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Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood (1936)

by Djuna Barnes

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2,376424,094 (3.51)124
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 124 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
"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 |
Given T.S. Eliot's introduction, in which he says he read the book multiple times and it better each time, I should state this is a review of my FIRST reading. I would estimate a 99.98% chance it will be my last, but you never know.

I was attracted to this book by its mention in Eric Ambler's autobiography (Here Lies), where he says it was suggested by a friend, who recommended books Amber otherwise wouldn't have thought about. So I guess I owe my reading to Ambler's long-ago friend also.

In reviews of the book (which I read afterwards), it is hailed as a pioneering work of lesbian literature. Yet while it is true that the woman, Robin, around whom the events of the book revolve, has relationships with two women (Nora and Jenny) in addition to the husband, Felix, she leaves early in the book, I didn't find anything about how anyone behaved that depended upon the nature of the relationship, i.e., whether it was lesbian or heterosexual. This is a book about relationships between human beings and how they can leave lasting, indelible marks on the human soul and psyche. The behavior of Nora in the wake of Robin's departure is extreme, but it certainly isn't any more extreme than the way some men act when left by a woman.

At the center of the book, however, is the doctor, whose long rambling monologues fill up most of the pages. These are, by turns, entertaining, funny, observant, and mystifying. This is a book where sentences often seem to use a word or two that just doesn't belong, and most of these words come out of the doctor's mouth.

Well, I could ramble on, but it would just further show my lack of understanding! This is a book I'm glad I read, and despite its often obscure language and motivations, it isn't that hard to read. Perhaps if I just had the right drink in my hand.... ( )
  datrappert | Oct 30, 2018 |
Esse livro é tão maravilhosamente escrito, e não sei até que ponto entra o talento da Barnes somado ao know-how do Galindo, que tive os meus ímpetos emocionais de quando lia Proust, só não dou cinco estrelas porque as personagens femininas me incomodaram deveras, especialmente porque elas não agiam de acordo com suas respectivas idades, com exceção de Robin que estava na faixa da década dos 20 anos, mas Nora (na faixa dos 30 até os 40) e Jenny (na faixa dos 40 aos 50), independente da época que viveram ou do quanto o sistema patriarcal ainda influenciava as relações lésbicas da primeira metade do século (uma infantilidade que não víamos em Proust, por exemplo). Por outro lado, o Doutor, personagem que liga todos os capítulos, é deveras memorável. ( )
  Adriana_Scarpin | Jun 12, 2018 |
Illustrates all the problems of modernist literature in the most flattering way. ( )
  alik-fuchs | Apr 27, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 42 (next | show all)
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.

» 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.
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