Steven Millhauser: Enchanted Night (1999)

“This is the night of revelation. This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods.”

Hot summer nights have a special magic. In the middle of the night, when everyone is sleeping and only night creatures are awake, the hot still air is heavy, time seems to stand still and the world is indeed enchanted. This is the magic captured by Steven Millhauser in his beautiful and poetical novella Enchanted Night. I have never read this book before but the images, the atmosphere felt so familiar. It was a bit like looking into my own imagination.

Thanks to Carl who reviewed the book not long ago (here is his review), I waited for a hot summer night to read it. I’m glad I did. It felt so right to read this novella during one of the very few hot nights we had this summer.

Here is the beginning of this wonderful book.

A hot summer night in southern Connecticut, tide going out and the moon still rising. Laura Engstrom, fourteen years old, sits up in bed and throws the covers off. Her forehead is damp. her hair feels wet. Through the screen of the two half-open windows she can hear a rasp of the crickets and a dim rush of traffic in the distant thruway. Five past twelve. Do you know where your children are? The room is so hot that the heat is a hand gripping her throat. Got to move, got to do something. Moonlight is streaming in past the edges of the closed and slightly raised venetian blinds. She can’t breathe in this room, in this house.

Laura isn’t the only restless being on this hot and sultry night whose quiet darkness is illuminated by moonlight. All over the little town people feel their yearnings and desires, think of their dreams and wishes. Many of them feel lonely and driven by a secret longing. There is the writer who has turned the nights into days. He writes until midnight, then goes out to visit an elderly woman, roams the streets and sleeps until after noon. He is 39 years old, lives with his mother and has been trying for years to write the definite historical novel. Mrs Kasco, the widow he visits in the middle of the night, still regrets that she didn’t seduce him, when he was still a teenager and she a fairly young woman. On the other side of the city a mannequin in a shop window feels a secret stirring and comes to life. A young man who has never made love to a girl is visited by the moon Goddess while he lies in a backyard dreaming. A mysterious piper plays a flute and attracts stray children. Black cats haunt the streets, four girls wearing masks break into houses. A lonely woman walks the street in a pink bathrobe. A sleezy man spies on a young girl who takes a moon bath.

The story of this hot enchanted summer night, in which abandoned dolls come to life in the attics of the houses, is told in small tableaux, little atmospherical sketches that seem to originate in our childhood imagination. I remember how, when I was a child, I used to check in the morning  whether my toys had moved. Like many children I secretly thought and hoped they were alive at night. My biggest wish was to catch a glimpse of their doings.

Millhauser doesn’t only capture childhood dreams and wishes but also those of teenagers, grown-ups and the elderly and interweaves them in this haunting tale which is written in beautiful, melodious prose that seems inspired by lyrics.

He’d like to wipe it all out, start things over again, give the land back to the Indians. Or better yet, give it to him, to Haverstraw, King of the New World: trapper, hunter, fisher, farmer, sower of appleseed, stargazer, trailblazer, pathfinder, deerslayer, barefoot boy with cheek of tan, Huck Finn on the Housatonic, crackerbarrel philosopher, wily old coot in a coonskin cap, shrew-eyed Yankee, inventor of the cotton gin, the printing press, the typewriter, founder of libraries, distributor of American jeans to the Indians, self-made tycoon in a thirty room mansion, a hometown boy, worked his way up, one in a million, lone ranger, a wayfaring stranger, a born loser, a man down on his luck.

I don’t know anything about Millhauser, only that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Martin Dressler, but his style is so accomplished that I’m curious about his other books.  Does anybody know them?