Archive for July 7th, 2008

Enchanted Night

July 7, 2008

First of all, I wanted to include a visual or two as a kind of follow-up to the “Glory Day” posting. This is the view westward from the end of my driveway in Illinois. So the fireworks were happening in this direction, and more importantly, every evening, the sunset happens in this direction. Twilight has always been one of my favorite times. Perhaps it’s the edge-ness of it: it’s the boundary between day and night, so it seems a natural time for the boundaries between worlds to go all thin. I’ve always thought that one might see anything at all in the twilight. That thought fascinated me as a child — and scared me a little — but then and now (when I’m back there), every single twilight hour that I’m free, I’m wandering about outdoors. In rural Illinois, there are still fireflies winking in abundance. Lord Dunsany wrote a poem about wanting to go inside, because the evening is getting cold, but being held by the thought that he might miss something if he doesn’t stay to watch the whole sunset until it’s over. You never know what’s going to unfold in the sunset.

It may be those colors, too, that make the hour so magical. The sky throws off its responsible blue that it wears to work in all day. The sky does extraordinary things in the hour of dusk. And the Earth responds, dimming its own hues to black in awe. My parents told me that one of the words I learned to say very early on in my life was “silhouette.” I’d point at the oak trees in the gloaming, gazing at them in round-eyed wonder, and proclaim “Silhouette. Silhouette.”

Anyway, this is the time of year when I have to recommend the perfect book for this season:

Enchanted Night, by Steven Millhauser.

I discovered this book in a Tokyo bookstore. It was the title and the cover that compelled me to buy it. The moment I saw it, there was no question of not buying it. On the cover, we see a low-aerial view of a small-town neighborhood in the beautiful blues and purples of moonlight, punctuated by the warm yellow glows of some lighted windows and the effulgence of a big round moon in the sky. All over the picture are the characters from the book, some in the windows, some out in the dark. All the people and poses are suggestive of story threads that will intrigue and delight.

It’s a slim novella told in short episodes, glimpses into the lives of its diverse cast — all linked by the town they’re in and by the single summer night in which it all unfolds. Millhauser is a virtuoso. The writing is breathtakingly beautiful, the elements vibrant, nostalgic, and haunting. Here is a writer who understands that a summer night is something sacred, a time like no other. The book reminds me of how wonderful it is to be alive, and to be able to go through summer every single year.

I first started reading the book at 11:57 p.m. on Thursday, June 29, 2000 — a hot, clear summer night under a waning moon. I finished it at 2:04 a.m. on Saturday, July 29, 2000 — also a hot, clear summer night under a waning moon. I read the book entirely during late nights, and not a single word by the light of day; this is a book for summer nights. The hotter the season when you read it, the better.

I’ve also read Millhauser’s The Knife Thrower and Other Stories and loved it, too.

By the way, since I’m writing this on July 7: this is the Star Festival (Tanabata) here in Japan. According to an ancient legend, a prince and princess (not related to each other) were deeply in love, but circumstances kept them apart. They became stars in the sky, and once each year, the two stars meet; once a year, on 7/7, the lovers come together. So this is the time of year when what people desperately long for may be granted. In Japan, hopes and requests are written on strips of paper, which are then tied to the branches of a delicate bamboo tree. These aren’t pleas for objects (like a Christmas list), but generally less material things, such as prayers for healing, or for wisdom, or to pass an all-important test . . . or, in the spirit of Tanabata, to find true love.