Archive for the ‘Barnes, Djuna’ Category

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

June 6, 2010

Purchased at

In some ways, the story of how I came to read Nightwood is as interesting as my thoughts on the book itself. One of the bloggers whom I follow regularly, Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf, ran both a contest and daily posts on this year’s Tournament of Books, an NCAA-style fiction competition run by the online Morning News. The tournament starts with 16 books (ranging from Wolf Hall, the eventual winner, through the bookclub favorite The Help, to the graphic novel, Logicomix). There is a “game” every day as the brackets wind down — and there is a commentary that welcomes responses from those who are following the tournament. It was late in the contest that commentator John Warner (a professor at Clemson University) offered this incentive: list the last five books that you have read and he would provide a recommendation for future reading. (The offer provoked more than 300 comments and some excellent recommendations — you can see the full exchange here. It is worth the visit.) After giving me two books that I had read and liked (John Banville’s The Book of Evidence and Tim Parks’ Europa), John finally came up with Nightwood.

First published in 1937, this novel probably qualifies as a “cult” book. Barnes had kicked around almost all of the between-war literary havens — Greenwich Village; Provincetown, Mass. and Paris (where she hung out with Gertrude Stein and James Joyce). Venice, too — the book is dedicated to Peggy Guggenheim and John Ferrar Holms. Even before publication, Nightwood acquired a powerful advocate in T.S. Eliot who not only lobbied Faber to publish it, but also wrote the introduction to the first and subsequent editions.

I will admit upfront that Nightwood is not my preferred kind of novel. I lean towards reportage, context and characterization, rather than language and style. To illustrate my distance from this book, Eliot concludes his introduction by saying:

What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizaberhan tragedy.

That is a perceptive summary: language and style do carry the book, but in its own way it does have both characterization and horror/doom. While it was that latter part that kept me involved in the book, I am going to run against form in this review and focus on examples of language and style — for other readers, I am sure that is where the real strength of this novel lies. In the opening of his introduction, Eliot also says “it would appeal primarily to readers of poetry”. I confess to not being a reader of poetry since I left university.

The two characters that we meet in chapter one are appropriate symbols for what the book will become; they are as unreliable as any character could be. Felix calls himself Baron Volkbein; his father had invented the noble title which has no legitimate basis whatsoever and Felix invented inheriting it:

Felix was heavier than his father and taller. His hair began too far back on his forehead. His face was a long, stout oval, suffering a laborious melancholy. One feature alone spoke of Hedvig [his mother], the mouth, which, though sensuous from lack of desire as hers had been from denial, pressed too intimately close to the bone structure of the teeth. The other features were a little heavy, the chin, the nose, and the lids; into one was set his monocle which shone, a round blind eye in the sun.

Felix hooks up with another character who will become even more important to the book: Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor. He isn’t really a doctor, although he acts as one. He is a declining never-was (as opposed to has-been) and, if I can be permitted to borrow from North American First Nations spiritualism, he will perform the role of The Trickster throughout the novel. O’Connor’s monologues occupy much of the novel, as all of the characters “bounce” off him (his role is like that of a Father Confessor, shrink, talkative barhound, all rolled into one), so it is worth paying attention to his style. Here’s an example, comparing himself to Felix:

“The Irish may be as common as whale-shit — excuse me — on the bottom of the ocean — forgive me — but they do have imagination and,” he added, “creative misery, which comes from being smacked down by the devil, and lifted up again by the angels. Misericordioso! Save me, Mother Mary, and never mind the other fellow! But the Jew, what is he at his best? Never anything higher than a meddler — pardon my wet glove — a supreme and marvellous meddler often, but a meddler nevertheless.” He bowed slightly from the hips. “All right, Jews meddle and we lie, that’s the difference, the fine difference.”

If you find echoes of Joyce’s prose in that, you will find many more. I am a long way into this review and I am only now getting to the main point of the “story” — it is a study of lesbianism, hermaphrodites and the anxiety and pain that were involved in “deviant” behavior in the 1930s (and decades after). The focal point for this is Robin Vote who, while she almost never speaks in the book (her role is that of being a more or less permanent victim who transfers her woes to even greater effect for others), has a dramatic impact on every other character in the novel. Here is how Barnes introduces her:

On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers, faintly over-sung by the notes of unseen birds, which seem to have been forgotten — left without the usual silencing cover, which, like cloaks on funeral urns, are cast over their cages at night by good housewives — half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled. Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick-lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face.

Robin Vote is, in fact, the evil centre of the book and I make no apology for leaving an introduction of her until so late in this review — Barnes does the same thing in the novel. She will marry Felix and bear his child, desert him for Nora Flood, desert her for Jenny Petherbridge and move to America. (Nora and Jenny are very important characters in the book, but you will have to read it to discover why). Robin is the vision of the future that keeps elusively moving away; Dr. O’Connor is the voice of the past which is always disturbingly present and more than ready to review and pontificate on your circumstances. That tension between perceptions of the future that are conflicting with memories of the past is a central feature of the book.

I am not even going to attempt to provide a concluding opinion regarding this book. As I hope the review shows, it does have a version of a plot. And it certainly has characterization. More than anything else, it has prose and style — I’ve included more quotes than usual to acknowledge that. If you like the excerpts, I am sure you will like the book. Nightwood is a signicant novel and I am very glad that I read it, even if it did not fit my normal pattern — I will be very interested in what my memories of it are a few months down the road. I suspect that I may be remembering more than I am willing to admit now.

And finally, to get back to the world of fun reading, I would like to offer to repeat John Warner’s “five book” exercise. If you would care to indicate what five books you have most recently read, I’ll do my best to suggest one that you should consider. No promises of success, however.


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