and art: big questions while commuting

I’ve started listening to audio books while driving to and from work. Of course, the experience is different: you have an actor providing the sound of a voice that’s normally left up to the reader’s imagination — or maybe isn’t even “heard” at all, really — and now you have to deal with both the physical qualities of the voice and its choice of inflections.

However, this wasn’t a problem when listening to Hugh Dancy read By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham: the voice mainly did what it is supposed to do — be unobtrusive, even disappear, so that I am just having the words delivered directly to my mind.

By Nightfall is the story of a New York art dealer, Peter Harris, and his wife Rebecca, who weather a crisis precipitated by the visit of her younger brother, Ethan (or Mizzy). You get the story of a stage in a life (the onset of those middle-aged is-this-all-there-is? feelings), the story of a stage in a marriage (similar  thoughts about what used to be exciting and is now routine), and some light on family relationships: the tie, the love, the irritations, the obligation, the guilt. The mood is wistful and self-analysing, with some wild swings between thoughts of a new life and a careful look at what is valuable about the existing one.

This, while rather depressing at the beginning, is really well done. By the end, we know both Peter’s hubris and his awareness of his own foolishness: it’s a familiar mixture, to judge from my own self-knowledge.

The equally or more fascinating part of the book is the setting: the Manhattan art world. The attitudes of the dealers, the artists, and the buyers are perceptively drawn. Peter is motivated by not only the day-to-day need to succeed in his business and maintain a decent reputation but also a passion for art that becomes more apparent as the book progresses. It is not only the need for beauty, though beauty is part of it, but also beauty’s twin, aesthetics — the sense that something is right because of the proportions, the materials, the social commentary, and all the other choices that the artist has made.

So, yes: the meaning of life and the meaning of art. Cunningham does a fine job of addressing these two weighty items.

At the end, the snow starts falling: the last snow of April, falling all over the city, falling into the urn that Peter has just installed in Carol Potter’s garden. It brought to mind the end of The Dead, Joyce’s short story from Dubliners. In fact, someone might compare By Nightfall to The Dead: Peter and Rebecca versus Gabriel and Gretta; a young boy/man is a factor in both, and both Peter and Gabriel analyse their place in society and in their wife’s affections. If I were still in English Lit, I would be all over it.


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