By Nightfall, By Michael Cunningham

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The Independent Culture

Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror," claimed the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. With this ominous opening sentiment begins Michael Cunningham's contemporary New York novel about art, ageing and mid-life crisis. It deals with the changeable nature of beauty as that bright shiny thing that must be possessed, as well as being a signifier of transience and loss.

For Peter Harris, a forty-something gallerist whose stock in trade has been the pursuit of beauty, its ephemeral quality becomes synonymous with the emotional staleness that he feels has entered his once-vital marriage. His relationship is by no means dead, and Rebecca, his wife of two decades who was once the most sought-after girl in town has grown only a little less beautiful and no less dynamic, but she has changed over the years.

Cunningham won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1998 novel The Hours, which was delivered in a narrative stream-of-consciousness ensemble by three women. Here he chooses to tell the story from the single point of view of a jaded husband. The result is an intimate understanding of Peter as a flawed, not always likeable central character.

In presenting Peter's fear of ageing, in an ageing marriage, Cunningham captures both the shallow vanities and the emotional depth of this anxiety. Peter "can't help noticing her [Rebecca's] sallowness, the wiry white-threaded unruliness of her morning hair. Die young. Stay pretty. Blondie, right?" he thinks, with an edge of disdain. At other times, his reflections are profound. Thinking back to the Rebecca of his (and her) youth, he realises "here is the Rebecca who no longer exists". Peter's story is not the conventional one of mid-life marital disaffection: he does not want to trade Rebecca in for a younger model but yearns to return her to her younger self. An opportunity presents itself when her beautiful younger brother, Mizzy, comes to visit. Peter, hit by sudden homoerotic desire, sees in Mizzy not only the reincarnation of Rebecca's former self but an embodiment of the alternative choices to the ones he made at Mizzy's age - his wish to have lived in that "other, darker world" than the sensible one he inhabits as a middle-league gallery owner. Much of the book's intrigue emanates from the charismatic, disruptive figure of Mizzy, who while remaining mysterious, stirs strong passions in Peter and Rebecca.

The story is situated in Manhattan's formerly booming art world, which is now, in the aftermath of economic crisis, shrouded in gloom. Cunningham's home city looms large and vibrant. At times his characters appear mildly satirised, as if he is softly sending-up the narrow, privileged world of these slightly spoilt, slightly self-loathing Manhattanites who live in this socially diverse cityscape.

What redeems Peter, ultimately, is a realisation that he has behaved like an old fool. He berates himself at one painful moment of self-awareness when he fears playing the old, leering predator (or Aschenbach) to Mizzy's object of desire (or Tadzio): "No. This is my life, it's not Death in Goddamned Venice..."

In the end, his story is not an endorsement of long term-relationships nor a condemnation. Just as he perceives the ironies inherent in the worship of beauty, so he sees the contradictions within love and intimacy. "How can we know each other so little, after all this time?" he thinks, and at another moment: "What if she [Rebecca] is falling out of love with him? Would it be tragic, or liberating?" His reaction at the end, when he is confronted by the possibility of this liberation, is a surprisingly hopeful one.