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


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.


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.

Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly

T.S.Eliot wrote an introduction to this novel in 1937. He said he has read it "a number of times." Twelve years later, in 1949, he wrote a note to the book's second edition. He said his "admiration for the book has not diminished."In 1937 T.S.Eliot said that this novel would "appeal primarily to readers of poetry." I agree. I could even dare say that this is poetry masquerading as prose. Thus, even with a deceptively simple plot, almost in every page passages will move you even if you're unsure what they mean. Then you read them again and again, with them becoming more beautiful each time, even if you feel you understand them less and less.One thing T.S.Eliot missed--or maybe dared not write in 1937/1949--is that this is a gay love story. Check out its principal protagonists: 1.Robin Vote - the beauty. She married Felix, the "Baron" and had a child by him but she left them. In several scenes, she wears boys' clothes; 2.Felix, the "Baron" - a Jew with pretensions of nobility; 3. Nora - Robin's lover whom she (Robin) later abandoned; 4.Jenny - Robin's other lover for whom Robin left Nora; and 5. Dr. Matthew O'Connor - a closet gay and a cross-dresser (in private) who, at one time, confessed that "no matter what (he) may be doing, in (his) heart is the wish for children and knitting (and that he) never asked (God) better than to boil some good man's potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months by the calendar."Gay lovers in anguish and what poetry! At one point the doctor said (and read this aloud and see if it does not sound like poetry):"We swoon with the thickness of our own tongue when we say, 'I love you,' as in the eye of a child lost a long while will be found the contraction of that distance--a child going small in the claws of a beast, coming furiously up the furlongs of the iris. We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it. Yes, we who are full to the gorge with misery should look well around, doubting everything seen, done, spoken, precisely because we have a word for it, and not its alchemy."Or Nora explaining the difference between a woman loving a man, and a woman loving another woman:"A man is another person--a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own. If she is taken you cry that you have been robbed of yourself. God laughs at me, but his laughter is my love."Djuna Barnes, who died in 1982, was said to be gay herself. That may explain the rigorous, manly tone of her writing, like she really has the heart and mind of a man. Only a guy, for example, could have described Felix's first meeting with Robin like this:"She (Robin) closed her eyes, and Felix, who had been looking into them intently because of their mysterious and shocking blue, found himself seeing them still faintly clear and timeless behind the lids--the long unqualified range in the iris of wild beasts who have not tamed the focus down to meet the human eye."The woman who presents herself to the spectator as a 'picture' forever arranged is, for the contemplative mind, the chiefest danger. Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person's every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey."Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache--we feel that we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers."Gays, I mean, guys you have to read this before you die!


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 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, feelgood it is not. 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' poetic style is the featured attraction, and that you have to experience. T.S. Eliot in the foreword says "only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it," and that's probably true, because I didn't appreciate it so much as endure it. Jeanette Winterson says: "Nightwood is itself. It is its own created world, exotic and strange, and reading it is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass. You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work. From now on, a part of you is pearl-lined."Well, I don't know about that either. But there were passages of pure genius and imagery. I particularly like the introduction of Jenny Petherbridge: She had a beaked head and the body, small, feeble, and ferocious, that somehow made one associate her with Judy; they did not go together. Only severed could any part of her have been called "right." There was a trembling ardour in her wrists and fingers as if she were suffering from some elaborate denial. She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be steaming in the vapours of someone else about to die; still she gave off an odour to the mind (for there are purely mental smells that have no reality) of a woman about to be accouchée. Her body suffered from its fare, laughter and crumbs, abuse and indulgence. But put out a hand to touch her, and her head moved perceptibly with the broken arc of two instincts, recoil and advance, so that the head rocked timidly and aggressively at the same moment, giving her a slightly shuddering and expectant rhythm. She writhed under the necessity of being unable to wear anything becoming, being one of those panicky little women who, no matter what they put on, look like a child under penance.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. 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 are the monologues by Dr. O'Connor, a dissolute gynecologist who likes to wear women's clothing. "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!"He goes on like that for pages. It's like modernist performance art, two characters barking poetically at the moon. 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.I didn't really enjoy this book, though I could appreciate the incredible talent and mad genius of Djuna Barnes. But any book this short that was still such a struggle to get through that I was relieved when it was finished, I can't give more than 2 stars.

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.

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.


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"


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.


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."


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?'"

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'.

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.

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.

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.


One of my all-time favorites...abstract, lyrical, hateful, funny, beautiful, ugly and weird. I got very sucked into the entire literary-lesbians-in-Paris thing in my mid-twenties. It still fascinates me.

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