Nightwood

ISBN: 0811216713
ISBN 13: 9780811216715
By: Djuna Barnes T.S. Eliot Jeanette Winterson

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About this book

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.

Reader's Thoughts

Janet

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.

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.

Rhonda

** spoiler alert ** I have been reading this book again because a group on GR decided to tackle it. I thought that despite the fact that this must be at least my third reading since college, I should surely develop a better understanding of what this book is about. Yes, the story is somewhat basic, a love triangle between three women. The woman, Robin Vote, over whom the other two distress themselves, never speaks. Instead, we are given indications of her activities, from the time she accepts a marriage proposal from a pseudo-baron through her two female relationships and to the end.Barnes is one of the characters, Nora Flood, and her lover, Robin Vote, has been said to be Thelma Wood. The third woman, Jenny Petherbridge, is a remarkable character in the book and perhaps the most recognizable as human, all others seeming vaguely like a Freudian dream. I have often wondered if Jenny bore any similarity to Henriette Macrea Metcalf, the woman for whom Wood left Barnes and with whom she had a 16 year relationship. However, whether correct or not, this reading of the book has finally sharpened my focus as to, at least, the subject matter of this book. While it is confusing due to Barnes' jumping from character to character and situation to situation, I read somewhere that Barnes described the book as something like one's lonely thoughts through the night. If we take that as the "night" part of the title, how should we not be able to add Thelma Wood as the "wood" portion of the title? Hence I tend to think that this book is not only a kind of quasi-dream of Barnes concerning Thelma Wood, but it demonstrates the significant progress the character which Wood makes through her life. Barnes said once that she was not a lesbian: she had only loved Thelma Wood.While Wood herself complained that Nightwood misrepresented her and thus ruined her life (and one may argue that tongue firmly placed in one's cheek after reading her bio,) Nightwood is about the very specific progress which the character of Robin makes from the beginning, in which we find herboth desperately in need of being owned and at the same time, vehemently unhappy at losing her personal freedom.We find the historical theme, especially one of not only pessimism but of lies and dishonesty expressed from the very beginning when the false baron wishes to marry: "Old Europe': aristocracy, nobility, royalty. . . . He felt that the great past might mend a little if he bowed low enough, if he succumbed and gave homage." Immediately after seeing Robin, Felix confesses to the doctor that he "wished a son who would feel as he felt about the 'great past. It is a wish for a history which is essentially manufactured in memories and objects, but whose reality remains terrible and frightening.When Robin finds herself pregnant, she takes Catholic vows. We sense that she is searching for something against her nature, something she doesn't directly want but perhaps by doing such things, the inquietudes will cease in her own head. When she visits many different cathedrals to pray, we sense the desperation, but to know it, we have to understand it from others' perspective."She talked to the nuns and they, feeling that they were looking at someone who would never be able to ask for, or receive, mercy, blessed her in their hearts and gave her a sprig of rose from the bush." Even those who meet her know that she is seeking something she cannot have.Later we find Robin asleep with the memoirs of the Marquis de Sade and a line is underscored: Et lui rendit pendant sa captivite les milles services qu'un amour devoue est seul capable de rendre. In this I think we are given the greatest insight into Robin's character and distress, both the necessity to be "bound" through love and the overwhelming need to break free from bondage. Yet Robin must continue to do these acts of excess over and over in order to get her, excuse the expression, fix of freedom.But Robin, to her credit, finally figures it out. The last scenes, with Robin getting down on all fours and interfacing with the dog never made a great deal of sense to me, but it is ultimately the return to her animalistic primitive nature by which she finds, finally, a permanent sense of freedon. "Then she began to bark also, crawling after him- barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching. The dog began to cry then, running with her, head-on with her head, as if to circumvent her: soft and slow her feet went padding."It is difficult, especially with so many bizarre characters in the book and on first reading, not to imagine that this is something akin to a prelude of animal/human sex. Yet clearly this is nothing of the sort and it remains perhaps Barnes' disappointment with the way in which others interpreted the book. It is, ultimately, not a book about perversity, although certainly there is enough legitimate perversity throughout the world in plain sight. This is, instead, in my opinion, a book about a woman going aginst the grain and seeking to find freedom through a new connection with a pure and coarse basic instinct of femininity. In some senses, this is a frightening proposition and in others it is liberating in the extreme. Perhaps Barnes intended it to be a little of both.Concerning Jenny, Barnes says, "When she fell in love it was with a perfect fury of accumulated dishonesty; she became instantly a dealer in second-hand and therefore incalculable emotions. As, from the solid archives of usage, she had stolen or appropriated the dignity of speech, so she appropriated the most passionate love that she knew, Nora's for Robin. She was a "squatter" by instinct."I interpret the term "squatter" in two ways, the first denigrating Jenny because she is taking everything which belongs to someone else without concern and second, that she is only female in the sense that she exhibits the ridiculous and the frenetic. This thesis isn't all that important and I won't bother to develop it here.

Harrison

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.

John David

For whatever reason, it seems that “Nightwood” has one of the more precarious reputations in twentieth-century literature. The name of its author, Djuna Barnes, is still synonymous with the life of the modern, and Modernist, American expatriate living in Paris; however, like Lawrence Durrell, another author I have been thinking quite a bit about, she seems to have fallen into disfavor – and this is quite a loss. And like Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” this coheres as fiction in a completely different way from most other fiction. While Durrell’s prose is florid and sometimes downright meretricious, Barnes uses her characters, especially the eccentric Dr. O’Connor, to stretch the limits of language and meaning. O’Connor, a fay dandy and philosopher-mystagogue, is so preposterous and unbelievable it’s a miracle that he even works as a character. He serves as a perennial touching conversational touching stone for all the other characters, endlessly and giddily upending their assumptions and, especially in the case of Nora, emotional commitments.The other characters, each histrionic in their own way, are all fairly normal in comparison; the plot is barebones and simple. The “Baron,” a self-stylized aristocrat manqué, marries Robin Vote, who seems lost and discontented whoever she surrounds herself with and wherever she goes, often being driven to roam the streets of the city at night, a listless flaneur. The chapter “Watchmen, What of the Night?” is one of the most beautiful meditations on night that I have ever read in literature. Soon after having a child with the Baron, she leaves him and moves in with Nora, with whom she is just spiritually out of place. Robin then finally leaves Nora for Jenny, at which point Nora turns to Dr. O’Connor for solace. His brand of consolation is some peculiar poesy to say the least. At the height of Nora’s despair, her heart rent in two by a woman she truly loved, O’Connor offers these words: “For the thickness of the sleep that is on the sleeper we ‘forgive,’ as we ‘forgive’ the dead for the account of the earth that lies upon them. What we do not see, we are told, we do not mourn; yet night and sleep trouble us, suspicion being the strongest dream and dead the throng. The heart of the jealous knows the best and the most satisfying love, that of the other’s bed, where the rival perfects the lover’s imperfections. Fancy gallops to take part in that duel, unconstrained by any certain articulation of the laws of that unseen game.”T. S. Eliot’s beautiful introduction does two things introductions rarely do: holds back any plot spoilers (not that there is really anything to “give away,” per se) and actually sheds light on the text. It can safely be read, as I read it, before finishing the book. And I second Eliot’s take on the novel, especially his observation that in “Nightwood” you will find “great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.” The brilliance of wit and characterization is something I can only second and treble. This is bold, high Modernism at its most audacious, and the sum of its effects is simply stunning.

Andrew

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.

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.

Dan

it's tough to sort through what did and did not work for me in this book. i decided to finally read it after years of meaning to because i had just finished clarice lispector's brilliant hour of the star, and thought it might make an appropriate follow-up. it sort of did, i guess, though i think the effortless eccentricities of the lispector novel stand in sharper contrast to the larger modernist "canon" than those of nightwood, which fit more easily into categories like "surrealism" and "existentialism."if i'm to believe some of the google research i've done about the book, nightwood is one of the first openly homosexual novels of the twentieth century. as may not suprise you, there's a fairly ample amount of masochism and self-loathing about sex and sexuality - which might have irked me without a proper understanding of the context. written three decades prior to the stonewall riots (and worlds apart from my own, comparatively "gay friendly" universe), it's not surprising to discover a fairly bleak analysis of sex and relationships within its pages. as a fairly vanilla straight-white-guy, its take on romantic co-dependence didn't entirely resonate with me, but that's not on any level a shortcoming of the novel.there are a number of striking, aphoristic observations that seem to erupt out of the book's rambling fog from time to time. these layered thoughts are its heart-and-soul in my opinion. nightwood is formally quite challenging and beautiful. t.s. eliot's bombastic assumption that "only sensibilities trained on poetry" can understand it isn't entirely off the mark. still, it follows a few familiar, modernist doom-and-gloom trajectories - it's take on love and death reads like a hodge podge of tennessee williams and marguerite duras. there's a long, mostly engaging chapter where two characters discuss the nature of "the night" that is decidedly NOT for all tastes. finally, the character known as the doctor - a scoundrel/philosopher who acts as a greek chorus to the novel's sparse plot points - overstays his welcome from time to time. some of the book's best bits belong to him, but his digressions begin to feel like self-conscious literary gymnastics after a while.i'm not entirely sure why this book didn't knock my socks off, exactly. i'd say it's the pre-occupation with existential nothingness (decidedly NOT the way i look at the world), but i could accuse some of my favorite jean genet novels of the same qualities. the alignment of sex with sickness certainly doesn't mirror my own views on the subject, though i'm often fascinated by similar observations when made by georges bataille or someone like that. i guess the problem, for me, was that i could never quite get lost within the narrative. i came closest through the passages involving nora, which felt natural and effortless. but there's a sense throughout that barnes doesn't think that's quite enough. some of the "literary" bombast toward the end felt like too much of a good thing to me, overriding the initial sense of mystery i found so enjoyable.

will

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.

Jamie

Can't quite speak to why I loved this book. The reviews on here don't appear too kind; likewise, my classmates were befuddled and frustrated by Nightwood. Admittedly, it's sort of amusing to watch a group of budding-scholars with the arrogance to believe they can dissect any text (after all, this is our training, no?) encounter one that leaves them cross-eyed and faint. Which isn't to say that I wasn't often confused, but that when I realized it was pointless to try and 'answer' what this novel was trying to articulate, I decided to sit back and enjoy the ride.Is there a hero of Nightwood? Who knows? Doctor Matthew certainly talks the damn most; but then, I think, Robin Vote (must as with Doctor Matthew) is the flame that all the moth-ciphers of the novel are seduced by. And indeed, I do think of these characters as cipher-figures; they're somewhat like walking ideas, trapped in a script that is not really their own. One quote cut to the quick: Jenny Petherbridge "defiled the very meaning of personality in her passion to be a person." But I think this fits all of the specters of the novel; each is seeking desperately to become a person (re: all of them taking up mantles that are not their own, as Felix and his 'royal lineage' and the 'Doctor' his medical merits), and so fucks everything up entirely. I'm really curious about the uncensored version that's supposedly available now; Eliot edited much of the explicit sex, I hear, but still I was shocked by the unreserved portrayal of female-female desire. It was sort of exhilarating, because the 'anti-normative' position of homoerotic desire at this historical moment seemed so incidental in the crazed circus of the novel. Certainly not the 'Well of Loneliness' approach, though this novel likewise plays with a narrative of contemporary tragedy (not engendered by gay desire, though, which was nice). Anyway, you'll likely fall on one side of the spectrum or the other--you'll either be confused and frustrated and possibly want to throw the book across the room; or you'll be invigorated by the stunning prose, the ghostly characters, the rejection of plot-conventions (everyone I know said the problem with this novel was that nothing happens--which I simply don't understand--the novel simply pays obsessive mind to non-events and breezes over more typical novelistic 'happenings'), and the kookiness of it all. In a nutshell, this novel seemed to me what might have happened in V Woolf wrote an Angela Carter novel (which I guess she sort of did, with Orlando). There's a dash of Flannery O'Connor as well. I don't mean to diminish Barnes's achievement in the slightest, but just to provide a quicker reference for those still up in the air as to whether or not it's worth it. I say yes.

Jesse

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?'"

Emily

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."

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.

Elena

I read this book during my junior year of college, I absolutely loved it. Everytime I read this book, I just want to put Aimee Mann on. Save me from the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone except the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone, rings in my ear. However, Mann's lyric gives a simple portrait to this poetic novel. I think it depicts the truth of rejection, love lost and pain. I am not even really sure how to do this book any justice, but it is beautiful. I am not sure I use that description for many novels, but in the depths of all the sadness there is such beauty in the words that Barnes portrays in this novel. Nothing has moved me emotionally as much as this novel and it is worth reading every year. On a side note, I look forward to read Eliot's pompous remarks every year.

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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