“If a musician’s insomnia allows him to create beautiful music, then it is a beautiful insomnia.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Night Flight
I learned many things when I read Anne Fadiman’s collection of essays At Large and at Small: Confessions of a Literary Hedonist. I learned, for instance, that Balzac was addicted to coffee to a point where he would munch on raw coffee grounds, and that the best way to make ice cream is by freezing it with liquid nitrogen. I also learned, in the essay “Night Owl,” that there are two types of people: owls and larks. I am definitely of the latter category: my favorite time of day to work is in the morning, I need over six hours of sleep to be functional (eight to be in a good mood), and I start yawning as soon as it gets dark. Anne Fadiman is one hundred percent owl: when she starts working on a project—say a book, or an essay—she switches her schedule around and begins to write and research at night and she sleeps during the day.
Imagine being awake to see it: the inspiring pools of light, the surrounding darkness, the computer screen shining in the gloom like a beacon, the quiet hum of the sleeping world, beyond the room… I’ve always wanted to be an owl myself. It seems to me that reading and writing are essentially nocturnal activities. To say, “I’ve read through the day” or “I just spent the day writing,” makes it sound like a mind numbing nine-to-five job. But to say, “I’ve read through the night” or, even better, “I spent the night writing,” speaks to my romantic side, elevates these activities to something compelling and secret.
Writing requires a plunge into the imagination, so it’s no surprise that many associate literature with the night. We populated it with the monsters of our nightmares: vampires, werewolves, ghosts, ghouls, zombies, and everything else that shifts in our closets and whispers under our beds. These creations thrive at night because they embody our fear of the dark and, by extension, our fear of death. It’s the same thing; after all, Dylan Thomas’s famous line reads “Do not go gentle into that good night.” In Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood compares literary inspiration to katabasis: writers go deep down in some dark place, the place where stories are, and emerge with something to tell—just as the epic heroes travel to the land of the dead and negotiate with its spirits to learn their future.
Then why shouldn’t night also be a time for readers? To read is to slip into that dark place, lulled by the voice of a writer, which the act of reading summons from the page. The phenomenon, surely, occurs more powerfully, more completely, in the quiet, nocturnal darkness. The day is too bright and noisy; there’s always something to do; the real world crowds around you and won’t let you take a stroll down the shaded path of imagination. Night offers shelter for the mind. At night, when the world is asleep, when windows are mirrors, when the light you read by is the one you must turn on yourself, you can almost hear books whispering. They call you. They quiver on their shelves, ready to open up and reveal what’s inside them like clams in heat. At night, all books are bright.
At least, that’s the way it goes if you’re an owl. When you’re a lark, you start yawning uncontrollably after 9 o’clock, your mind begins to drone with fatigue, thereby drowning out the sound of the words on the page, and your body equates your bed with sleeping, not reading, which means you can’t hope to read more than 10 pages before falling asleep.
Luckily, when you don’t get to enjoy the inspiring nighttime calm because you’ve succumbed to Morpheus’s spell, you can read about it in books during the day. Leave the long hours of solitary insomnia to others, like Alberto Manguel. His bibliomemoir The Library At Night recounts the construction of his library (which houses 30,000 books) in an old presbytery in France, and riffs on the subject of libraries more broadly. The night he finished shelving all the books in the library he built himself, Manguel slept on the floor, between the bookcases—in the words of his partner, in order to mark his territory, like a dog urinating in the corners. For Manguel, his library takes on all its meaning and all its magic at night, when he is prone to wake up, grab something on the shelves at random, and read through his insomnia. “At night,” he writes, “thoughts grow louder.” For Manguel, during the day the library suggests order, classification, and work; but from dusk to dawn it is joyfully chaotic and random.
At night, it seems, all books are equal. The to-read pile recedes into the shadows and all the other books get their chance to shine—the one’s you haven’t read yet, or the ones you dropped halfway through. It’s not a question of who the author is or which one won a prize. Night lets books speak for themselves, reveals what they’ve really got to offer, and allows readers to jump from one to the other effortlessly.
Manguel, libraries, night: how can I go further without mentioning Jorge Luis Borges? Here’s a man who knew something about living in the dark: he spent over 30 years of his life completely blind, and several more years in progressive stages of blindness. He lived in the night, he roamed the night, and he read the night. His poems on the subject, translated from the Spanish, are collected in an elegant volume by Penguin: Poems of the Night. On the book’s cover, the silhouette of Borges’s face in profile, against a charcoal backdrop, is speckled with golden stars, as if his mind had been drawn out in the night sky like a constellation. The poems reveal the purity of Borges’s wisdom and the beauty of his thinking. Here, again, night is not something to be feared; rather, it is the stuff of inspiration, “good fertile ground / for the sower of verses.” Night is the muse that inspires the poet; he feels “in the crack of night / the verses that are to come” (“The Forging”). Night is also a time for reading: Borges became director of the National Public Library in Buenos Aires in 1955, the year he went blind, an irony he appreciated. “God granted me books and blindness at one touch,” reads the English translation, by Alastair Reid, of “Poem of the Gifts.” The Spanish original reads rather “los libros y la noche”: “books and the night.” Thus night and blindness—in the eyes of readers, writers, and translators—are interchangeable.
I’m not certain Borges himself would agree, however, because his depictions of night are manifold. In “History of Night,” Borges conceives night as a human construct: “Down through the generations / men built the night.” Night is a myth, a kind of playground, a drug, even, “which would not exist / but for those tenuous instruments, the eyes.” With no eyes to see it, Borges either exists in constant night, or else he exists outside night—and, therefore, outside time. If night is a place, then it is a place of suspension and solitude, as in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Vol de nuit (Night Flight), which often describes night as an ocean, with its islands and tides. (The connection between both authors is also geographical: Night Flight takes place in South America, notably Buenos Aires, where Borges spent most of his life.)
In Night Flight, night isolates postal plane pilots. Conversely, darkness reveals man to man, bridges the distance between them:
And now, in the core of the night like a watchman, he finds out that night shows Man: these calls, these lights, this worry. This lone star in the shadow: the isolation of a home. One of them is blown out: a house that closes itself in on its own love. (…) Those men think that their lamps shine for the humble table, yet eighty kilometers away one already receives the call of their light, as if, from a deserted island, they were swinging it desperately before the sea.
Night, in this short, beautifully crafted novel, is at once limitless—“it contained Buenos Aires, but also, like a vast hall, all of America (…) under the same, deep vault”—and finite, holding in its belly dangers that may end a plane’s flight, kill the men aboard, and destroy the precious cargo of words.
Saint-Exupéry treats night as the frontier to a vast land full of dangers and wonder. Man must traverse this frontier, explore the unknown beyond the darkness, familiarize himself with it. That, then, is how I should approach night and its literature: I must undertake to discover it tentatively and slowly, minute by minute. I need to shed my lark habits and learn to peer into the folds of darkness like an owl.
One of the best books on the subject remains Night: Night Life, Night Language, Sleep, and Dreams, by British man of letters Al Alvarez. Anne Fadiman talks about it in her essay on night owls. Alvarez offers a very complete exploration of night through literary criticism, psychoanalysis, historical inquiry, and even autobiographical writing. He melds all these different strands to form a cogent, fascinating whole.
His premise, essentially, is that most people have lost contact with night in the last hundred years because, instead of learning to inhabit its darkness, artificial light has allowed us to turn night into another day. For Alvarez, our attitude toward the darkness of the night is linked to a primordial fear of what lies beyond the ring of firelight. I remember, as a child, when my parents asked me to turn off the lights downstairs before going to bed (Alvarez tells a similar story in his book): I would hit the switch and race up the stairs as fast as I could, imagining the smoky shadows at my heels, enveloping the staircase and threatening to swallow me up.
For years, Alvarez lost contact with the night and forgot about its existence, until a stay in Italy made him fall in love with dusk, and the hours that follow: the dipping of the sun into the horizon, the light bleeding slowly out of the sky like watercolors, the comfortable coolness that brings people out of their homes, the night sky like a vast cathedral ceiling, speckled—in the absence of man-made light—with innumerable scintillations. Alvarez’s book is a testament to the richness and beauty of nighttime. Night cannot be merely ignored or illuminated away; it must be dealt with, dwelt in.
I wish I could say that this essay was the product of quiet, nocturnal activity, but, alas, I wrote most of it in the glare of warm spring mornings. Still, I like to think that I’m writing this under the influence of night. I’m getting used to living more nocturnally: I work long hours in a restaurant this summer and I often come back home past midnight. Split between exhaustion and excitement, I need to unwind before I head for bed: I eat a bit, I read a few pages, I write a couple of lines. I inhabit the dark, solitary space as best I can. I peer into the extremities of night and ponder its meaning. But restaurant work has not made an owl of me yet; I’m still waiting for my beautiful insomnia, the one that will drag me away from my bed for hours on end and send me out into the night to discover what lies beyond the reading lamp’s light.
Charles Dickens had his beautiful insomnia, although it wasn’t as directly productive as you’d expect. In “Night Walks,” he describes all the things and people he encountered during “a temporary inability to sleep” that led him to walk around London in the middle of the night: the drunks, the tramps, the night workers, the whores. Night, again, is an ocean: Dickens feels, as he coolly observes these nocturnal specimens, “much as a diver might, at the bottom of the sea.” There is beauty in Dickens’s night, but it is more twisted and macabre than in Alvarez or Saint Exupéry:
[T]he river had an awful look, the buildings on the banks were muffled in black shrouds, and the reflected lights seemed to originate deep in the water, as if the spectres of suicides were holding them to show where they went down. The wild moon and clouds were as restless as an evil conscience in a tumbled bed, and the very shadow of the immensity of London seemed to lie oppressively upon the river.
No friendly clams opening in the heat, then, and no quiet hours under studious lamplight, reading or writing—only the ghosts of the damned and a bleakness that is oppressing. But also, inspiring. This passage recalls what Atwood discovers about literature in Negotiating with the Dead: Dickens used night and its odd characters to populate his stories. Gritty, scary nocturnal London was his land of the dead; walking was his way of negotiating with the spirits and feeding his imagination.
Perhaps that’s the trick: night can also be retroactively productive. You’ve got to learn to revert your vision. Dickens understood his city when most of its inhabitants were asleep. Borges read and wrote at his best when he was blind. Saint Exupéry grasped the meaning of solitude when darkness enveloped his plane. So the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43 sees his lover best in dreams, when his eyes “darkly bright are bright in dark directed” and “through heavy sleep on sightless eyes doth stay.” “All days are nights […] / And nights bright days” for Shakespeare. If literature is my mistress, then nights are made brighter by her books and days are darker in their absence.
Image via Wikimedia Commons