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Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood (1936)

by Djuna Barnes

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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  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 78 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
... and a half.

Is not the gown the natural raiment of extremity? What nation, what religion, what ghost, what dream has not worn it—infants, angels, priests, the dead; why—should not the doctor, in the grave dilemma of his alchemy, wear his dress?' She thought: 'He dresses to lie beside himself, who is so constructed that love, for him, can be only something special; in a room that giving back evidence of his occupancy, is as mauled as the last agony. ( )
  lawrenh | May 14, 2014 |
Second time attempting this beautifully written, beautifully dull novel. The book starts out with an intoxicating sense of loss and estrangement and goes through a series of emotional relationships early on that really left a big impression on me. Barnes handles loss and inner psychology with finesse.

Unfortunately the second half of the novel reads like a series of boring, pedantic conversations between people I'd rather not know. Though the book is often called one of the most difficult from the modernist period, I'd say it's more dull than complex in the final sections.

Too bad that the book loses so much steam and becomes so repetitive, especially considering the power of the opening passages and the book's rather short length.

Maybe the end is good, but once I skipped twenty pages of boring philosophical bs dialogue between the Doctor and whomever, I figured, What the hell is the point?

5/5 for the first 80 pages, then 1/5 from there on.

( )
  blanderson | Mar 4, 2014 |
Six-word review:

Literary geode: sparkling walls, hollow core. ( )
  Meredy | Sep 28, 2013 |
This is an odd novel, because it begins seeming as though it might be a romance/melodrama and by the time you're well into things (or sooner) you begin to realize there's some "questioning the idea of what a romance/novel is" as well as the usual symbolism that gets tossed into Serious Novels of this era. It's also kind of hard to put your finger on "what is this book about?" (Here's the wikipedia page - you can check out the plot summary there if you want more than I'm about to share.)

The back of the book (on a 1961 paperback):"...It is the story of Robin Vote and those she destroys - her husband the "Baron," their child Guido, and the two women, Nora and Jenny, who love her; the whole illuminated by the fantastic monologues of the renegade doctor, Matthew O'Connor, one of the strangest characters in all fiction.And here's my problem with that summary. Whenever the Doctor comes "on stage" in the book he completely takes over. His monologues drown everyone out, a few characters attempt to talk but he talks over them and remains The Central Figure for as long as he's there - and afterwards too, in a way. He does remind me of the kind of person who sucks all the oxygen out of the room and leaves the other inhabitants insensible on the floor - because no one is going to get a word in edgewise once this person begins to talk. And they are speeches and it is a stage because no one speaks that long in conversations, even in novels that give up pretending to be realistic - these are speeches suitable only in lectures or on a stage.

That's when you start realizing that Barnes is doing something more than a novel, she's actually making fun of or examining (I can't be sure which) the structure of the novel/the romance/etc. and the tropes that abound in other such books of her time. On the romance side of things - the sex is mostly implied (probably still scandalously frank for 1936), but the lesbianism isn't in any way glossed over - these are relationships, just as Robin has had relationships with men. There's a bit of "why is Robin like this" but it has more to do with the character's inability to settle down and be with anyone. All of this felt very modern - which I liked. The Doctor is a transvestite, but that seemed just a part of his character, which was already complicated. Perhaps it makes him even more complicated. In any case he's never shamed about it, and there is never any traumatic or cruel public revelation (I dreaded that happening) - the lack of that was also something I liked.

Even though the novel (or the back of the novel anyway) claims to be about Robin we don't see inside of her head much, and mostly find out about her and what she's doing via other people talking about her. So she feels hardly in the book at all - and the same time is the subject everyone is talking about. At the end I still feel I don't really know anything about Robin, not that I can be sure is truth. (But then, what is this thing called truth anyway...)

I'm not entirely sure what happens in the ending. I think it's one of those "no one knows what happens at the ending" things. Normally I REALLY hate those kind of endings - a feeling which goes way back to those stories in elementary school readers (the ones where There's A Lesson To Be Learned by the characters) which end abruptly - cliffhanger! - with the lines "What do YOU think happened next? Discuss with your group and answer the following questions..." Questions which always had something like "Did Fred save the old lady or the kitten? Why?" Ugh. Hated, hated, hated that. I did enjoy the teachers (there were a few) who would actually have us write the end of such stories, in which I usually took great glee in killing off the characters. (This was also fun in later English classes with the "how would you have ended Famous Novel Name Here?" writing assignments. I ended Cat's Cradle with an attack of giant radioactive ants shamelessly stolen from Them! Very satisfying.)

Um, where was I...
Oh right, Nightwood. The ending. Well, it just suddenly ends. I thought that one of the characters - Nora - might be dead. But apparently not - wikipedia sums it up as she "hits the door jamb, and is knocked unconscious." Meanwhile Robin could be acting like a dog and thus insane - or she could just be showing the weird behavior she sometimes enacts for no reason - or she could be drunk, as usual. Again, no answer there because bam, the book ends. Artificial - or is the typical novel-romance expected ending of total happiness or depressing tragedy just as artificial? That might be the point. Maybe. Who can say? Did I really need a spoiler for that? I never can tell.

Perhaps the most helpful thing for me was the book's introduction by T. S. Eliot. Specifically (p xi):"In describing Nightwood for the purpose of attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would "appeal primarily to readers of poetry." ...I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term "novel" has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel.
...A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it. Miss Barnes's prose has the prose rhythm that is is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse. This prose rhythm may be more or less complex or elaborate, according to the purposes of the writer; but whether simple or complex, it is what raises the matter to be communicated, to the first intensity."I'm not sure if I'm reading into this, but there's a bit of "if you don't like it, you're not the right kind of reader." (But it may be that I'm an ordinary novel reader? Heh.) So ignoring that tone - if you look at Barnes' writing as prose-poetry - oh yes, somehow that makes sense. I love her descriptions, and the dream-like way many people, things, and scenes are described and played out - yes, viewing this all as a prose-poem makes a lot of sense somehow. Or as much sense as my viewing it all as a sort of stage-play in novel form.

An entire essay could be written - and probably has been, somewhere, by multiple college students - on descriptions and stereotypes of the Jew in this book. I'm not sure what to make of it, as some of that talk is the Doctor speaking to Felix (the Baron), who is Jewish - and the Doctor going on and on about Jews and Christianity, about the Catholic church (and Protestant too), tossing in some philosophy about the Irish (himself) as well - and I'm sure it's probably somehow Meaningful and Saying Something - but I'm not going to wrap my head around it. At least not this read-through.

I'm going to currently give this three starts, but honestly I could see giving it four - first because I want to reread and rethink it, and second because I really like what Barnes does with her prose. It makes me want to read something else she's written to see what else she's created - and to read something without the Doctor popping in every so many pages and monopolizing the story.

Anyway, here are some quotes, some of which are examples of what I've just rambled on about. You'll note the Doctor monopolized things here too, but he does have most of the great lines:

p. 6-7, description of portraits:"...Against the panels of oak that reared themselves above the long table and up to the curving ceiling hung life-sized portraits of Guido's claim to father and mother. The lady was a sumptuous Florentine with bright sly eyes and overt mouth. Great puffed and pearled sleeves rose to the pricked-eared pointings of the stiff lace about the head, conical and braided. The deep accumulation of dress fell about her in groined shadows; the train rambling through a vista of primitive trees, was carpet thick. She seemed to be expecting a bird. The gentleman was seated precariously on a charger. He seemed not so much to have mounted the animal as to be about to descend on him. The blue of an Italian sky lay between the saddle and the buff of the tightened rump of the rider. The charger had been caught by the painter in the execution of a falling arc, the mane lifted away in a dying swell, the tail forward and in between thin bevelled legs. The gentleman's dress was a baffling mixture of the Romantic and the Religious, and in the cradling crook of his left arm he carried a plumed hat, crown out. The whole conception might have been a Mardi Gras whim. The gentleman's head, stuck on at a three-quarter angle, had a remarkable resemblance to Guido Volkbein, the same sweeping Cabalistic line of nose, the features seasoned and warm save where the virgin blue of the eyeballs curved out the lids as if another medium than that of sight had taken its stand beneath that flesh. There was no interval in the speed of that stare, endless and objective. The likeness was accidental. Had anyone cared to look into the matter they would have discovered these canvases to be reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors. Guido had found them in some forgotten and dusty corner and had purchased them when he had been sure that he would need an alibi for the blood."

p 15, Dr. O'Connor:"...but think of the stories that do not amount to much! That is, that are forgotten in spite of all man remembers (unless he remembers himself) merely because they befell him without distinction of office or title - that's what we call legend and it's the best a poor man may do with his fate; the other" - he waved an arm - "we call history, the best the high and mighty can do with theirs. Legend is unexpurgated, but history, because of its actors, is deflowered - every nation with a sense of humour is a lost nation, and every woman with a sense of humour is a lost woman. The Jews are the only people who have sense enough to keep humour in the family; a Christian scatters it all over the world."

p 127-8, Dr. O'Connor tells Nora an anecdote about birds' nests, which I really loved and the mental image is going to stick in my brain for some time:"She said: "She is myself. What am I to do?"

"Make birds' nests with your teeth; that would be better," he said angrily, "like my English girl friend. The birds liked them so well that they stopped making their own (does that sound like any nest you have made for any bird, and so broken it of its fate?). In the spring they form a queue by her bedroom window and stand waiting their turn, holding on to their eggs as hard as they can until she gets around to them, strutting up and down on the ledge, the eyes in their feathers a quick shine and sting, whipped with impatience, like a man waiting at a toilet door for someone inside who had decided to read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. ..."Of course that story's there just to show Nora what her relationship with Robin is like - but really, I couldn't stop imagining a line of impatient birds on a window sill. And trying to figure out how you'd use your teeth to make a nest. (I need to reread this so I can think more about Nora and Robin and get the bird images out of my head. Although the bird images do keep popping up in the text, so it's not really my fault.)

p 130-131, the Doctor, going on and on again, here about a sort of prostitute:"...So I started for London Bridge - all this was a long time ago, and I'd better be careful or one of these days I'll tell a story that will give up my age.

Well, I went off under London Bridge, and what should I see? A Tuppeny Upright. And do you know what a Tuppeny Upright might be? A Tuppeny is an old-time girl, and London Bridge is her last stand, as the last stand for a grue is Marseilles if she doesn't happen to have enough pocket money to get to Singapore. For tuppence, an Upright is all anyone can expect. They used to walk along slowly, all ruffles and rags, with big terror hats on them, a pin stuck over the eye and slap up through the crown, half their shadows on the ground and the other half crawling along the wall beside them; ladies of the haute sewer taking their last stroll, sauntering on their last Rotten Row going slowly along in the dark, holding up their badgered flounces, or standing still, letting you do it, silent and as indifferent as the dead, as if they were thinking of better days, or waiting for something that they had been promised when they were little girls; their poor damned dresses hiked up and falling away over the rump, all gathers and braid, like a Crusader's mount, with all the trappings gone sideways with misery."Via this blog, Gay Paris: a grue is a crane. Here is Urban Dictionary's definition of Tuppeny Upright (if you need more clarification).

Now think about speaking all that bit aloud - the Doctor often speaks in those long sentences. It's a wonder he can manage to breathe around them. ( )
1 vote bookishbat | Sep 25, 2013 |

It is wise of me to mention that from here on out, I have no idea what I'm talking about. Which, admittedly, is the usual truth of the matter concerning these reviews, but this book in particular makes me give a damn about how much knowledge did not or has not yet trickled down and damned up in my mind. Not enough to get mad over, or perhaps rather not the right type. No, this is a shaft of light breaking into countless beams that my eye has populated itself with multitudes in hopes of catching only a few, a strain of music too high and soft for my bumbling ears to quiver along with, all the sensory inputs that my body has not yet found the means of registering, fine-tuning, appreciating. However, it must be said that the evolution of the reader is far faster than that of physical form. And what does come through, despite all that, is an aurora borealis.

Books like these utterly spoil me. For example, after finishing up another section somewhere in the middle, I attempted to read through summaries of future tomes that I had not yet decided to set my sights on. Horrors. The words were simply there, jettisoning their meaning this way and that without care of interpretation or context, screaming out simplicity! Get your simple definitions, your clear cut cultures of conciseness, your straight-to-the-point and no-nonsense daily dose of saying what you mean and meaning what you say! No, I said, and spent the next twenty minutes huddled over my coffee and staring at nothing in particular. I don't want boxes of commercial goods. I want to fly.

For that is the talent trapped within these pages, and if you forced me at gunpoint to encompass it with a single word, I would say metaphor. If you shot a single bullet past my head and brought the red-hot funnel agonizingly close to my forehead and demanded that I do better, I would say Pynchonian. Fortunately for all, there is no gunperson of staggering menace, and I can afford to not commit the crime that I decried early on, that of lazy linguistics. For Pynchonian is easy, easy easy easy, and more likely to get omnipresent nods of approval than any sort of comprehension.

It would be better to say that Pynchon is in fact Barnesian, although I do like the feel of Djunian better despite all calls for lexiographical order, so I will most likely stick with it until someone manages to convince me otherwise without resorting to offended spittles. I cannot stand offended spittles. Regardless, I suppose we should return to Pynchon, who if he had lived a little earlier and gone into liberal arts rather than the sciences and did some amount of experimenting, he may have come quite close to the lady of whom he is most certainly a bastard child through some sort of decrepit lineage that invested heavily in the idea of said lineage. Or rather, history, society, ideology, and the rest of that decaying mass circling around our craniums and swooping in every so often for a quick bite, shit, and piss.

The worst of it is the words that we think we know and therefore treat as fact when really, metaphor. Linguistic joy, convivence between the reality and the abstract at its finest, the very structure of our civilized existence that has fossilized meaning into packages anyone can use but not everyone can utilize. For it takes a boundless amount of seductive metaphor to draw us in and keep us there until we can come out into the sun and see that in the place of the old crumbling same old same old, there is something else. A little fragile, perhaps, a little heartbreaking in the effort it makes to grip the wisps of its self together, with all the world and its ponderous assumptions of the truth against it. But oh, so beautiful.

The monotone of sexuality, the binary of gender, and the question of love and its many, many sorrows. That's all that I will say on it, for Djuna does much, much better, and I'd rather you went and saw for yourself the wonder. Don't trust the summary. It tells the story as well as a web of diaphanous rainbow copes with bricks thrown through its core.

Djuna is the writer, the doctor is her character, and we are her audience. Djuna is the god, the doctor is her prophet, and we are at the base of Mount Sinai in defiance of the morals to be decreed and the history of persecution to come. That is a lie in respect to the culture with a true hold on the story I have made use of, but it is also a metaphor, and I use it with full respect. For we are prophesied to by the doctor from Djuna in ways strange and unfamiliar, for the meaning is too large for simple statement. Or rather, it is too small, and would be quickly overwhelmed with biases and prejudices that fuel the tragedy felt along the lines of script, amongst the pages of lines. If Djuna let it be so. But she doesn't, and so the doctor rants and raves his saving and his solutions, for everyone ill comes to him but not everyone knows the extent of their illness.

Self? Society? Yes, but no, more. Night in all its unconscious yearnings unbound in full? Day that must carry the night and keep the skeleton of it bound within its paper skin? Yes, but no. Closer. Life and all its disparate yearnings on the backs of all these unfed nights, all these costumed days? Death and the end of every need for a word to explain the life to itself, and to others?

Perhaps. Remember, I have no idea what I'm talking about. I do know, though, that I'm talking. ( )
1 vote Korrick | Sep 12, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 29 (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.

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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Djuna Barnesprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Eliot, T.S.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0811216713, Paperback)

Nightwood is not only a classic of lesbian literature, but was also acknowledged by no less than T. S. Eliot as one of the great novels of the 20th century. Eliot admired Djuna Barnes' rich, evocative language. Lesbian readers will admire the exquisite craftsmanship and Barnes' penetrating insights into obsessive passion. Barnes told a friend that Nightwood was written with her own blood "while it was still running." That flowing wound was the breakup of an eight-year relationship with the lesbian love of her life.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:53:40 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Originally published in 1936, this novel by Djuna Barnes describes the life of Americans and Europeans in Paris in the decadent 'Roaring Twenties'.

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