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Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood (1936)

by Djuna Barnes

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,468454,136 (3.53)128
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes' strange and sinuous tour de force, "belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch" (Times Literary Supplement). 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 persona 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.… (more)
  1. 00
    The Lime Twig by John Hawkes (nymith)
    nymith: Barnes was a great influence on Hawkes and both novels share a dreamlike and grotesque writing style.
  2. 00
    A Woman Appeared to Me by Renée Vivien (mambo_taxi)
    mambo_taxi: Nightwood is definitely the better of the two books, but if early 20th century expatriate lesbians living in Paris are your kind of thing, then A Woman Appeared to Me will be of interest.
  3. 00
    Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (lilysea)

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» See also 128 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
A landmark work in lesbian literature and certainly the work of a highly intelligent woman, but for my taste, far too dense in its prose, with long meandering sentences making up paragraphs and modernist techniques that made it a battle to get through. The references and gist of the points Barnes expands on about her characters (telling instead of showing) often seem tedious or just escaped me. Maybe I’m just getting too old, but for whatever reason, this didn’t resonate with me, and I just didn’t see the elegance of poetry in the work, as T.S. Eliot did. ( )
1 vote gbill | Apr 6, 2020 |
An interesting story of a fake baron, three women who have affairs with each other, and a cross dressing doctor who rambles endlessly and ties the four other characters together. A favorite of T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas although Eliot does say it needs to be read several times. ( )
  evil_cyclist | Mar 16, 2020 |
it seems very good but i wasn't smart enough to stay focused and engaged. usually, i had no idea what was happening. but there are a lot of very good lines, this one is me on goodreads:

"...the general feeling was that she was a well-read woman, though she had read perhaps ten books in her life." ( )
  cortneycassidy | Feb 14, 2020 |
"gloomy nonsense that doesn't work" ( )
  slplst | Jun 23, 2019 |
Reading this book is like being transported to another world (usually a good sign in a novel) a world full of allusion where the reader is left grasping at smoke rings, which elegantly curl above the heads of the characters. Although the language is elegant the emotions are raw as the characters, all living in a world of pain desperately try to cope with their feelings of love and loss.

There is an excellent introduction by T S Eliot that alerts the reader to the writing style of the author, prepares him perhaps for a reading experience that will take some concentration. I found it best to approach the book in small chunks, because the writing style then becomes fresh with every read and allowed me to revel in the use of language, without becoming too tired or complaisant. This approach served me well for the first six chapters: the final two where the strands of the story come together in a more narrative approach I was pleased to read in one sitting.

T S Eliot says the style of the novel with its beauty of phrasing the brilliance of wit and characterisation has a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of an Elizabethan tragedy. This is Barnes describing the Squatter Jenny Petherbridge:

“She was nervous about the future, it made her indelicate. She was one of the most importantly wicked women of her time - because she could not let her time alone, and yet could never be part of it. She wanted to be the reason for everything and so she was the cause of nothing. She had the fluency of tongue and action meted out by divine providence to those who cannot think for themselves. She was master of the over-sweet phrase , the over-tight embrace”

Barnes aims to fascinate the reader, not merely by what is said, but also by the manner of saying it. There is duality and word play in the sentences in a style not unlike that of the Elizabethan author Jon Lyly, but like Lyly’s writing the style can be more important than the content and so the reader is left with decisions to be made about what he has just read and what has just been said. It does not always work because at times it feels like a scatter-gun approach, and it can be waring. However there is much in the writing that made me stop and think at how thoughtful, original and appropriate a phrase or sentence was in the context of the novel.

Djuna Barnes was an American artist, illustrator, journalist and writer Nightwood published in 1936 is considered a cult classic of lesbian fiction. She spent two decades in Europe and her novel has a distinctly European feel, with its old world sophistication and her use of German, French and Italian phrases: much of it is set in Paris between the two world wars. The story is basically about a lesbian menage-a-trois relationship with the pains and guilt of love being laid at the door of a male Doctor who advises while getting caught up with the emotions and struggling with his own catholicism. The Doctor is an Irishman who is not a qualified practitioner and leads an alcohol fused existence on the edge of polite society. The events in the novel centre on a couple of incidents that define the nature of the relationships and lead to thoughts and conversations that reflect on love, pain and death. The book has an intense feeling of melancholy leading to despair and is shot through with observations that may not be life changing, but may make you think about living - warning the style can be infectious. It is a book that will go back onto my shelves for an occasional partial re-read and so 4 stars. ( )
3 vote baswood | May 4, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 45 (next | show all)
...the real achievement–and where I found most of my enjoyment–is in Barnes’ phenomenal and inimitable use of language. While reading Nightwood, I thought often of Slate critic Meghan O’Rourke’s line in her case for difficult books: “Reviewers sometimes don’t tell readers what to expect or explain that a book’s primary pleasure is linguistic rather than narrative…” What I loved about Nightwood–what really had me inking up the margins–was Barnes’ powerful ideas and unusual word combinations.
...the wonder of Nightwood is not only stylistic. It lies in the range and depth of feeling the words convey. There is irony here and humor, too, but in the end, the novel is a hymn to the dispossessed, the misbegotten and those who love too much. At one time or another, I suspect that those adjectives describe most of us.
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.
Few authors have achieved so much celebrity with one novel as the elegant, exotic Djuna Barnes, without whom no account of Greenwich Village in the teens, or the Left Bank in the 1920's, is complete. That one novel was "Nightwood." Overwritten and self-indulgent, it carries off its flaws with splendid nonchalance.
added by Lemeritus | editNew York Times (Nov 26, 1995)

» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barnes, Djunaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Eliot, T.S.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Winterson, JeanetteIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Peggy Guggenheim and John Ferrar Holms
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Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein—a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms—gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.
In our society, where it is hard to find time to do anything properly, even once, the leisure—which is part of the pleasure—of reading is one of our culture-casualties. (Jeanette Winterson, Preface)
We don’t go to Shakespeare to find out about life in Elizabethan England; we go to Shakespeare to find out about ourselves now. (Jeanette Winterson, Preface)
Nightwood, peculiar, eccentric, particular, shaded against the insistence of too much daylight, is a book for introverts, in that we are all introverts in our after-hours secrets and deepest loves. (Jeanette Winterson, Preface)
There is pain in who we are, and the pain of love—because love itself is an opening and a wound—is a pain no one escapes except by escaping life itself. (Jeanette Winterson, Preface)
What had formed Felix from the date of his birth to his coming to thirty was unknown to the world, for the step of the wandering Jew is in every son. No matter where and when you meet him you feel that he has come from some place—no matter from what place he has come—some country that he has devoured rather than resided in, some secret land that he has been nourished on but cannot inherit, for the Jew seems to be everywhere from nowhere. -Page 10
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Average: (3.53)
0.5 3
1 18
1.5 6
2 41
2.5 10
3 74
3.5 15
4 94
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