Book Cover: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
Nightwood is one of the most original, and most difficult, books I've ever read. James Joyce admired it, T. S. Eliot adored it, William S. Burroughs called it "One of the greatest books of the twentieth century", and Dylan Thomas said "one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman" (which also says a lot about Dylan Thomas). Yet Nightwood appears orthogonal to most novels, as if it were constructed on entirely different planes.

When Alice fell down her rabbit-hole, or through a looking-glass, she found a wonderland running by its own daydream logic. She met colorful characters who told her incredible tales, and kept hurrying towards or away from each other, like pieces in a game she couldn't see.

Nightwood is the tale of an Alice who got lost in a hall of funhouse mirrors, and passed into a more darkly twisted demimonde, ruled by nightmare logic. The story passes among Vienna, Berlin and Paris, between World Wars, and shot in shadowy film noir.

I'd like to paint a complete picture of Nightwood - but I've only read it once. This is the kind of book you need to read thrice to get the full measure of. It is nocturnal, like Finnegans Wake: beyond the straight lines of consciousness, standard plotting and characterization. T. S. Eliot helped Barnes with the manuscript, convinced her to take out some of the more explicit sex, and wrote the introduction:

When I first read the book I found the opening movement rather slow and dragging, until the appearance of the doctor. And throughout the first reading, I was under the impression that it was the doctor alone who gave the book its vitality . . . It was notable, however, that as the other characters, on repeated reading, became alive for me, and while the focus shifted, the doctor was by no means diminished. On the contrary, he came to take on a different and more profound importance when seen as a constituent of a whole pattern.
All my painting with metaphor, and pointing to titles and writers of similar ilk, haven't taken us into the nightwood itself. Let's start with this divine fool, the drunken, brilliant, deranged Irishman who listens with his tongue. As Jeanette Winterson says (in the best review I found of Nightwood), the other characters "all are seen through the glittering eyes of a creature that is half leprechaun, half angel, half freak, half savant, half man, half woman: the "doctor", Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O'Connor."

The first beauty, and the first weirdness we find in Nightwood is its style, midway between modern poetry and dusty incunabula. All you can do is flow along with it, and grab hold of the phrases of piercing beauty or insight you find along the way. Many of these roll off the doctor's tongue, such as:

"I'm sorry to say and here to say it"

"the old woman looking as if she were looking down her life, sighting it the way a man looks down the barrel of a gun for an aim."

"my mother, with her hair as red as a fire kicked over in spring. She had a hat on her head as big as the top of a table, and everything on it but running water"

"Animals find their way about largely by the keenness of their nose. We have lost ours in order not to be one of them, and what have we in its place? A tension in the spirit which is the contraction of freedom."

"Is there some extraordinary need of misery to make beauty? Let go Hell; and your fall will be broken by the roof of Heaven."

Matthew is the most marvelous, but all Barnes's characters are memorable - she doesn't do mundane. We meet Baron Felix Volkbein, his crypto-Jewish father, his Viennese mother and aunt, and his son:
Mentally deficient and emotionally excessive, an addict to death; at ten, barely as tall as a child of six, wearing spectacles, stumbling when he tried to run, with cold hands and anxious face, he followed his father, trembling with an excitement that was a precocious ecstasy . . . . .

Felix said under his breath: "He does not grow up."

Matthew answered: "The excess of his sensibilities may preclude his mind. His sanity is an unkown room: a known room is always smaller then an unknown. If I were you," the doctor continued, "I would carry that boy's mind like a bowl picked up in the dark; you do not know what's in it. He feeds on odd remnants that we have not priced; he eats a sleep that is not our sleep. There is more in sickness than the name of that sickness. In the average person is the peculiar that has been scuttled, and in the peculiar the ordinary has been sunk; people always fear what requires watching."

If you heard of Nightwood before today, you probably heard that it was a famously difficult book, or else that it was famous as an LGBT book, "considered by Anthony Slide, a modern scholar, to be one of only four familiar gay novels of the first half of the twentieth century in the English language. The other three novels are Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, Carson McCullers' Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms."

I didn't find Nightwood pornographic (perhaps because Eliot cut out the dirtiest bits), but it is debauched and erotic. As in every other respect, Barnes enjoys coloring outside orthodox lines. We find drunkenness, hints of perversity, and dissolution of body and mind. There is a lesbian triangle at the center of the plot. With so much dark and twisted around it, with so much brokenness in the lovers, I appreciated how Barnes showed no ugliness in the lesbianism itself. But her world is a hard one for love to survive in.

Nora Flood, the Alice of this book, grew out of Djuna Barnes's own experience. In the world of Nightwood, she was born to be broken. Halfway through the book, feeling the ripping, Nora climbs to Matthew's garret:

A swill-pail stood at the head of the bed, brimming with abominations. There was something apallingly degraded about the room, like the rooms in brothels, which give even the most innocent a sensation of having been an accomplice . . .

In the narrow iron bed, with its heavy and dirty linen sheets, lay the doctor in a woman's flannel nightgown.

The doctor's head, with its over-large black eyes, its full gun-metal cheeks and chin, was framed in the golden semi-circle of a wig with long pendent curls that touched his shoulders, and falling back against the pillow, turned up the shadowy interior of their cylinders. He was heavily rouged and his lashes painted. It flashed into Nora's head: "God, children know something they can't tell; they like Red Riding Hood and the wolf in bed!" . . . Nora said, as quickly as she could recover herself: "Doctor, I have come to ask you to tell me everything you know about the night."

Matthew does so for the next 27 pages. This chapter, Watchman, What of the Night?, is a tour-de-force. It reaches into the darkness for understanding beyond our ken, and reminded me of Molly Bloom's chapter as she drifts to sleep in Ulysses. I get the sense from allusions in Nightwood that Barnes read Joyce, Jung, Freud, and all the other books you'd come across, if you were living at the cutting edge of the arts, in Paris in the 1920s and '30s.

Here is a fragment of the doctor's sermon about the night, providing truth or distraction from Nora's heartbreak:

"the Great Enigma can't be thought of unless you turn the head the other way, and come upon thinking with the eye that you fear, which is called the back of the head; it's the one we use when looking at the beloved in a dark place, and she is a long time coming from a great way. 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 a 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 own 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.

"To think of the acorn it is necessary to become the tree. And the tree of night is the hardest tree to mount, the dourest tree to scale, the most difficult of branch, the most febrile to the touch, and sweats a resin and drips a pitch against the palm that computation has not gambled. . . ."

That "tree of night" is the heart of Nightwood.

I despise this computer. I wish I had a sledgehammer. Or perhaps two margaritas. Though my aunt might get upset if I destroyed her crappy computer, which just ate the last part of my work, after I had saved it. It disappeared while I was publishing this. Oh well, it sucks to be me.

There are other parts of the book which reach the reader with force and full clarity on a first reading. The chapter right before Watchman, What of the Night? - "The Squatter" - nails the character of Jenny Petherbridge, like an outline of iron filings drawn by a magnet, with a hundred phrases of pointed truth. I can see all of Barnes's characters clearly, and her world, and the basic outline of her rather entangled plot. Still, it's as if I sailed all round this deep lake, and never saw more than two yards below the surface.

I did find some consolation amid my confusion. I looked at half a dozen other online reviews of Nightwood and, except for Jeanette Winterson's, none of them showed a much clearer grasp of this sinuous and elusive book than I got. T. S. Eliot peered long and hard into the innards of this alien beast, and he did get a solid grasp of it, so I'll give him the last word:

The book is not simply a collection of individual portraits; the characters are all knotted together, as people are in real life, by what we may call chance or destiny, rather than by deliberate choice of each other's company: it is the whole pattern that they form, rather than any individual constituent, that is the focus of the interest. We come to know them through their effect on each other, and by what they say to each other about the others. . .

What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.

Have you ever read a book which you couldn't grasp, until you read it twice?


Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 05:34 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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