REVIEW: By Nightfall (Michael Cunningham)

I am about to commit a cardinal sin: I am going to review a book whereby my opinion is based largely on preconceptions. I can’t help it: I’ve tried not to, but it’s inextricably linked.

I bought Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall after reading about the book in his foreword to Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice. According to the writer, he considered By Nightfall to be a companion piece, a story in deliberate parallel to Mann’s. The links are made clear in the novel: a heavily made up man is observed in the next car, much as occurs in Death In Venice. Mizzy, Cunningham’s answer to Tadzio, is archly reading The Magic Mountain. And that’s the problem: in my humble opinion, Death In Venice is a masterpiece. By Nightfall is an adequate, sometimes excellent book. But by linking the two, it just feels like a disappointment, or a pale imitation, which is a shame.

The prose is elegant, poised, gracefully setting out the quiet frustrations of a long-married couple. It’s the kind of writing that garners awards, because it can be so gently spell out the subtle eddies in its protagonists relationship with his wife and with her younger brother. The problem comes in believability: the plot would ostensibly have it that our protagonists life is shaken up by the arrival of Mizzy, for whom he feels a burgeoning passion.

The only problem is the passion: there is none. It’s hard to believe for a second that he truly would involve himself or fall so heavily for Mizzy, and the situations in which some connection is being made clear borderline on porn stereotypes in some cases, though admittedly Pulitzer-calibre porn. But whereas Death In Venice conveys the ultimately doomed obsession and passion vividly and persuasively, By Nightfall left me pretty much unfussed as to which way it swung by the end.

In the novel, a lot of time is given to the art world in which our protagonist deals. He constantly bemoans artists who are just ‘all right’ and are failing to measure up to the ‘greats’ that have gone before them. Unfortunately, that’s how I felt about this book. Don’t get me wrong: it’s beautifully written, it has moments of wonderful clarity and emotion, but for the most part, little happens, and, damningly, by the mid-point I was counting the pages to finish.

However, I will hold my hands up: this may all be a case of suffering my comparison, and if anyone has read it free of preconceptions feel free to challenge my opinion!


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