By Nightfall, the sixth novel by Pulitzer Prize–winning Michael Cunningham, tells the story of Peter Harris, a gallery owner in Manhattan whose comfortable marriage is interrupted by the arrival of Mizzy (short for “the Mistake”), the younger brother of his wife, Rebecca. Peter—a straight man—finds Mizzy’s youth intoxicating and seductive. Soon, Peter is questioning his life, his marriage, even his sexuality, and wondering if it’s worth throwing it all away. Earlier this week, Cunningham answered my questions about his book over e-mail.
Photograph by Richard Phibbs.
You write, “History favors the tragic lovers, the Gatsbys and the Anna K.s, it forgives them, even as it grinds them down. But Peter, a small figure on an undistinguished corner of Manhattan, will have to forgive himself, he’ll have to grind himself down because it seems no one is going to do it for him.” Why create someone like Peter and not … well, a Gatsby?
A Peter as opposed to a Gatsby. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from reading the modernists, particularly Woolf and Joyce, who insisted that fiction depict the 99.9 percent of the population who are not Gatsby or Nostromo or David Copperfield; who insisted that part of the novelist’s job is to ferret out the epic story of outwardly unextraordinary people, who are of course extraordinary to themselves. I just don’t feel much interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
At one point, Peter says, “I don’t know. I mean, how could I love another guy and not be gay?” “Easy,” says Uta. Why is it easy?
Human sexuality is tremendously complicated, so much so that the designations “gay,” “straight,” and “bisexual” are all but meaningless. How many of us have had crushes, and even sexual experiences, with people who fall outside our official “erotic category”? Okay, not everyone, but many of us. I’m interested in sexuality that falls outside the official lines of demarcation. As is Uta.
The seed of By Nightfall was really Mann’s Death in Venice. Although I didn’t want to rewrite Death in Venice, I’ve always been fascinated by Aschenbach’s fascination with Tadzio, which is eroticized but not exactly sexual; it’s more about Aschenbach’s love of youth and beauty and ephemerality. If it was just a book about an old letch hungering for a young boy, what good would it be? I wanted to write about an essentially straight guy who finds himself powerfully drawn not only to a boy but to what the boy represents. If Peter had simply become obsessed with a girl, the story would have been too conventional. Read More