Writers and their nights
Silence or solitude, writers often find the late hours to be their best friends
Nighttime is when interesting things take place. Walking around during the day becomes the crime of loitering with intent. People whose life rhythms are different from the Average Joe stuck at work from 9 to 5 come out, and criminals of thought and action stir into action. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has told us about the time when, as a cub journalist, he used to live in a brothel. He thought there was a remarkable similarity between him and the ladies with whom he was sharing his living quarters: both of them got ready to work at night. He would come back from his newspaper late at night and everybody slept during the day. The ladies would soon start sharing their meals with him.
Reinaldo Arenas, whose autobiography is titled Before Night Falls, has written about his nights when he was hiding in a Cuban wilderness because Fidel Castro had forbidden him to write and publish. Arenas would smuggle his work to Europe and then hide in forests. He says he had to complete his writing during the day and then hide his manuscripts and himself at night from the patrolling parties sent by the regime. He says the moon, the only nocturnal source of light for him through such nights, was like a lover for him. No wonder then that ‘lunacy’, an Old English word in vogue since the 1540s for describing madness, is etymologically linked to the cycles of the moon.
Franz Kafka, an insomniac, would often write all night then go straight to work and come back and sleep in the afternoon. He needed the kind of silence that is as immense as the stillness of a grave: “I need solitude for my writing; not ‘like a hermit’ — that wouldn’t be enough — but like a dead man”. He elaborates the relationship between writing and night thus: “Writing is a deeper sleep than death. Just as one wouldn’t pull a corpse from its grave, I can’t be dragged from my desk at night.” Often only the nights of Prague could provide the kind of hermitic peace that he needed after spending his days at an insurance office.
Marcel Proust was so sensitive to diurnal disturbances that he lined his bedroom walls with cork and totally blocked out the day, and wrote his masterpieces at night. Eventually he lost track of the day and night and would often ask his visitors if it was daytime or nighttime outside.
For Kathryn Schulz, the habits of night owl writers are similar to those who guarded their villages and tribes at nighttime in the ancient world: “In every culture and era, someone has had to stand guard after dark. That tradition extends from our earliest ancestors tending their fires to the night-shift nurses, firefighters, and police officers of today.” Marquez, Kafka, and Proust have taken up the jobs of watchmen for their wayward civilisations.
The daily routines of writers are now a matter suitable for extremely sophisticated scientific investigations for a discipline called chronobiology. Till Roenneberg, a chronobiologist at the Munich Centre for Neuroscience, classifies people in chronotypes: the morning people, the night owls, and the afternoon nappers. He thinks that people whose biological rhythms do not synchronise with the majority around them are suffering from a social form of jet lag. Their bodies and minds are in tune with rhythms not found in their own societies. These findings make sense when one reads about how J D Salinger used to write with the help of a torchlight tucked under his bedsheet when all his fellow soldiers were asleep in the military academy. His mental and physical clock was ticking to a different rhythm.
Whether it is the need for silence or solitude, writers often find the late hours of the night to be their best friends. Haruki Murakami deals with this problem in a way that may explain his quirky genius. In order not to be disturbed by the daytime activities of his fellow beings and to remain as healthy as possible, he wakes up at four in the morning and starts writing. In this way, he avails the profound silence of the night and still manages to catch the most nourishing type of sleep. Herman Melville believed that “all profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence”. Therein lies the appeal of the night for the writer.
Published on February 16, 2020