The re-reading of a novel often holds a certain illicit thrill – as the pile of classics sits there worthily along with the new Franzens and Foster Wallaces, their spines all still intact.
As a university tutor this year, however, I was required to return to novels I had read and enjoyed years earlier. And so Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being came back into my life. In between the bowler hatted sexual escapades and the incommensurability of lives lived in lightness and weight, came a small passage I hadn’t noticed before:
‘It was there I began to divide books into day books and night books,’ she went on. ‘Really, there are books meant for daytime reading and books that can be read only at night.’
Now they all looked at her in amazement and admiration, all, that is, but the sculptor, who was still holding his finger and wrinkling his face at the memory of the accident.
Marie-Claude turned to him and asked, ‘Which category would you put Stendhal in?’
The sculptor had not heard the question and shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably. An art critic standing next to him said he thought of Stendhal as daytime reading.
Marie-Claude shook her head and said in her raucous voice, ‘No, no, you’re wrong! You’re wrong! Stendhal is a night author!’
This fleeting passage is its sole mention in the novel, but the distinction fascinated me – the idea that the way one reads a book, the coupling of certain novels with time or place has the ability to compliment the narrative, in the same way that certain colours affect mood.
Books are so often categorised – fiction and non-fiction, young adult and children’s, ‘literary’ and pulp. But novels for the darkness, and for the light?
Looking at all the books lining my walls there did indeed seem to be a natural fit for many within these two categories:
Didion is, to me, a daytime author – the spare prose and intentional flatness of the writing couples nicely with the brightness of natural light. Pynchon, too, is a daytime writer – his frenetic narratives too busy for the time before sleep.
Poe is a nighttime author, to be read in shadowy rooms to enhance the eerie tales. Fitzgerald a daytime writer, perhaps sitting outside in dappled shade, or the beach. J.K. Huysmans is strictly a nighttime author, as are Milton, Dante and Sade. Raymond Chandler seems a nighttime author, Austen perhaps for the daytime hours.
As with the rest of Kundera’s slippery philosophical musings in the novel – between lightness and weight, freedom and commitment, being and non-being – neither category is preferable to the other, they simply ‘are’. But which for each author do we choose?
Are those for the daytime ‘work’ books, and those at night only for pleasure? Should realism be the sole preserve of the daylight hours, and poetry reserved for the night?
And what of the liminal spaces – the places between the lightness and dark?
The debates about the future of books and the evolution of e-readers have emphasised the importance of the experience of reading as much as the content being read.
Where in the spectrum of light does your favourite author lay?