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Book Review: Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

A wild mad nightmarish and frantic dark indescribable between the wars lesbian acid trip of a free verse poem disguised as a novel.


Nightwood

Faber and Faber, 1936, 208 pages



Nightwood, Djuna Barnes' strange and sinuous tour de force, "belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch" (TLS). That time is the period between the two World Wars, and Barnes' novel unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe's great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna—a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous. The outsized characters who inhabit this world are some of the most memorable in all of fiction—there is Guido Volkbein, the Wandering Jew and son of a self-proclaimed baron; Robin Vote, the American expatriate who marries him and then engages in a series of affairs, first with Nora Flood and then with Jenny Petherbridge, driving all of her lovers to distraction with her passion for wandering alone in the night; and there is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor, a transvestite and ostensible gynecologist, whose digressive speeches brim with fury, keen insights, and surprising allusions. Barnes' depiction of these characters and their relationships (Nora says, "A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own") has made the novel a landmark of feminist and lesbian literature. Most striking of all is Barnes' unparalleled stylistic innovation, which led T. S. Eliot to proclaim the book "so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Now with a new preface by Jeanette Winterson, Nightwood still crackles with the same electric charge it had on its first publication in 1936.




Djuna Barnes is another author I'd never heard of before getting assigned this book by the books1001 random book generator. I was thinking of James Joyce comparisons pretty early (even though I've never read one of his complete works), and then read Barnes' biographical information and learned that she did in fact hang out with a writer's group in Paris in the 1920s that included Joyce.

Nightwood is one of those literary books where the power is all in the prose, and you read it for the experience. Of plot there is very little, and the characters are grotesque sketches. Robin Vote is an American in Paris. She marries a Jew and self-styled "Baron" named Hedvig Folkbein, bears him a sickly child named Guido, and then leaves them both abandoned and ruined when she runs off with another woman, Nora Flood. She and Nora enjoy a tumultuous, passionate and dissipated affair before Robin runs off to New York with yet another woman, Jenny Petherbridge, leaving Nora also heartbroken and destroyed. Even the relationship between Robin and Jenny does not end well.

This novel, written in 1936, is quite explicit about lesbian relationships. (By "explicit" I don't mean sexually — I mean there are no euphemisms or metaphors, it's right out in the open that these are chicks hooking up.) If you're eager for early 20th century LGBT lit, though, don't wade into Nightwood expecting a lesbian romance. Barnes' view of lesbians is hardly positive: "A man is another person — a woman is yourself." And considering that all these lesbians wind up broken and miserable, Barnes doesn't quite bury her gays, but feelgood it is not.

However, the characters and the story are not why this book is memorable or why it must have been chosen for the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list. It's the writing. Barnes' writing cannot be described, only experienced:


Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the "findings" in a tomb. As in one will be charted the taken place of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as indelible shadow, that which he loves. In Nora's heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora's blood. Thus the body of Nora could never be unloved, corrupt or put away. Robin was now beyond timely changes, except in the blood that animated her. That she could be spilled of this fixed the walking image of Robin in appalling apprehension on Nora's mind — Robin alone, crossing streets, in danger. Her mind became so transfixed that by the agency of her fear, Robin seemed enormous and polarized, all catastrophes ran toward her, the magnetized predicament; and crying out, Nora would wake from sleep, going back through the tide of dreams into which her anxiety had thrown her, taking the body of Robin down with her into it, as the ground things take the corpse, with minute persistence, down into the earth, leaving a pattern of it on the grass, as if they stitched as they descended.


Barnes was a genius and a poet. But the prose is dense and unstopping and sometimes paragraphs take two or three reads and my eyes would not come unglazed. I am not one of those people T.S. Eliot described, with "sensibilities trained on poetry." Nightwood was not an easy read, and to be quite honest, I forced myself through it because it's pretty short, at only 200 pages, but if it had been a longer book, I probably would have bailed at 50 pages and said "I can't take any more of this." It's all dark and brooding wailing and gnashing of teeth. Worst of all is the monologues by Dr. Matthew O'Connor. Entire chapters go on like this:


"Have you," said the doctor, "ever thought of the peculiar polarity of times and times; and of sleep? Sleep the slain white bull? Well, I, Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O'Connor, will tell you how the day and the night are related by their division. The very constitution of twilight is a fabulous reconstruction of fear, fear bottom-out and wrong side up. Every day is thought upon and calculated, but the night is not premeditated. The Bible lies one way, but the night-gown the other. The night, "Beware of that dark door!"

"I used to think," Nora said, "that people just went to sleep, or if they did not go to sleep that they were themselves, but now" — she lit a cigarette and her hands trembled — "now I see that the night does something to a person's identity, even when they sleep."

"Ah!" exclaimed the doctor. "Let a man lay himself down in the Great Bed and his 'identity' is no longer his own, his 'trust' is not with him, and his 'willingness' is turned over and is of another permission. His distress is wild and anonymous. He sleeps in a Town of Darkness, member of the secret brotherhood. He neither knows himself nor his outriders; he berserks a fearful dimension and dismounts, miraculously, in bed!"


Yeah, he goes on like that for page after page after page. This was one of those books where I could stare at the prose and realize yes, this author does things with words that are as far beyond my abilities as Tiger Woods is beyond my ability to play golf, and yet... oh gads, Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O'Connor, shut up. Also, all these people suck.



Verdict: Nightwood is amazingly written, extremely stylized, and captures a very particular time and place with a vivid portrayal of its small cast of sad, wrecked characters. But I'm not surprised that Djuna Barnes isn't well known today. This book has to be read and reread to apprehend everything, and reading it once was enough of a trial for me. It's the sort of book probably found in graduate courses in queer studies or early feminist literature, and not much anywhere else. But if you like difficult books that stretch the limits of language (James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, that sort of writing), then you should probably try the experience of Nightwood.

I read Nightwood for the books1001 challenge.




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Tags: books, books1001, literary
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