BOOK REVIEW: Ruminations under cover of darkness

Alvarez is wide awake to the pleasures of the nocturnal city: things th at go burp in the night

Share
Related Topics
NIGHT A Alvarez Cape, £15.99

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, Britain’s largest Immigration Removal Centre  

Thanks to Channel 4 we now see just how appallingly Yarl’s Wood detention centre shames Britain

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
 

If I were Prime Minister: I’d ensure ministers took mental health in the armed forces as seriously as they take physical wounds

James Jones
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003