Nightwood: The Original Version and Related Drafts

ISBN: 1564780805
ISBN 13: 9781564780805
By: Djuna Barnes Cheryl J. Plumb

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About this book

The version of Nightwood published in 1936 and revered ever since both as a classic modernist work and a groundbreaking lesbian novel differs in many ways from the book Djuna Barnes actually wrote. The Dalkey edition not only restores to the main text the material Barnes reluctantly allowed to be cut, but also reproduces in facsimile the seventy pages of discarded drafts that survive of earlier versions. More than sixty years after its publication, Nightwood is firmly established as a twentieth-century classic, and this critical edition will allow readers and scholars to gain a greater understanding and appreciation of this unforgettable work.

Reader's Thoughts


I suggest that future printings of this book be given the subtitle "I am a bourgeoisie, and I am in a cafe, and I am sad (because of love)."At least, if I got nothing else from this book (which is the case), I now know where Ultra Dolphins got the song title "Matthew O'Connor"

Tom Meade

Well this was a strange, yet strangely compelling book. Lauded by William S. Burroughs - an introduction by T.S. Elliot - the better part of its length is taken-up with bizarre monologues against the insanity and artifice of modern society, delivered by an unlicenced, transvestite medical doctor. It has all the markings of a cult classic and couldn't possibly be as good as it sounds - but then it actually is.I wonder if we can trace modern literary fiction's obsession with writing purely in epigrams to this book? I doubt it, but Barnes' prose style does inhabit a beguiling region between imagist and decadent realms. She has an incredible knack for startling turns of phrase - take perhaps my favourite, "Her face was like something once beautiful found in a river". It's lovely. In any case, Barnes' book hits on a lot of interesting topics - lesbianism, transgenderism, and, most importantly of all, the necessity of playing a role. Everyone in this book is play-acting, and most people are deeply unhappy both with the role they were born to and the one that they are attempting to make a play for. Barnes seems to have hit upon love as the central topic of the book, if only because romantic entanglements are some of the most stressful and multifaceted going. Similarly, she uses the plight of the Jew-in-hiding as a metaphor for isolation from a community of which one is an integral part. Then she leads the reader on through a morass of disappointments and human stupidity and we end with the saddening, but perhaps not unexpected, revelation that nothing is going to work-out and that people are never going to be able to truly, you know, connect.So it might not seem like revelatory conclusion at this point, but it was probably a bit more novel in the 1930s. In any case, this is a very strange and fascinating book that is far too complicated for me to have appreciated it fully on a single reading. I don't reread books often, but Nightwood all but demands it.


Nightwood is one odd duck of “novel”, a cascade of beautiful and sometimes disturbing images written in poetic yet comic prose. People looking for a book about a realistic treatment of a lesbian relationship or a book of female empowerment might be confused by this book, as this is all about the language and the truly weird characters. The female empowerment is in the fiery eccentricities of Barnes’ writing. The combination of the poetic, the ominous, and the comic earns her comparisons to Joyce, Pynchon, and Nathaniel West.(Also of a piece with the work of Jane Bowles, Isak Dineson, Angela Carter, and Rikki Ducornet)

D.S. West

OK whoa, my girlfriend wasn't kidding about this one being a doozy. Literary and high-minded as hell, high falutin and pretentious, but nonetheless outstanding. Nightwood is a gleefully bizarre marriage of Shakespearean tragedy and experimental Modernist prose. Dr. Matthew O' Connor is an out-of-place--gay and a transvestite, and a theatrical monologuist among a cast of internally disquieted novel characters. Dr. O' Connor provides most of the exposition, is endlessly quotable (even when one has no damned idea what he's babbling about), and is certainly both the protagonist of the novel (Nora takes second fiddle if you ask me--typical roman a clef be damned) and one of the chiefly memorable characters in Modern lit. "If you don't want to suffer you should tear yourself apart." The good doctor has already been torn apart, yet because of the troubles of those he keeps company with, as well as his own incongruence, still he suffers. Tragic, illuminating stuff! Some of the passages had a psychological resonance that reminded me of the jester/Lear conversations in Lear. I can't say why exactly--I haven't read or watched that play in a number of years--but that's where the mind took me.Nightwood is a brilliantly written book. Even if it's not entertaining all the way through, or even decipherable, it is clearly a courageous deviation from the norm (even today) and an achievement. No wonder this year marks the first Djuna Barnes conference! I hate to fall back on the hackneyed "before his/her time" compliment, but...Djuna was before her time.


Another book that the star rating system barely fits. This is a classic, interior, brilliant, odd, irritating, lovely, unpleasant, lyric, weird book from the '30's... self-impressed European decadence... traces of Sally Bowles, definitely expect that green nailpolish. It was heavily promoted by TS Eliot in one of those strange literary love affairs... You wince at the anti-semitism (I hate when people try to explain their characters as racial specimens, rather than human beings), and flounder a bit in the overwrought emotionality of the despair of a lesbian relationship gone bad--but then again, the language is so heady and incredible... the strange insights so apt! I compare it most to Anais Nin, who is a great favorite of mine--her 'Spy in the House of Love', where Sabina takes the place of the almost cypheristic object of desire in Nightwood, Robin Vote--but I believe Sabina where Robin is just a shadow on the cave wall. Yet, in digging further, I discovered that this is a largely autobiogrpahical book about Barnes and her own obscure object of affection. The only character who does actualy seem real and well observed is the one Barnes felt to be unregenerately and scathingly portrayed, Jenny the thief of love, the "looter" who can only experience things that have been experienced by others and then stolen for herself. (in the end, in a great scene, Robin lights a votive candle and Jenny sneaks in and blows it out and lights it herself). Didn't know whether to give it 4 or 5 stars, four for its maddening note of superiority vis a vis its characters, or five for the beautiful wiritng. Well, being me, I give it five. A five with flaws.

Alex Testere

This book was incredible ... it took me beyond what I've come to expect of a novel in that it was wildly poetic and impossible to understand on the rare occasion, but the quality of the writing is so strong and expressive that I was moved to mark and commit to memory a passage on almost every page. It felt like a book that had been in my life a long time, just waiting to be read. An old woman saw me reading it on the train and said to me, "it's good to see that book is still around ... I read it almost *fifty* years ago." I choked on my words, caught completely off guard in the middle of a sentence, and she looked at me and continued, "you know, she was a great woman too," and she left the train, and left me awestruck. Did she know Djuna Barnes? Were they besties? WAS SHE ROBIN? WAS SHE JENNY? Was it all autobiographical? The book managed to transcend its pages on so many levels, and this experience was just one more. Highly recommend to anyone interested in poetry or novels, drama, love, and a good, rewarding challenge.


cult classic of both Modernist and lesbian fiction. okay, so that's not a great intro. One of the most bizarre things I've ever come across, Nightwood is only a mere 180 pages--although extremely difficult and intricate. The style is carnivalesque and baroque, filled densely, densely with metaphor. It's easy enough to get through if you listen to as though it were poetry (T.S. Elliot initially targeted the book to such an audience) but to try and untangle the passages and monologues would require some serious re-reading, and patience. The language is insane, the syntax perfect. The elevated nature of the language could put the book off to people as pretentious but I beg to differ on this one, it's bizarre enough that the ostentation is compelling rather than obnoxious. I think the preface says it perfectly "Nightwood is demanding. You can slide into it, because the prose has a narcotic quality, but you can't slide over it. The language is not about conveying information; it is about conveying meaning. There is much more to this book than its story, which is slight, or even in its characters, who are magnificent tricks of the light. This is not the solid nineteenth-century world or narrative, it is the shifting, slipping relative world..." It takes time, no word skimming, but I'm willing to stab at it again, and again, and again. a sample you say?"The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface. About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorous glowing about the circumference of a body of water--as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations--the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds--meet of child and desperado."


i read this book in college and have read it on an almost annual basis since. and i swear, i never feel like i'm reading the same book. it's prose is thick with lush descriptions and imagery reminiscent of a lot of the ex-pat's of paris at the time. it's intoxicating. the only drawback is that there's not a whole lot of djuna barnes' work available. so don't get too attached. and if you do, don't say i didn't warn you. i'm notorious for my warnings and i've worked hard to garner such a reputation. so don't fucking undermine me. dick.

mark monday

Nightwood is the sound of hearts breaking, written on the page, spread out for all to see, five lives, five people eviscerated and eviscerating each other. These people fucking kill me, they are so sad and so full of nonsense and so determined to live in their own personal little boxes, striving for epiphanies that they barely even understand, trying to be a certain idea of What a Person Is. Is that what I'm like? Maybe that's what everyone is like. Barnes lays out these characters' lives like beads on a string, one after the other. "Baron" Felix, that whole fake heritage made by his father that he now lives out as if it were real. I can't help but identify a little bit with the Baron, his bullshit, his need to please, to be calm and careful as a way to prop himself up. His stiffness. Not really sure how Barnes feels about him - she spends a lot of time with him, such an elaborate backstory, so that's something (although I hate all the derogatory Jew crap, 'Jews are like this, Jews always think this way' - bogus, and the only thing that is boring in Nightwood). She creates this hollow man and then she fills him up with life and sadness and a rigid sort of sweetness towards his son, I see myself in him, and other people I know, my dad especially. Barnes seems more interested in the Robin-Nora-Jenny triangle. Makes sense; I'm more interested in them too. Robin Vote. That name! Is it supposed to mean something? She is like something out of a Duras novel, a hollow vessel, an intellectual kind of id, a sick need to define herself by rejecting those who want her, rejecting those who want to define her. I see a lot of myself in Robin, that fucked up need to keep people at a distance, no real connection means no proprietary relationship, let's just be friends, friends are easy, I love my friends. Except Robin has no real love in her, just a blind, mindless need... for what? Something. When we first meet her she is passed out, insensible; Barnes describes her as "La Somnambule", a sleepwalker in life - except sleepwalkers don't destroy. She is more like an exterminating angel, a sleepy one. In the end, confronting a dog, she is transformed into a kind of dog herself. I think that's unfair to dogs. My sympathies are mainly with Nora Flood, a tough dyke of the old school, a listener, a person people gravitate towards, to tell their stories, to be listened to and so given a kind of identity by that listening, being made human by being seen as human by another human. I see a lot of myself in Nora. There is a remoteness to her, different than the alien quality of Robin's hollow vessel, more like a stillness, a need to stay still and understand and truly see the world around her. And then when she's hurt, when she is filled with longing and damage and pain, it is so debilitating and yet filled with such sad fury, a painful howling fury, I've felt that, it just takes over and you don't want to feel anything but pain, your mind is just blank with it, all bright and dark hues of hot angry red. Poor Nora. Why does her life become defined by her pursuit of Robin? That's not even a life. But it is a better life than Jenny Petheridge's life, the third part of this strange, sorrowful triangle. Triangle? Why do I keep saying that? If you include Baron Felix, it is more of a square. But he barely counts in their lives, his poor sad son becomes his life, a son who is all need and reaching towards some kind of meaning, something to define him. I felt such empathy for that son, like I was that son. I am that son. But back to Jenny. Djuna Barnes must have based Jenny on someone she hates. There is so much detail about her craziness. And a lot of it is so funny, a terrible kind of funny, laughing at someone who is a rich basket case, at a person who is basically a straw man - woman - for the author's hate. She is all gruesome softness and blind stabby moments, crying hysterics and desperate neediness, such intensity and so little affect, defining herself by creating these fake worlds to live in, this dramatic love affair with an empty vessel, not caring who she hurts - shoving, scratching her emotions right into, onto a person's face, literally. And those who love her die - her history of dead husbands, leaving her better off and with more of nothing. I can't help but identify with Jenny, with her weakness, her desperate yearning. I remember when my heart was broken, except I was the one who did the breaking, broke two hearts, another person's heart isn't enough, let's break mine too, like Jenny with her insensible angry intrusive neediness, her boring self-abnegating self-flagellations, I hate all that. How can a person like Jenny compete with a person like Nora, how can Robin chose possession over true understanding? Well, that happens all the time I suppose. And Robin doesn't really even choose her, she chooses herself, again and again. I get Robin, I see her in the mirror; she's coming and going from and to nowhere.And then the renegade doctor, the berserk socialite, Dr. Matthew O'Connor, railing against form and tradition, gentle and strong and angry and petty, a drunkard, a man who loves life, a transvestite living in his little squalid apartment, a man full of warmth and kindness and vitriol, a man who secretly defines himself by helping others, spitting out monologues about life and death and appearance and sanctity and desire. He delivered Nora Flood into the world and is her sounding-board, his long rants are not just violent flows of sound and fury and pathos, they are not merely self-absorbed, they are trying to speak to her by speaking of himself, he is trying to break through to her by breaking himself down in front of her, shaking her back to life, away from insensibility and morbid obsession, until the rant turns on the ranter and he in turn is broken down, seeing himself and the world around him for what he and it truly is, is becoming, is falling back into. His delirious rants are like the novel itself, discretely separated into chapters, separated by character and incident, and yet the parts are flowing into each other, the language flows into reality and out of it, the narrative folds up into itself until it becomes unrecognizable as a narrative, like a flower all mashed up so that the pulp is barely recognizable as the original flower, just little parts here and there, you pull a piece out and it is still a flower but what connection does it have to the original thing? It turns in on itself, it becomes something different and it stays essentially the same. I see a lot of myself in Matthew O'Connor, him most of all, most of all, I Am Matthew O'Connor, I live and breathe him, I read about these breaking hearts and they are all my heart too, all of it, none of it, it all comes together, it's all the same, each separate one of them, right?...Is this a mobius strip, of sorts?: _________________________UPDATElooking back on this a few weeks later, i see that in my desperate attempt to write this review as a kind of stylistic homage to my favorite reviewer MARIEL, i neglected key things that i usually like to put in my reviews. okay, here goes...the writing itself: beautiful! hypnotic. excessive. idiosyncratic. modernist (duh). drily amusing. rich with off-kilter nuance. flows like a bad dream.the characterization: despite the experimental nature of the novel and a regular use of caricature, these are some amazingly three-dimensional characters. i got to understand them on a really human level, and not just as quirky conceits on a page.the narrative: broken, unstable, constantly challenging - and often very annoying as well. annoying like sand in an oyster's shell! Nightwood: a pearl.


After a second reading had to include the missing fifth star. Full reassessment soon. ...So I'm not used to this kind of reaction with a book--finished it this morning, and I might very well start it all over again. Immediately. This never happens to me. And this despite not knowing what the hell was going on half (most?) of the time, but by the end I became intoxicated by the sheer absurdity that made me laugh stupidly despite being in public, the unexpected submersions into harrowing despair, the (to blatantly steal Ned Rorem's characterization) "gorgeous claustrophobia" the novel evokes. I've never come across anything quite like this before. Was initially intrigued by Susan Sontag's comment in her journal that her and her friends were essentially characters out of this novel; I wonder now how much of her own romantic sufferings were modeled off of Norah Flood's..."'How do you stand it, then?' she demanded. 'How do you live at all if this wisdom of yours is not only the truth, but the price?'"

Margaret Sankey

Rather than re-read a Hans Fallada to get me in the mood for 1920s-30s Europe in class, I took a recommendation and branched out to Djuna Barnes for this truly strange novel. One one level, it is self-absorbed bright young things chasing an unobtainable woman, but on a more symbolic analysis, Robin Voter IS the new post-war world--without moral judgement, halfway between human and animal, sleepwalking over the brink of disaster before expressing any individual will. Each character fails to hold her because they attempt to impose their own projection of order--Felix and his faux old world aristocracy, Norah her Yankee practicality, Jenny and her covetous second-hand emotional vampirism. It's weird and tedious, and T.S. Eliot's preface warns us not to feel smug and superior to these people, but fundamentally, if Robin is the new world, there is no better description of 1936 than her job as the advance person for a decrepit and debauched circus.


I'm confused why this book is held in such high regard. The characters are so whiny and fatalistic, moaning like cats that have survived being run over by a car rolling around on the road in agony. I just couldn't connect with this book at all. I can understand its cultural relevance and the source of the characters agonies are not lost on me but it's just so drawn out, poetically beating around the bush like a bad Marcel Carné movie.. I actually thought I was reading a poorly translated French book until the middle and I was surprised to learn it was an American author. The writing is just murky and awkward. Though Nightwood started off so compellingly evocative with some really wonderful writing for the first chapter it turns into a moaning and unsatisfying series of dialogues really quickly.Maybe I've been spoiled by my current and ongoing reading of The Recognitions which had some of the greatest and most psychologically convincing dialogue I have ever read. Nightwood really is flat and artificial in comparison.


I really, really wanted to love this. Because it's all transgressive and modernist and shit.But its whole is vastly, vastly smaller than the sum of its parts. A good turn of phrase here, a monologue there doesn't make for an especially interesting story. In fact, the monologues kind of feel like angry and needless tack-ons from the novel's characters... who are not especially interesting and remind me of the paper-doll French haute-bourgeoisie that I used to watch play about in late-'60s Godard movies that I somehow convinced my 20 year old stoner self that I liked.From what I can tell, a lot of people really, really love Nightwood. But I thought it kinda boring.

Jeff Jackson

The novel that almost ended my book club. We'd previously read work by Robert Coover, Anne Carson, and Ben Marcus. Cormac McCarthy's Suttree and The Story of O. But it was Nightwood that most of the usually intrepid group didn't bother to finish, a few unwilling to even venture past the first chapter. Bitter complaints of overly baroque language, old fashioned concerns with ancestry, and a story where "nothing happened." Folks were pissed. To be honest, I'm still mystified. While it took me far longer to read this 180 page novel than I'd anticipated - the prose demanded an attentive slowness as key moments often passed within a short phrase - I felt rewarded every time I stopped to parse out a particularly knotty section or unpack an ambiguous aphorism. There's a level of psychological insight into the characters here that's astounding - coupled with Barnes setting an almost unknowable anti-heroine at the dead center of the story, serving as a sort of swirling black hole. While at first the book seems to play like a series of portraits, the cohesive structure slowly reveals itself. This is a book that's reticent to shine a light on its secrets. Even the very last scene seems to suggest a new meaning for everything that came before. It forces you to reconsider where you've been placing the dramatic emphasis - and empathy. It's a story where little might happen on the surface, but there's simultaneously too much to take in on one reading. The doctor's monologues ricochet around the page like indoor fireworks and it's hard to know whether to enjoy the explosions or duck for cover. Under the restrained veneer of the descriptions, Barnes documents a world of transexuals, cruising, defrocked priests, drunken mothers who abandon their infants, feral encounters with animals, etc. It's often incredibly debauched without being the least bit judgmental of its characters. And of course it's a love story. It's about a love for oblivion, that oblivion you can sometimes find in other people.

Philip Lane

I had great difficulties understanding this book. Sentences such as 'When the streets were gall high with things you wouldn't have done for a dare's sake, and the way it was then; with the pheasants' necks and the goslings' beaks dangling against the hocks of the gallants, and not a pavement in the place , and everything gutters for miles and miles, and a stench to it that plucked you by the nosttrils and you were twenty leagues out!' are just plain too long. If I read it three times slowly I can understand most of the words and even perhaps the general gist of the sentence as a whole but I don't really understand what it adds to the overall meaning of the book. T.S. Eliot in a preface says that he found the characters came alive only after repeated reading and that 'a prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.' Well perhaps I am just an ordinary novel-reader but I just found it too difficult to enjoy. I do feel any writer needs to take the reader into consideration and I am not quite sure what is the juatification for making meaning so obscure that only an elite group of academics or intellectuals can access it.I also got the overall impression that if I did take the trouble to read it again I would merely get closer to a rather melancholy and pessimistic view of life. What would I get for my troubles? The pleasure of knowing that I managed to weasle out more meaning from it than most 'ordinary novel readers'.

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