Recently I was excited to discover that reading one book sent me on an artistic journey to other books, as if each writer was continuing a conversation that the other ones had begun. Michael Cunningham's new book "By Nightfall" is loosely based on "Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann. As in the novel "The Hours," which was based on Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," Cunningham has taken a classic work of literature and updated it for the modern reader.
But things do not stop there. There is more to this theme of connectedness than his book implies; the book's expansiveness is also pointing us in other directions. Recently I saw "The Merchant of Venice" at the Broad theatre in Santa Monica. It was a brilliant production and I came home and found a copy of the play, so I could relive some of the amazing moments of this production.
One of the moments I wanted to research was the kiss between Antonio and Bassanio in the court room scene. It is not in the play as written by Shakespeare, but the love and deep friendship between the two men is, even as Bassanio is about to marry Portia. And that undercurrent in the play of the love of an older man for a younger, based more on a longing for youth and beauty than anything else, seems directly related to Michael Cunningham's brilliant new book "By Nightfall" as well as Thomas Mann's "Death in Venice."
As I discovered these similarities, I had a sense that I was participating as a reader in a continuum of literature and conversation that had been going on for hundreds of years, and it was an exciting journey to be on. There is a comfort in being a reader and participating in a dialogue between writers and readers over the centuries. You feel as if you are part of a literary community. So many themes continue to occur in literature and the way writers navigate these issues and express them in language is why we read. The best fiction shows us how characters deal with life's most difficult issues, and I am always learning from fiction.
Michael Cunningham is dealing with several compelling and relatable problems in "By Nightfall." His protagonist Peter Harris is in midlife crisis. He is filled with malaise. He is an art dealer who is worried about selling out, financial issues clouding his artistic principles. As he is dealing with getting older, he is attracted by the beauty and youth of his wife's younger brother Mizzy. This deeply flawed younger brother comes to stay with Peter and his wife Rebecca, and this calls up the classic theme of the unexpected visitor who causes all kinds of chaos in the lives of the hosts. And Peter recalls the compelling story of falling in love with his wife and her family, in both cases equally passionately.
And here is another issue that has many literary echoes. Peter Harris narrates his love affair with his wife's big rambling, romanticised family. They are of course the complete opposite of his own family. Can't we relate to this, hasn't this happened to many of us? And we have seen this in other novels as well, and it's always so fascinating.
Remember "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri? The hero abandons his Indian family for the family of his girlfriend. Also "Howards End" where Helen falls in love with Paul Wilcox and the Wilcox family and "Brideshead Revisited" where Charles Ryder is infatuated with the family of Sebastian. (By the way, please let me know if you can think of any other books with this theme.)
Michael Cunningham's writing is beautiful in this book and there are many lines that took my breath away. Here is one of my favorites,
"Still, the bigger surprise for Peter is how tender he feels now, how strangely solicitous, toward Mizzy. Maybe it's not, in the end, the virtues of others that so wrenches our hearts as it is the sense of almost unbearably poignant recognition when we see them at their most base, in their sorrow and gluttony and foolishness. You need the virtues too -- some sort of virtues -- but we don't care about Emma Bovary or Anna Karenina or Raskolnikov because they are good. We care about them because they're not admirable, because they're us, and because great writers have forgiven them for it."
"By Nightfall" is the kind of book that will take you in many different thoughtful directions. We can relate to the main character's search for the meaning of life as he asks at the end of the day or "by nightfall" what is it really all about and how do we live our lives in a meaningful and satisfying way?