The first day of fall — not the official beginning, but the first morning you feel an unaccustomed cool on your skin and the air smells slightly metallic — is always a shock. Because I grew up in Australia where they call it “autumn,” fall, with its double meaning, still sounds strange to my ears, which may be why the shock makes me think of the final lines in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.”
“And we who have always thought of happiness climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls.” (The painter Cy Twombly scrawled these words onto more than one of his graffiti-inspired canvases.)
I’ve been thinking about this not just because — sigh — we’ve hit that time of year again, but because I recently reread “Last Day of Summer,” an early short story by Ian McEwan. The story is twinned in my imagination with “Summer Nights, Walking,” a book of photographs by Robert Adams — one that I think I may love more than any other.
Since summer turns to fall every year, the attendant emotional dynamic is so integrated into the human life span that it fuels our inner lives and spins out metaphors and poetic associations like a pinwheeling firework. We link the seasonal transition with childhood turning to adolescence; republics becoming empires; hope turning to despair, and so much else.
But of course, it’s not all just metaphors and poetic emotions. It’s real. Summer’s end means falling leaves, a surge in sickness and, for kids, the end of freedom, the start of a new regime. This year, for many children, the school regimen is virtual, which changes everything. But the reason that it’s virtual — a global pandemic — only heightens the dread that inheres in the seasonal dynamic.
When McEwan wrote “Last Day of Summer,” he didn’t realize at the time — it only came to him later — that he was channeling a dread, a trauma, from his childhood: He was sent away to boarding school at age 11.
Many of his stories hinge on missing parents. In “Last Day of Summer,” the narrator is an orphaned boy, 12, who lives in a hippie-style communal house on the River Thames, outside London, with his 20-something siblings, Peter and Kate. Kate’s ex-boyfriend, José, the father of their infant, Alice, lives there, too, and sometimes he and Kate sleep together, but they are not happy. The mood in the house is fraught with adult tensions beyond the narrator’s ken.
The atmosphere changes when Jenny moves in. She’s anxious. She’s overweight. She sweats a lot and has a high-pitched yelp instead of a laugh. But Jenny is a responsible adult, and she brings a welcome new order to the house. Gradually, as she wins over the boy-narrator, a kind of complicity develops between them. They talk in her attic bedroom. And he starts taking Jenny and the baby Alice out in his little dinghy on the river.
It’s all very beautiful and even quite hopeful. But we’re getting near the end of summer. The dream is ending. Life’s complications lie in wait. . . . When Jenny looks downstream and says “London’s down there,” the narrator nods, but says nothing. “London is a terrible secret I try to keep from the river. It doesn’t know about it yet while it’s flowing past our house.”
Like consecutive seasons, pictures and words are sometimes at loggerheads. But this rivalry, like any rivalry, also implies a kind of intimacy. A twining, or twinning. One art form often provides what the other lacks. And so I find that, just as high summer is intimately linked to fall, a piece of music is often coupled in my mind with a painting, a film with a poem, or a short story with a book of photographs.
I can’t neatly explain why I connect McEwan’s short story, which was originally published in “First Love, Last Rites” in 1975, with Adams’s “Summer Nights Walking,” which came out 10 years after that. The story is set in the south of England while Adams’s photographs were taken on the fringes of Denver — two radically different landscapes. But both publications evoke the same, almost excruciatingly poignant late-summer mood.
Adams took his photographs on summer evening strolls that stretched on into silent hours deep in the night. Almost the only sources of light in the pictures are electric. Their artificial glow picks out pockets of detail — the side of a house, a glistening rivulet in a gutter, weeds and trash in an empty lot — while the surrounding parts languish in thickly textured darkness.
McEwan, too, has a gift for these kinds of charged, illuminated details, which he sets against unknowns that gather like deepening night. In Adams’s photographs the lighted details are allowed to feel accidental, even prosaic; they are not “chosen” in the way a “telling detail” in a short story is. They are simply there in the frame, caught by the click of the camera shutter. Cumulatively, the photographs feel a little less claustrophobic than McEwan’s taut narrative, in which you sense everything always building to the terrible climax.
Still, we are creatures of narrative, and so — as summer draws fall, or as Mardi Gras opens onto Ash Wednesday — photographs tend to magnetize words. Adams prefaced his expanded and revised edition of “Summer Nights Walking” (2009) with a few choice words — his own and others’.
“We remember from childhood,” he wrote, “the beauty and peace of summer evenings, and we long to believe that what we saw then is timeless.” The reference to childhood encourages us to see his sequence of photographs through the eyes of a child, just as McEwan filters the events of his story through his boy-narrator.
When he reissued the book in altered form, it was because he wanted it to feel “less harmonious,” he explained, “closer to our actual experience of wonder, anxiety and stillness.”
Wonder, stillness and anxiety all play key roles in McEwan’s “Last Day of Summer,” too. There is a beautiful moment when the narrator wants Jenny to hear the song of a blackbird. Standing still in silence makes her nervous — almost like a photographer with her finger hovering over the button — and she has to pinch her nose to stop her yelp of a laugh getting out. The narrator touches her arm to calm her and just a few moments later, “the blackbird sets out on its long, complicated song. It was waiting all the time for us to get settled.”
But humans, like stories, are inherently restless. It’s so hard to stay still! London is always calling, just downstream.
The narrator’s sister, Kate, having lost her own parents, is herself casually negligent as a mother. Perhaps she doesn’t want the summer of her own youth to be over? Or perhaps she is trying to compensate for the childhood she never had. In any case, she sees how easily Jenny takes to Alice, her baby, and lets her take more and more responsibility for her, while she dresses up and goes out, sometimes spending the nights away.
When the end comes, it is awful. The boat “goes over quickly like a camera shutter.”
No one is guilty of anything — except possibly a little carelessness, a degree of oblivion. But who among us isn’t?
The last photograph in “Summer Nights, Walking” is an elevated view of city lights set against encroaching darkness. It signals a silent withdrawal, a leave-taking.
On the next page, Adams included words — white type on a dark background — from a letter that Emily Dickinson wrote to friends in the fall of 1860. When I read it, I was startled. It seemed to me the invisible thread that connects Adams’s photographs to “Last Day of Summer.”
“The world is just a little place,” wrote Dickinson, “just the red in the sky, before the sun rises, so let us keep fast hold of hands, that when the birds begin, none of us be missing.”
By the final page of “Last Day of Summer,” this hope — that “none of us be missing” at dawn, when the birds sing — proves vain.
And it feels vain, too, at the end of this incredibly sad summer of 2020.
How many and — dear God — how much we have lost.