W hen the astronaut Neil Armstrong first walked on the Moon, he realised that if he raised his hand to within a few inches of his face and looked out into the velvet depths, he could blot out the Earth with his thumb. "Did that make you feel big?" asked an interviewer afterwards. "No," Armstrong replied, "it made me feel really, really small."
All the men who made the journey from Earth to Moon came back altered. Some went mad, some vanished, some got art, most got divorced and some simply accepted that everything in their lives from then on would be a pale shade of that incandescent experience. It was not life on Earth which shone for them any more, it was moonlight's "palefire".
James Attlee has gone in search of that same light and his quest takes him to Japan, Naples and Las Vegas. "If you asked what it was that inspired me to write about moonlight," he writes at the beginning, "I would tell you that it was not the moon at all but an absence of moon."
The Moon always seems passive; it has no light of its own and no apparent strength to resist our nightly blitzkriegs of striplights and neon. But fear of its supernatural-seeming qualities has touched mankind's history since the beginning. Nor has that superstition entirely died out. Benito Mussolini so feared sleeping in places where moonbeams could fall on his face that he kept the blinds drawn even during the hottest Roman summers.
His ideological compatriot, Rudolf Hess, spent much of his 21 years in Spandau dreaming of the Moon and corresponding with Nasa, which appears to have indulged his astronomical passions as much as it did those of Wernher von Braun, architect both of the murderous V2 rocket programme and of the Apollo space programme.
Attlee moves on, first to Kyoto and then up Vesuvius, searching for clarity in the works of Goethe and Picasso. But it is when he reaches America that the book really lifts off. Lit like Christmas every day of the year, Las Vegas no longer bothers with irritating environmental design faults such as night and day. It is built to offer a completely fake space, a windless, rainless, changeless place.
Forced by the chutzpah of the city's artificiality into a kind of grudging delight, Attlee moves on to Tucson's Interstellar Light Collector, a giant moonbeam-scoop reputed to help heal everything from asthma to short-sightedness. Thwarted by clouds, Attlee has to make do with the reports of others, who inform him unhelpfully that standing in concentrated moonlight is "like drinking 500 cups of coffee, but without the jitters" or "like a wind that is not blowing".
Attlee is generally a good-natured guide, at once open-eyed and sceptical, but once in a while his equilibrium vanishes. Anything he perceives as hippy nonsense, such as astrology or wind chimes, really gets him going — "What is it with human beings and sound? Why aren't we ever content to just shut up?" Most of the time, his outbursts are just funny, but as the book progresses, an increasing friction builds between his subject and his lifelong views.
The trouble is that there is no way of writing about moonlight without being drawn towards the old mysteries. Does a full Moon alter our behaviour? Is it possible that moonlight can heal? Did people see "Love" printed on its surface? Is the Moon really just a hole in space through which the radiance of other worlds can shine?
Attlee's conflict is that he has chosen to write a rationalist's guide to an irrational subject. Yet Nocturne is a lovely, thoughtful, limpid work and if Attlee never quite gets to the point of illumination, his particular space flight is still worth the ride.