Who says you shouldn't judge a book by its cover? The picture on the front of A Alvarez's new work shows a waxy feminine arm poking out of quiet, tree-fringed waters in twilight. She could be magical - the lady of the lake - or she might be the victim ofcrime: something rigid in her posture suggests a dumped body. It is a fetching expression of the prevailing ambiguity in Alvarez's elegant essay on the subject of darkness.
Night, he argues, has a double life: it is half-liberating, a time for dreams and fantasies, a time when secrets come out and dance; but it is also dire, a time for fear, a Gothic cloak in which muggers and murderers feel at home. Alvarez enjoys pointingout that over and above these tangible qualities night generates a metaphorical excitement that no amount of rational analysis (or electric illumination) can obliterate. The hours between dusk and dawn, endless to insomniacs, symbolise the larger night,the night that "gets us all in the end".
Alvarez takes as his starting point the attractive idea that night has changed. Just as "the dark side of the psyche" has been explored with electronic sensors (at one point he is hooked up to a computerised monitor of his sleep pattern), so night has been illuminated by electricity and the speed of modern life, especially in towns. Bright bulbs fill our evenings. Radio and television programmes haunt the quiet hours before morning. Traffic hums into our dreams. An experienced poker fiend, Alvarez is wide awake to the pleasures served up by the nocturnal city, and appreciates the throng that saunters on late streets: thieves and prostitutes, policemen and tourists, strollers, lovers and drunks - things that go burp in the night, as it were.
He enjoys tickling the ironies in all this - the sense, for instance, that all this glitzy lighting doesn't drive shadows away, it creates them all around us and probably increases, rather than banishes, our reflex fear of dark places. But for the most part he is very good at tapping neat thoughts on the shoulder. With steady delicacy he marries his twin preoccupations: the decline of outer darkness, and the gradual illumination of our inner black holes. "One hundred years ago," he writes, "day and night, waking and sleeping, were separate worlds, and the unconscious was a mystery that did not have a name. Now we are beginning to understand that they are all intricately and inextricably enmeshed."
Every now and then he grows drowsy. In one aside he notes: "For people who hold down boring or unsatisfactory jobs night is the time they feel they lead their real lives." This sounds promising. It might have led to a lengthier rumination on what we think "real life" is and where we choose to locate it. But Alvarez is happy to leave it at that. Again, it is all very well to argue that cities "never sleep", and that we have blurred the boundaries between night and day, but honestly. "Day-shi f t and night-shift have become interchangeable," he writes. "Night has become the continuation of day by other means." Excuse me - but is this a surprise? It sounds pretty, but it is, well, as obvious as night follows day.
But the odd rhetorical plunge of this sort doesn't really spoil a work otherwise so engaging. Indeed, one of its most striking virtues is the way it ranges across so many fields of inquiry. Anyone wishing to categorise it will have a bad time. There are
chunks of likeable self-inquiry ("Night, I reasoned, was the time adults showed their true natures - not something any child wants to know about") but this is not an autobiography. There are cool and approachable discussions of modern neurological theories, chaos theory and the like, though this is by no means a scientific work. There are a couple of colourful descriptions of nights spent on the town with policemen in New York and London, but this is not an investigation into modern urban habits. Neithe r is it literary criticism, though there is plenty of bookish talk - a sprightly essay on Coleridge, for instance, which marvels not at the number of times he nodded (almost all the time) but at the miracle of dejected nocturnal imagination that conjured half a dozen great poems out of so much Victorian huffing and puffing.
The book is thoroughly seasoned with quotations from the greats: Shakespeare and Coleridge, Milton and Donne, Beckett and Goya, Yeats and Dickens and Kafka and many more besides. This is a risky enterprise - even a writer as affable as Alvarez can seem prosaic wedged between highlights of world literature. They bring to the book an effective weight of poetic wisdom and swagger, but it is a bit like someone hugging a pillow for consolation. Still, Alvarez has tried hard to remain impressionisti c rather than exhaustive. He even declines to give more than two passing references to Dracula (as in, "Listen, the creatures of the night. What music they make.")
Possibly the subject - night, a realm of infinite dangerous possibilities! - is simply too large. The book, though deep and civilised, gives its great theme only a modest, affectionate slap. While never less than elegant, at times it is almost perfunctory. So much ground is covered so lightly that in places it reads like a brilliant synopsis. OK, chapter one: human beings seek the light - loneliness of night - birth of fire - invention of candles - end of the age of hobgoblins - cf Macbeth - Romanticism: Don Giovanni - electricity and the 24-hour global market ... er, is that enough?
Night begins and ends with fine personal reflections on night, sleep and a wonderful description of an Italian dusk which reminds us, with its sleepless sounds - a single bell, a screech owl - that rural calm can be every bit as noisy as urban agitation.The central chapters on consciousness and dreams, however - though they are exemplary syntheses of tricky concepts - do rather contradict the thought that true darkness, the place where the demons are, is hard to find these days. Everything Alvarez has to say about psychoanalysis and cerebral chemistry suggests the opposite: that the demons are all inside us anyway, and pop their heads up and roll their eyes in broad sunshine as easily as they sneak up on us beneath a starless sky.
Indeed, the more he says about the oddities of our mental life, the further we stray from the appealing implications of the title. A great deal of his reflections on our inner life apply equally well to the waking hours. It would not be so hard to imagine a book called "Light", an exploration of the remarkable ambiguities thrown up by humanity's long love affair with the daytime. Daylight might even emerge as supremely contradictory, half-exhilarating, a time when people's dreams and fantasies jump freefrom imprisoning darkness and lean towards the light like flowers; but also a time of mundane fears and workaday disappointments. At the end of the day, it isn't only night that makes us feel benighted.