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?

34 thoughts on “Steven Millhauser: Enchanted Night (1999)

  1. I’m trying hard not to be angry with you right now: “during one of the very few hot nights we had this summer”….LOL! I wish we only had a “few” hot nights. Must remember, I could move! 😉

    I’m so glad you found a hot night to read it on, it does certainly add a little something to the experience. Even more thrilled that you liked the story so much. It is one of those rare gems, a story that is so unexpectedly wonderful that you just want to pass it on to everyone you see.

    I’ve read it 3.5 times how and every time some different part speaks to me, thrills me, sparks my imagination.

    Immediately after reading this I read Millhauser’s collection, Dangerous Laughter:

    It has some pretty interesting short stories in it. I’d recommend giving it a try. I am planning on picking up a copy of one of his short story collections that has “Eisenheim the Illusionist” in it for the RIP Challenge. I like the film that was adapted from it and really want to read the story.

    • I actually also thought while reading it that I’m glad we only had a few hot nights. I had barely finished and it started raining so hard, the heat was gone in a minute.
      It really is a gem and I’m glad you made me discover it in the right way. I had it on my wish list for a very long time but forgotten about it your reviwed made it clear that I needed to read it. I’m not a night owl anymore but I used to be, I loved walking around the city on summer nights when every one else was sleeping.
      Thanks for the other suggestions. I need to read some of his short stories. I haven’t seen that movie either.

  2. This book sounds enchanting and intriguing. I love that you waited to read it on a hot summer night…I may copy that. I read Martin Dressler several years ago and thought it was terrific. It’s very different than this book, all about striving for the American Dream and what that is and the advantages and pitfalls of excessive ambition. Enchanted Night as the title hints, sounds a little more magical, more about dreams and the writing seems more lyrical. When you have the time, I recommend trying Martin Dressler to see what you think. I’m definitely putting this book on my list! Great review!

    • Thanks, Amy. I hope you will like it. It is very special but still very realistic, at least to me, I could recognize myself in more than one character. I’m glad Carl wrote that he read it during a hot summer night, it was really worth doing it like that, it enhanced it. Thanks for the comments on Martin Dresseler. He is an incredible writer, I can imagine that other novels or stories are equally good, just different. I will put Martin Dressler on my wish list. Thanks.

    • No, I haven’t but Enchanted Night isn’t a book for children, maybe I gave the wrong impression. It is just rooted in some imaginations and fears we had as children. A child wouldn’t be able to understand it, I think. There is too much loneliness and longing in this novel. But you are right, I like children’s books and will have look, thanks for the suggestion.

      • I never saw myself reading Clive Barker but someone persuaded me to read some of his children’s books. Loved them. I don’t think they’re strictly for children though. The cover made the connection for me more than anything.

        • I looked them up and they did sound like books I would like. I didn’t think you had read them. I enjoy books for children a lot. They are often so much more imaginative, more so even than most Young Adult novels.

  3. Boy, this would be a great book to read tonight. It’s hot and humid here.
    I read Martin Dressler years ago and still have the book on my shelf. I really enjoyed it. I remember it being a more straight forward style. It seems like Steven Millhauser should be more well-known than he is. He’s such a talented author.

    • Yes, I agree, he should be. I admired the craft very much. I started to write something a few years back that had a similar touch, I know now what was missing in mine. He is a writer I can learn from. The musicality stunned me. There are mini chapters that read like poems but are still straightforward dialogue.
      I loved the magical elements but I am also interested in his more “realistic” writing.
      Sorry to hear you are in one of those places that is really struck by a heat wave.
      It is gone here again. I was lucky to get one hot night during which to read it.

  4. This sounds like a fun read…and there are many hot summer nights here. I can’t believe you don’t get to experience that every night. I need to move there. so jealous!

    I used to have so many stuffed animals when I was a kid. It would have been fantastic to wake up one night and see them come alive. I take it none of your toys moved in the night. Or you never saw them moving. One never knows.

    • I’m sure they moved but I didn’t see them.
      We had a great summer, to be honest. Hot and cool days were alternating, bit more coolnes though which upset mayn people. I don’t mind. I used to love it hot but it’s difficult to sleep when it is so hot.
      But I really enjoyed reading it at the right moment.

    • Thanks, Carole. I like everything about the book and think the cover art captures the book incredibly well. Almost all the characters are depicted. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.
      This is one to re-read.

  5. I’ve never even heard of Steven Millhauser before, but now, after having read your beautiful review, he is on my iPad. (The temperature is quite moderate here at my place, but next week I’m off to Vienna, crossing my fingers for a hot night or two…)

    • A hot summer night does add to the experience. I’ll be interested to hera what you think of him. I was so suprised to see he won the Pulitzer and I had never heard of him. The writing is very assured, I found a lot to admire. It is one of the books I liked while reading and after having fnished it, menatlly stepping back and looking at the whole picture I find it even more amazing.

  6. Like Sigrun, I’ve never heard of this author before. But the quotes are lovely and the cover art is indeed gorgeous (yes, I am shallow!). I will have to look him up.

    • I like nice covers as well and in this case the cover does the book justice. I hope you will like it, should you read it or another one.
      I want to read Martin Dressler very soon.

  7. This is a new author for me too, and I’m glad you introduced me to him. There is something about hot summer nights that is often more intense and provokes the imagination (perhaps because it’s harder to sleep, or maybe it’s more than that). Sounds like a book I would enjoy. Hot summer nights are rare here in London, but perhaps I can buy the book and store it up for the time – this year? next? – when an appropriate night arrives!

    • I don’t know what it is that makes hot summer nights so different, somehow magical. I guess London isn’t the place to experience them that often. We usually have hot summers but this summer was cool all over Central Europe. We only had a few very hot days and nights.
      I’m sure it is equally good to read the book on a cooler night but it sure did add something… I could imagine you would like it.

  8. I’ve never heard of him, so thanks, it sounds great.
    For me, hot summer nights are different because they smell different. It’s like the heat accumulated in buildings, grass and plants melts in the air at night when it gets cooler.
    Do you know that feeling when you drive on the A6 from North to South of France and you stop near Montélimar or Salon-de-Provence? You get out of your car with AC into the damp hot air of Provence, smelling of pine trees and dust and hearing the first cicadas. I love it, when I get there, I’m on holiday.

    • It’s a very special book and I’m really looking forward to read more of him. I would be really interested to know how you like him.
      I know exactly what you mean, we used to drive there all the time when I was a child. But those summer nights and the smells are something different altogether, another type of magic than in a city.
      I miss it, I haven’t been there for a very long time. Too long. That’s where you are right now?

  9. I read Martin Dressler, but that was years ago–I remember liking it but not much more at this point. I have this one and it sounds like perfect summer reading–though I haven’t a clue where I put it. I’m hoping we have no more of those sultry nights, but I’d still read the book! 🙂

    • I hope you will find and like it. I don’t envy you for the sultry nights. Once in a while it’s nice but over weeks…
      I think Martin Dressler is quite different. I got it by now and also some of his stories but History keeps me busy…

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  11. I recently borrowed this book from the library, and am really looking forward to reading this novella, I read Martin Dressler quite a while ago so don’t remember it in too much detail other than I enjoyed it, I also remember thinking at the time that it reminded me of Magnus Mills or the other way around!.

    • I loved it, it’s so well written and very unique. I think Martin Millhauser is very different but that doesn’t mean you will not like Enchantend Night. I hope you will.
      I have not read Magnus Mills.

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