Nightwood

Nightwood is a wild, strange, mad piece of writing. It is Djuna Barnes’s story about expatriate Paris, but it’s not the moveable feast of the Fitzgeralds and the Hemingways. Instead, this is a Paris of false nobility, hungry widows, transvestites, lesbians, disabled children, and circus performers. This is a Paris in which being left out of the mainstream — being a Jew, for instance, being gay, being poor — has an effect on your character. It might make you a little odd, like the transvestite doctor Matthew O’Connor, whose long, satiric, self-pitying monologues form the mass of dialogue of the novel; or it might tip you off balance altogether, like Robin Vote, whose animal-like characteristics grow stronger through the novel until she winds up groveling on the floor with the beasts. As O’Connor says, “A strong sense of identity makes a man feel he can do no wrong; too little accomplishes the same.”

The central story of Nightwood, as the other imagery whirls around like a Chagall painting, is the broken romance between Robin Vote and Nora Flood. Robin starts out married to the false baron Felix Volkbein, and then, after the birth of her child, decides she can no longer live with him. Instantly upon her departure, she falls in love with Nora. Their ecstatic love doesn’t last long, and Robin turns to brief flings with strangers. It’s during this tense, jealous time that Robin meets Jenny Petherbridge, a widow whose only happiness comes from stealing joy from others; devastatingly, Jenny succeeds in taking Robin from Nora.

But I’m making this book sound more straightforward than it is. Almost the entire first quarter of the book is taken up with the genealogy of Felix Volkbein and with Dr. O’Connor’s monologues. We meet Nora and Robin so briefly that they are nearly anonymous. The romance of the two women lasts less than a page before the agonized separation begins — an electrifying chapter about jealousy that I’ve rarely seen equalled. Then comes another long chapter of O’Connor’s disquisitions about night life, in all its multifarious senses:

“Our bones ache only while the flesh is on them. Stretch it as thin as the temple flesh of an ailing woman and still it serves to ache the bone and to move the bone about; and in like manner the night is a skin pulled over the head of day that the day may be in a torment. We will find no comfort until the night melts away; until the fury of the night rots out its fire.”

“Then,” Nora said, “it means I’ll never understand her — I’ll always be miserable — just like this.”

Djuna Barnes referred to Nightwood as “my life with Thelma” — the artist Thelma Wood, Barnes’s lover and the model for Robin Vote. It’s a book that’s full of anger and pain, but also flashes of almost vicious comedy (O’Connor remarks, “You can lay a thousand bricks and not be called a bricklayer, but lay one boy and you’re a bugger!”) It has moments of jagged tenderness, and a running undercurrent of symbols: animals, museums, and the people in society who have been cast aside. While I didn’t really know what to make of much of it, and ought probably to conduct a discussion panel entitled Is Modernism For Me?, I wound up engaged by it and glad I’d read it.

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12 Responses to Nightwood

  1. litlove says:

    What an interesting review! Nghtwood is one of those books that I’ve shied away from reading, as it looks superficially too wild and crazy for me. I usually prefer that sort of a book in French! In a way I can deal with that sort of hyper-poetic language better when it’s in French than in English because I’m never quite convinced that staid old Anglo-Saxon can really take the weight of such lyricism. Definitely a book for a class or a reading group, I reckon.

    • Jenny says:

      You absolutely put your finger on it! This book would be far more palatable in French. Preferably by Huysmans. It’s exactly that sort of book. And I am certain I’d have gotten much more out of it if I’d read it for a class — reading the introduction wasn’t much help, I’m afraid. Still, I did tentatively think it was pretty interesting.

  2. Jenny says:

    Jenny! Jenny! An evil, evil Jenny! I’m so on board with this! A Jenny character who’s not a bloody maid!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, and not a sweet, innocent young thing, either. If this isn’t your thing, and I fear it isn’t, you might just read the chapter “The Squatter,” which goes on, viciously, for pages about how awful Jenny Petherbridge is.

  3. Dorothy W. says:

    You do a great job making this book seem more straightforward than it is — it’s very helpful, because when I finished it, my mind was a confused mess! In fact, I read it through again right away, since it’s so short, and it only helped a little. I admire it and was engaged by its language, but it really was a challenge.

    • Jenny says:

      It was for me, too! Honestly, the language was lyrical, but O’Connor’s long monologues lost me a bit, especially toward the beginning when we hadn’t even met the women. I spent quite a bit of time wondering, “Am I getting this at all?” and “What did everyone see in this?” But it clicked toward the end.

  4. Emily says:

    I love your image of the swirling imagery à la a Chagall painting!

    I really should revisit this—as someone who would return an enthusiastic “Yes!” to your Is Modernism for Me? panel, I would probably get a lot more out of it now than I did when I first read it early in my college years. I didn’t even know about the autobiographical elements when I read it before, or much about the expat Paris milieu.

    • Jenny says:

      Emily, I’m going to have to get you to explain modernism to me. I look over the list of modernist authors, and either I haven’t read them or they haven’t appealed to me very strongly, with a couple of exceptions. I know there must be something I am really missing, and I’d like to learn.

  5. I’ve never read something like this but I wuld love to try

  6. Pingback: And then there were three | gabriel's wharf

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