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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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  •  Tip Jar && (45+ / 0-)

    Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule:






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    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 05:05:01 PM PST

  •  I have to admit i haven't read this book. (20+ / 0-)

    But,

    "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."
    This is absolutely brilliant!

    Eating sleep--I'd never thought of that concept, but it makes a weird sort of sense.

    Thanks Brecht.

    It's *Gandhi*, not Ghandi

    by poco on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 05:48:47 PM PST

  •  I haven't read it either (15+ / 0-)

    I read Ryder along with a lot of biographical material on Djuna Barnes for a course on Modernism in Four Cities (London, Paris, Berlin, New York) with a professor who was especially interested in Marianne Moore and Else Lasker-Schuler. I have to admit I don't remember much about the book OR the biography (yes, grad school) because that semester I was trying to find something to hang a paper based on reading all of Edmund Wilson's diaries on (she shows up in those too, does Barnes).

    You've done a wonderful job on this, Brecht. I'm going to link it to some biographical material on Barnes for Tuesday's LGBT Literature diary.

  •  Coming Soon to Books Go Boom! (17+ / 0-)


    Their Eyes Were Watching God

    Song of Solomon

    The God of Small Things

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 06:11:13 PM PST

    •  I'm especially looking forward to (7+ / 0-)

      the last one; it was a moving book.

      •  It's been a stationary book for years on my TBR (13+ / 0-)

        shelf. I'm sure it'll enjoy the wind between its leaves.

        I noticed she won the Booker prize. Since I'll be writing these diaries for years, and noticing Women Novelists, I suppose I'll eventually get to all of these:

        Women who have Won the Booker Prize (started in 1969):

        '70: Bernice Rubens
        '74: Nadine Gordimer
        '75: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
        '78: Iris Murdoch
        '79: Penelope Fitzgerald
        '84: Anita Brookner
        '85: Keri Hulme
        '87: Penelope Lively
        '90: A. S. Byatt
        '95: Pat Barker
        '97: Arundhati Roy
        '00: Margaret Atwood
        '06: Kiran Desai
        '07: Anne Enright
        '09 & '12: Hilary Mantel
        '13: Eleanor Catton

        And the Nobelists and Pulitzerees (listed, since 1950, at the same link).

        The other motivation was, once I started lining up women novelists, I looked for some diversity among them.

        The most surprising thing I've learned so far about women novelists is how many otherwise intelligent men don't think they're great writers.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 08:09:57 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You're unfortunately right about (8+ / 0-)

          that common denominator.

          I'm delighted to see some prickly authors on your list because I love wrestling with their works -- I can agree and disagree with ideas in the same book.

          •   I like prickly authors too. They're compelling to (8+ / 0-)

            read; and more fun to write about than the paeans, where I'm just looking for finer particles of the word Great. One of these diaries, I'll pick a book I can gleefully skewer from stem to stern, just for the wicked fun of it.

            For years, Great was my most overused word. Probably still is. Some day, I'm going to look for a word-count machine, run a couple of dozen diaries through it, and find out which are my 20 favorite adjectives. Because if a concept is that central to my thinking, it's worth splitting into a few more distinct quasi-synonyms.

            Did you see the lovely New Yorker article, on Writers' Favorite Words? Shakespeare used Sweet 840 times; Milton liked Law, Housman liked Lads, and Updike liked Lambent.

            I can't open the comments there now, but someone mentioned that Virgil's favorite word was Magnus. Google Translate nicely splits this into a dozen English words, in order of decreasing accuracy of fit: Great, Large, Mighty, loud, high, important, noble . . .Well, if I have to turn a word into my currency, Virgil's favorite will do for me.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 01:13:51 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  There's always Wordle for making (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              suka, Brecht, RiveroftheWest, Youffraita

              word art, with the words used most being larger than the others.

              Rather nice to see Virgil concur with your opinion of a word.

              I started one book to possibly diary on Tuesday but cannot continue. I'm aghast (it's Sara Levine's Treasure Island, which was supposed to be a satire but I don't like animals being used as props that don't get cleaned up after or that get tied up or shaved or even roosters that choke on dog food pellets; maybe I'm too old to think that's funny). So I won't be able to skewer it because I would have to read it all first.

              •  "So I won't be able to skewer it because I would (4+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                RiveroftheWest, bookgirl, suka, Youffraita

                have to read it all first." I'll bet you could skewer it with what you've already gleaned.

                There's a kossack who's following me (from a very safe distance - he's been gone for five years), called jon swift. He had a blog that was doing well for awhile, reviewing books he hadn't read (he started in Amazon comments).

                I've been in your present canoe, where it's two days to deadline and water's rising inside the boat. You could always take that "Writers Favorite Words", or some other article pointing to an aspect of literature that gets you thinking, and write a more meta diary this week. And there must be some good end of year round-ups of best new fiction, that would give you good fodder to talk about.

                "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                by Brecht on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 08:14:12 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

    •  Three more of my favorites. n/t (8+ / 0-)

      Click the ♥ to join us on the Black Kos front porch to review news & views written from a black pov - everyone is welcome.

      by mahakali overdrive on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 07:45:26 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hesse (14+ / 0-)

    Siddartha. First read under duress in high school, well for that matter Sartre in French in the same period. I re-read both with less duress years later and felt more appreciation.

    In addition, I want to thank you for covering Barnes. I am distantly connected by way of her lover having been married to my Great Uncle, one of the Expatriots, as a cover for the love affair. Your piece has inspired me to try to tackle it. My Great Uncle's work has been getting more attention in recent years too, having being republished. I'm trying to catch up with it all.

    Let us arise and go now to where dogs do it Over the Hill where they keep the earthquakes ... It's time ~~ LF

    by cosmic debris on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 06:56:43 PM PST

  •  Read it years ago (13+ / 0-)

    for a feminist lit class.  It was an amazing novel.

    Long ago Bill Cosby did a comedy sketch about his neighbor kid who hit him with a slushball, not a snowball, a violation of neighborhood kid rules.  The kid's name was Djuna Barnes.  Or at least it sounded like Djuna Barnes on the LP my parents owned.  He went out hunting "Djuna Ba-arnes...you gunky.  Oh, Djuna Barnes...."

    So, Brecht, when are you going to read Radclyff Hall's The Well of Loneliness, usually considered a companion novel to Nightwood?

    "I speak the truth, not as much as I would, but as much as I dare, and I dare a little the more, as I grow older." --Montaigne

    by DrLori on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 07:28:11 PM PST

    •  Oh dear. I'm away from home (I live in LA; staying (13+ / 0-)

      with my aunt in the Rio Grande) so I can't check. But I'm not even sure The Well of Loneliness is in my 1000+ To Be Read notebook. I've seen the name enough times that it should be.

      I bought Nightwood because it sounded unlike any book I'd ever read, and I'm always looking for brand new flavors. It sat on my shelf a year. Then I lined up six novels in a row by women, just to see what I'd find there. Being unique, and also LGBT, I figured Nightwood might teach me something I didn't know.

      All I've figured out so far is that women novelists generally seem to be sharper at discerning and portraying subtleties of feeling, psychology and relationships. Sure, there are men who excel in these areas - Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce - but there are too many male novelists who haven't written a single fully realized woman.

      The exploring is long and deep. I figure next November I'll have another month for women novelists (with some scattered in the interim). Maybe one day I'll put a woman in a book I write, and other women will say they found her real.

      If The Well of Loneliness isn't on my TBR list, I'll add it. Thanks for the nudge.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 07:48:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I'm having a horrible time trying to (9+ / 0-)

    force myself to finish this one. About half way through and I'm at a loss. I can read a paragraph over and over and still have no clue. I may set it aside for a few weeks since I quit smoking 7 days ago and am having real difficulty focusing on much of anything.

    But thanks for the positive review or otherwise I'd be tempted to never bother tying to pick it up again.

    •  Like I said, it's a hard book to grasp. I knew it (11+ / 0-)

      was hard, and planned to read it twice for surety before this diary - but didn't make the second round. For me, the first climb was steep, but worth it.

      If there's a part of you that enjoys overcoming a challenge, and will give you some deep fulfillment when you're done, than keep going. But if you just feel like you're banging your head against a wall, well, there's much wisdom in:

      If you like the book, fine; if you don't, don't read it.  The idea of compulsory reading is absurd; it's only worthwhile to speak of compulsory happiness.  I believe that poetry is something one feels.  If you don't feel poetry, if you have no sense of beauty, if a story doesn't make you want to know what happened next, then the author has not written for you.  Put it aside.  Literature is rich enough to offer you some other author worthy of your attention — or one today unworthy of your attention whom you will read tomorrow.                                   — Jorge Luis Borges
      Quitting smoking is a steeper slope, with more ways of falling down. I take heart from William James, a wise psychologist, who said it takes a month to get a habit set enough in your system, so that the pushing gets easier. I've just gone 18 months without smoking - but it took a decade, and a lot of falling down, to get here.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 09:26:39 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I applaud you in quitting smoking (7+ / 0-)

      and tackling Nightwood at the same time, I don't know how you do it!

      The Democrats care about you after you're born. --Ed Schultz

      by micsimov on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 08:51:49 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  alan carr's the easy way to quit smoking (5+ / 0-)

      it helped me tremendously.

      Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

      by No Exit on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 12:07:25 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Hiya, Brecht (11+ / 0-)

    Great diary.

    As I mentioned before, I tried to read Nightwood around the time I was reading Woolf, and basically gave up on it. But I thought this was telling:

    except for Jeanette Winterson's, none of them showed a much clearer grasp of this sinuous and elusive book than I got.
    Have you read Winterson? Ignore her first, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit -- it's good, but it's autobiographical and straightforward and therefore shows little of where her subsequent novels would go.

    The Passion and Sexing the Cherry blew me away. I'm pretty sure I also read Written on the Body but don't really remember. Then I missed a bunch of her books, but more recently read The Stone Gods.

    Anyway, my point is that the weirdness of some of Winterson's writing makes her basically a literary daughter of Djuna's. (Erm, maybe "weirdness" isn't the right word...I hope you know what I mean, though.) So between that and her academic background, I suspect she has thought deeply about all sorts of literary pyrotechnics.

    P.S.: Sorry about the computer glitch. And really, if you haven't read Winterson yet, you must. You could get multiple Books Go Boom from her various works.

    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

    by Youffraita on Fri Dec 06, 2013 at 10:10:59 PM PST

    •  For decades, doctors called any mental disorder (10+ / 0-)

      they didn't understand "schizophrenia". I think we do the same thing with "weirdness', which I use to mean any novel which colors outside the lines, which travels far away from the mainstream paths of literature. Like any grab-bag term, it doesn't say much; it's more useful to compare an author with another who tastes kind of similar.

      I haven't yet read Winterson. My TBR list has Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Sexing the Cherry because I remember friends enthusiastically recommending those in college. When I've read those, if they grab me and shake me by the ears, I'll look into which ones to read next. You make her sound ear-shaking.

      After the evil computer ate my work, and I reproduced most of it, I drank two beers to dull the torment, and laughed at an Aziz Ansari stand-up show. Then this diary got rescued, which always makes my day or two. Plus, it's Saturday, and I have two dogs who adore me keeping my bed warm. The day is frosty, forbidding, and still dark, so I'm heading back there for a while.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 04:17:36 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think she's ear-shaking (8+ / 0-)

        Well, not so much Oranges, as I said, but Sexing the Cherry for sure. And her work gives you things to think about, without being quite as difficult as Nightwood -- I would compare her more to Woolf, I think, in terms of allusions and ambition.

        Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

        by Youffraita on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 08:44:23 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  From what you say of Winterson's depth, power and (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Youffraita, RiveroftheWest, suka

          originality, I'm sure I'll get a diary out of it when I do read her. Early next year, a major project will be my TBR list: adding a little and sorting a lot. One day I'll have some diaries on that.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 09:30:10 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I look forward to those diaries. (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            RiveroftheWest, suka, poco, Brecht

            Friday nights aren't so much fun when there's no Books Go Boom, although I certainly understand why you need to go biweekly.

            Really: You. Must. Read. Winterson. She's the only contemporary feminist (that I'm aware of) mining the same sort of territory Barnes and Woolf were.

            Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

            by Youffraita on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 11:38:26 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  I don't like the fortnightly diaries; weekly works (3+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              RiveroftheWest, suka, Youffraita

              better in most respects. But I need to retool, and get my rock diaries up and running too. I'll be pushing to organize, and polishing to improve each book diary I do publish. Sometime next summer, I plan to move back to weekly book diaries (and keep fortnightly rock diaries). I intend, by the time I get there, to be writing both more and better diaries. Which will also require trimming some fat (TV, aimless internet surfing, general dithering) out of my days. But there is a bit of hankering hollowness in me, on Fridays when I don't publish.

              Also: I. Will.

              "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

              by Brecht on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 08:22:42 AM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  Whatever. Do what works for you. BUT: (4+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:
                RiveroftheWest, Brecht, poco, suka

                You must read Winterson.

                Have I ever before demanded that you do anything? Hmmm?

                No, of course not.

                That's why I am so emphatic about Jeanette Winterson.

                She's one of the most brilliant writers who is also a contemporary of ours.

                Sure, the guys get all the credit: they write stuff called "An Incredible Work of Magnificent Genius," and I say, keep buffing your dick b/c that's the only way you're gonna get off.

                Meanwhile, women are writing all these incredible novels.

                Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

                by Youffraita on Mon Dec 09, 2013 at 09:24:40 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

                •  Have I ever before demanded that you do anything? (4+ / 0-)
                  Recommended by:
                  RiveroftheWest, Youffraita, poco, suka

                  Well, I've never once seen you be diffident. But, no, you've never used the word "demand" before. Then again, we may have just advanced to the next step in our relationship: where you start insisting, requiring, and expecting personal book reports by kosmail.

                  I plan to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit in '14, and I expect you'll get a book report diary out of it, ma'am ;~}

                  I do have some catching up to do with contemporary women writers. On your amusing "the guys get all the credit" paragraph: I'm halfway through Their Eyes Were Watching God, and it's marvelous in many respects. Literati agree it's good -but how on earth is it not a Great Book?

                  "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                  by Brecht on Tue Dec 10, 2013 at 08:16:48 AM PST

                  [ Parent ]

                  •  Oh, see, now... (4+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    RiveroftheWest, poco, Brecht, suka

                    I never read it. (hangs head, shuffles feet)

                    By all means, read Oranges if that's the one you want to start with. But don't say I didn't warn you that, Whitbread Prize or no Whitbread Prize, it is the easiest and most straightforward of her novels that I have read to date.

                    Everything else has been more ambitious, more challenging, and more interesting.

                    Winterson is an enormously complex writer of very interesting novels.

                    Oranges was the least of these.

                    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

                    by Youffraita on Tue Dec 10, 2013 at 01:48:16 PM PST

                    [ Parent ]

                    •  But we're just applying different sorting criteria (3+ / 0-)
                      Recommended by:
                      suka, RiveroftheWest, Youffraita

                      I know Oranges is her least ambitious novel. If I expected to only read one Winterson, I might skip it - but it's a perfect starting point, for me.

                      It's semi-autobiographical, so it'll show me Winterson herself; it's her first book, so it'll show me where she started, artistically.

                      For myself, especially when approaching "an enormously complex writer of very interesting novels", I like to start at the shallow end. Just as anyone who's going to read Ulysses should start with Dubliners, then Portrait, proceeding until they lose interest.

                      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

                      by Brecht on Tue Dec 10, 2013 at 08:29:18 PM PST

                      [ Parent ]

                      •  Ha! (1+ / 0-)
                        Recommended by:
                        Brecht

                        Wish I'd known you back then:

                        For myself, especially when approaching "an enormously complex writer of very interesting novels", I like to start at the shallow end. Just as anyone who's going to read Ulysses should start with Dubliners, then Portrait, proceeding until they lose interest.
                        I started with Ulysses. Nobody told me not to. And I was trying to read it for myself, not for a class.

                        Maybe that's where I went wrong: tried to dive into the deep end of the pool.

                        It worked okay for Dickens and Woolf...didn't work at all for Joyce.

                        Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

                        by Youffraita on Wed Dec 11, 2013 at 01:58:21 PM PST

                        [ Parent ]

                  •  P.S. Diffident? NO, b/c (4+ / 0-)
                    Recommended by:
                    RiveroftheWest, poco, Brecht, suka

                    if I were, I wouldn't bother to comment, I would just slink away.

                    You know I'm a reader. You know I'm an educated reader. How, then, should I NOT have decided opinions about prose?

                    My background has decided holes in it (Their Eyes Were Watching God is a big one) but I won't be quiet about those works for which I have strong opinions.

                    Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

                    by Youffraita on Tue Dec 10, 2013 at 02:05:37 PM PST

                    [ Parent ]

  •  Great review, Brecht! (12+ / 0-)

    I must say that Nightwood has been completely off my radar, which is a little embarrassing as I'm pretty well versed in Burroughs, Joyce, and Eliot (their own work and biographically).

    Can't know everything (at least not all at once ;-)

    Do I recall you mentioning that you were going to address Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! at some future date, or was that just wishful thinking on my part?

    •  Wow, you may not know everything all at once (10+ / 0-)

      (and I can't fault you, as my own omniscience is only partial), but you have a capacious recall.

      I mentioned many moons ago, in passing, that I was reading Absalom! Absalom!. It was also one of my Himalayas of yore, as was Nightwood. But I found it too steep, and it's temporarily bested me. It's been recommended that I try As I Lay Dying, so I reckon I'll hike that first, and get back to Absalom! Absalom! eventually. I was well-impressed by The Sound and the Fury, long ago.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 04:26:12 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  you may recall my views on Faulkner and (7+ / 0-)

        as i lay dying…

        a cautionary tale of personal preference and tolerance… LOL

        but, i will probably try again.  i did get through sanctuary (twice) but it's longer than as i lay dying…

        aild i think is short enough to be taken at once if you really want to do it…

        i found mann's dr. faustus to be extremely dry and painful to get through the first time i was required to read it, but i found it be far more enjoyable on a second go many years later.

        the death speech in the final pages alone is worth the price of admission…

        Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. - Gandalf the Grey

        by No Exit on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 12:35:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  'Sanctuary' intrigues , for offering a different (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Youffraita, RiveroftheWest, suka, No Exit

          flavor of Faulkner. I need to get to As I Lay Dying soon, when there are so many more Faulkners waiting behind it. And he such an interesting 20th C. US author.

          I haven't got to Dr. Faustus yet, but I'm a fan both of Mann and the Faust legend: both of them beautiful and deep. I'd love to find a killer version of the Goethes in English.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 09:35:14 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I’ve never heard of this book… (10+ / 0-)

    which is yet another reason why I love this site. I really have to remember to donate today.

    To be honest, it’s been years since I’ve read a book of fiction by myself, due to a lack of time. I still read short stories in the various publications I subscribe to, but a book for myself? Sadly, it’s out of the question at the moment.

    That’s not to say I haven’t been reading books, though. No, I’ve read many over the past several years, but not alone. The boy and I, who’s now 12, in recent years have plowed through the Harry Potter series, most of the Narnia series, the Mysterious Benedict Society series, and we’re now reading “The 13 ½ lives of Captain Bluebear,” in addition to the one-offs we’ve tackled along the way.

    Now, back to the question raised in your diary: Italo Calvino’s “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.”

    How about I believe in the unlucky ones?

    by BenderRodriguez on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 06:04:44 AM PST

    •  I've seen you in What Are You Reading diaries, (10+ / 0-)

      telling us the tales that you read with the boy. He's a lucky fella, and you are too.

      I know what you mean about lack of time. I wish there were more space in the week, to read for hours uninterrupted in a peaceful place. Not having a boy of my own, I can make that space, with some determined pushing. But we live in a hubbub, and it's hard to find the still receptivity that a deep novel asks us to swim in. Also, the internet feeds ADHD.

      I tried If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and found a puzzle-book; but the chapters at least had some sweet reading in them.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 08:31:23 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Some of the novels that have (12+ / 0-)

    turned out to be most meaningful to me were not books that were quick reads. This goes back to my teen years when I had plowed through Dickens, Collins, the Brontes and some Trollope before finding Thackeray.

    Vanity Fair wasn't at all what I expected. Becky Sharp wasn't a heroine, George did what? and oh, here's Dobbin, but wait a minute ... And the author keeps talking to me like he's George Burns addressing the TV camera.

    That took a couple tries but oh, was it worth it.

    Even one of my best-beloved novels, Gilead, took two tries to run up the hill before I got into the rhythm of its climb.

    Neither of these novels is particularly difficult. They are hardly Finnegans Wake. But they were not what was expected and ended up being so much more because of it.

    •  You were a precocious teenager. I think of (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      suka, poco, Limelite, Youffraita
      Dickens, Collins, the Brontes and some Trollope before finding Thackeray
      and Eliot as the big British novelists of the mid-19th century, who finished building the scaffolding of the modern novel. I haven't actually read T or T, but Vanity Fair and The Way We Live Now are on my TBR shelf. I haven't got to Marilynne Robinson either, but she's high among Women Novelists I must read.

      I've read several books so rich that I could enjoy rereading them. Nightwood is the first book I've found, where I think the second reading will be more satisfying than the first. It's an exceptionally murky work. Perhaps Ulysses and Infinite Jest also belong in this class. Finding a tome that demands more than one reading, in a culture which is losing the attention span to read deep novels, feels like unrolling a long papyrus.

      Good to know you've been a bookgirl since childhood.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 11:42:09 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Well well well Brecht (11+ / 0-)
    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.
    Actually, I couldn't think of anything better to have happened to you, and so glad you included it, during your analysis of Barnes and Nightwood.  I so admire your tackling of this wonderful weird and quirky novel and praise your insights and fearlessness as I agree with your estimation that it requires, and if you enjoy it demands, multiple reads.

    It is a book that is hard to grasp, but I think you've mentioned before in a comment in another diary, I don't think it is done purposefully or gratuitously; after my first read Dr O'Connor was the standout, and he still is, but I agree after revisiting the novel the other characters come into a fuller light.  Robin Vote remains elusive but, I think, by design.  As Cheryl J. Plumb has noted:

    Djuna Barnes referred to Nightwood as "my life with Thelma."  A silverpoint artist from St. Louis, Thelma Wood was the model for the character of Robin Vote.  Wood's relationship with Barnes, lasting approximately nine years, was both idyllic and destructive.
    I like your 'Alice' comparsion, I hadn't thought of that myself, but I think it is so apt and conveys the reader's experience as well; one isn't quite sure where one is going or being led to by Barnes, especially the first couple of chapters, but if the poetry of the prose speaks to you then you want to find out and continue and wonder what is next.  Matthew aids in this I think, he is so funny and peculiar but I understand for some he may be off-putting or a bit Too Much.

    The third chapter, 'Night Watch,' the novel hits its stride.  Nora Flood and Robin Vote come more into the light and some of the beautiful and tragic components are etched.

    Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the "findings" in a tomb.  As in one will be charted the taken place of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as an indelible shadow, that which he loves.  In Nora's heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora's blood. ... sometimes, going about the house, in passing each other, they would fall into an agonized embrace, looking into each other's face, their two heads in their four hands, so strained together that the space that divided them seemed to be thrusting them apart.  Sometimes in these moments of insurmountable grief, Robin would make some movement, use a peculiar turn of phrase not habitual to her, innocent of the betrayal, by which Nora was informed that Robin had come from a world to which she would return.  To keep her (in Robin there was this tragic longing to be kept, knowing herself astray) Nora knew now that there was no way out but death.  In death Robin would belong to her.  Death went with them, together and alone; and with the torment and catastrophe, thoughts of resurrection, the second duel.
    There is so much of the good Doctor that is memorable, quotable, the comic relief so to speak, the stand alone and the stand out, a key into the novel, and the chapter you cited when Nora goes to him for advice is a stroke of genius, there is so much that is quotable, 'And do I know my Sodomites' etc, that is extraordinarily bizarre and outrageously funny, I just wanted to share the above passage because it is something in there, a mark of that torment and eloquently stated beauty of love and grief I hadn't noticed or caught in my first read, 'an agonized embrace,' 'their two heads in their four hands' and only found later and also informs, too, upon the voice one hears in some of Barnes's poetry.

    Cheers to your diary Brecht, well done!

    The Democrats care about you after you're born. --Ed Schultz

    by micsimov on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 07:57:51 AM PST

    •  I'm glad my gnashing of teeth made someone smile. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, Youffraita, suka, micsimov

      What can I do? Life lashes me, puts lime and salt in the wound - I make margaritas.

      As T. S. Eliot put it:

      To say that 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.
      The root DNA of most novels is story, then characters; here the roots are pattern, allusion, reflection, and especially the poetry in the language. So it helps to be trained in poetry or literature; failing that, to have the patience for multiple readings, and sinking into the text.
      Robin Vote remains elusive but, I think, by design.
      Absolutely. Perhaps there's a way that Nora + Robin + Jenny add up to a whole, some trinity of tragic love?

      The passage you quote struck me when I read it, so vivid and charged. Nightwood wore me out (partly because I'd planned to read it twice, and disappointed myself by not managing to), but left many phrases and images echoing in my mind. A very sticky book.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 02:50:35 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  More pleasure than difficulty... (8+ / 0-)

    Nightwood is a great book, but it's not nearly as difficult as the author of this diary suggests. Comparing it to Joyce's more challenging stream of consciousness is a bit of a stretch. It's a love story gone bad with a sinister spin from Freud written by an absolute master stylist.

    It almost seems like the diary is trying to put people off from reading the book with all the "this is hard!" stuff. Listen. If you like vicious and outrageous satire, if you enjoy elegant sentences, and if you can hang with the high modernist self-scrutiny (the book contains more than a small dose of masochism--a common theme in Barnes's work), then you're going to love Nightwood, because this book is remarkable.

    There is absolutely nothing like it in the English language. Reading Nightwood is a singular--and for many of us, life-changing--experience.

    Read this book.

    "Microscopes are prudent in an emergency." -- Emily Dickinson

    by godotnut on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 08:28:50 AM PST

    •  I agree that Nightwood is not nearly as difficult (5+ / 0-)

      as many suggest; once one surrenders to the beauties of the highly  ornamental prose, it's easy to "go with the flow," so to speak - although I suppose one has to have a taste for that sort of thing. It's a very consciously literary sort of book I first read it about thirty years ago and found my perceptual frame significanlty altered for some time afterwards.  

      It's great to see this book get some attention here; Barnes referred to herself as  “the unknown legend of American literature" which, immodest though it seems, is a very good description

      •  "I first read it about thirty years ago and found (5+ / 0-)

        my perceptual frame significantly altered for some time afterwards."

        Winterson puts it aptly:

        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.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 09:43:12 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Wow, I love that quote (5+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, suka, poco, micsimov, Brecht

          from Winterson. It is its own beautiful piece of writing.

          Not enough to make me tackle Nightwood ever again, but enough to make me want to revisit some early Winterson, or look at some of the novels I never read.

          Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

          by Youffraita on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 10:19:57 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

    •  I welcome opposing viewpoints, however inane. (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, Youffraita, suka, micsimov

      Hey, you hit me first.

      It almost seems like the diary is trying to put people off from reading the book with all the "this is hard!" stuff.
      I have better things to do with my time than write reviews convincing people not to read books they've never heard of. There is a consensus: this book is notoriously difficult. The first thing wikipedia says about the style of the book:
      Nightwood is notable . . . for its intense, gothic prose style. Regarding the difficulty of reading the novel's dense prose, T.S. Eliot writes in his introduction, "only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it."
      Then there's the link I gave in the diary, to a Guardian article where Nightwood is listed first, among the 10 most difficult books of all.

      That doesn't make your opinion inane; but it is a very subjective one. I've found that, if I get intensely absorbed in a book, there's nothing forbidding about it. I can well imagine someone picking up Nightwood, being smitten by the first pages, and reading all night until they finished the book. It does have its own strange magic, as I emphasized in my review.

      Who should I compare Nightwood to, if not James Joyce?

      Barnes arrived in Paris with a letter of introduction to James Joyce, whom she interviewed for Vanity Fair and who became a friend. The headline of her Vanity Fair interview billed him as "the man who is, at present, one of the more significant figures in literature," but her personal reaction to Ulysses was less guarded: "I shall never write another line.... Who has the nerve to after that?" It may have been reading Joyce that led Barnes to turn away from the late 19th century Decadent and Aesthetic influences of The Book of Repulsive Women toward the modernist experimentation of her later work. . . . Her autobiographical first novel Ryder would not only present readers with the difficulty of deciphering its shifting literary styles—a technique inspired by Ulysses . . .
      This comment is not intended to attack you personally - I just enjoy a good argument. If you're really committed to introducing more readers to Djuna Barnes, I hope you'll write your own review of Nightwood, or another work of hers that you love. I completely agree with your
      If you like vicious and outrageous satire, if you enjoy elegant sentences . . . then you're going to love Nightwood, because this book is remarkable. There is absolutely nothing like it in the English language.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 03:34:51 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I find myself feeling absurdly let down... (5+ / 0-)

    ...to hear that T.S. Eliot likely edited out all the "pornographic" bits. I know not everyone shares my taste for kink, but really, that just seems so like him...bless his little 20th-century angsty insurance clerk's soul!  But at least he had the wit to read it and appreciate it, which sounds like it's more than you can say for most folk.  

    Been meaning to give Djuna Barnes a try for quite some time.  Maybe I'll nudge "Nightwood" closer to the top of the pile, now...so far, your taste hasn't steered me wrong. (loving Mrs Dalloway, btw - who knows if I ever would have tackled it but for reading your review?  It's great on audio book - Phyllida Law is reading it, and while I'm not familiar with her work I love her voice!)

    For what is the crime of robbing a bank, compared to the crime of owning one? BBrecht, Happy End

    by Miss Bianca on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 03:33:19 PM PST

    •  I'm glad you're enjoying my Books Go Boom and some (5+ / 0-)

      of the books that boom here, Miss Bianca. I may well steer you wrong with future titles, though (if I achieve my aim) I will also warn you sufficiently of their flavors that, by the time you finish those reviews, you'll know those titles aren't for you. I mean that, though I aspire to cover mostly good books, I'm also determined to cover books of every single flavor I can find.

      Yes, T. S. Eliot has a priggish side, I think. But in this case, he had sound business reasons - Ulysses was banned for more than a decade, and it had both greater plaudits and less kink to it. And he probably forgave the dirt in Nightwood, for its aestheticism.

      If you want to find the unexpurgated beast, you can. My version is about 200 pages; this one is 319:

      Nightwood: the original version and related drafts (Dalkey Archive Press, 1995)

      The version of Nightwood published in 1936 and revered ever since both as a classic modernist work and a groundbreaking lesbian novel differs in many respects from the book Djuna Barnes actually wrote. Unable to find a publisher for her earlier, more explicit versions, Barnes allowed her friend Emily Coleman and her editor T. S. Eliot to cut much material - ranging from a word to passages 3 pages long - to create a book "suitable" for publication. Barnes scholar Cheryl J. Plumb has studied all surviving versions of the work to re-create the novel Barnes originally intended. The Dalkey Archive edition not only restores to the main text the material Barnes reluctantly allowed to be cut - along with her preferred spelling and punctuation - but also reproduces in facsimile the 70 pages of discarded drafts that survive of earlier versions. The restored text and related drafts are accompanied by an introduction tracing the novel's composition and by a hundred pages of textual apparatus.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 10:07:30 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Ha! (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, suka, micsimov, Brecht

        Is that like the annotated Nightwood? (kidding)

        That's a lot of cutting. I'm almost tempted to try again, just to read the naughty bits. :-D

        Irony takes a worse beating from Republicans than Wile E. Coyote does from Acme. --Tara the Antisocial Social Worker

        by Youffraita on Sat Dec 07, 2013 at 10:26:09 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  I was just going to suggest that edition, (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, RiveroftheWest, suka, Youffraita

        it's the one I took out from the library, knowing you were doing this diary.  A few years ago I read the first published version, then last year I read 'the original version and related drafts.'  Plumb did a great job in assembling all the emendations, textual notes annotations, the assortment of drafts etc and the introductory essay is very informative, so if you're not sure if you want to read or reread the book the essay is quite good and may lead at least to an appreciation of one of America's great and original (LGBT) 20th century writers.  People like Barnes, Bowles, Miller etc have done so much to break down barriers, equality and free artistic expression as well.

        The Democrats care about you after you're born. --Ed Schultz

        by micsimov on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 07:59:45 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Was it way wickeder than the originally published (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          RiveroftheWest, suka, Youffraita

          version? And were there fascinating pieces in the new material, or enough background sketched in that the grand design was made clearer?

          Stylistically, Nightwood reminded me obliquely of The Velvet Underground & Nico. It was famously said of that album, that only a few thousand people bought it - but they all went out and started rock bands. I could see people reading Nightwood, and later stretching their own writing along new branches, which Barnes first pointed them to.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 10:22:11 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  I think what stands out (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Brecht, suka, RiveroftheWest, Youffraita

            in the 1995 Dalkey version is the whole package, the background that Plumb provides, the text is marked throughout so one can check with notes in the back etc; since I read both with years in between I'm not able to at this point intelligently  comment about any significant, if any, variances between the two.  The introductory essay is invaluable in that it highlights the artistic creation process Barnes employed and the collaborative efforts, most famously TS Eliot but also Emily Coleman.  Barnes accepted some advice/suggestions and rejected others; some of the chapters were rearranged in their sequence for example.  Barnes successfully resisted suggestions, however, that she curtail the role of Dr O'Connor and the story of Felix and Robin.

            All in all, the editorial hand was light; certainly because he anticipated potential difficulty with censors, Eliot blurred sexual, particularly homosexual, references and a few points that put religion in an unsavory light.  However, meaning was not changed substantially, though the character of the work was adjusted, the language softened.  Beyond that, there is the standard tightening of a phrase or two, punctuation, and spelling.
            Also of note with respect to Barnes and her less well known working relationship with Emily Coleman ( a writer too):
            With respect to Nightwood, what Barnes and Coleman shared most clearly was a desire to probe human nature beneath the surface, though here too they differed ... Part of the difference between them was that Coleman believed in an afterlife.  For Coleman, afterlife meant Christian resurrection, but for Barnes, her afterlife was life after Thelma, life after that death. ... Nevertheless ... Coleman's intense excitement over the human truths of Nightwood helped keep Barnes focused on the work, willing to rewrite, able to hear Coleman's demand for a clearer structure to carry the reader, and yet able to execute her own version of that structure ... Coleman's role with respect to Nightwood was not limited to seeing the manuscript revised for the third time; she was also instrumental in getting it to Eliot and perhaps indispensable in ensuring his careful reading.

            The Democrats care about you after you're born. --Ed Schultz

            by micsimov on Mon Dec 09, 2013 at 09:51:50 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

      •  yeah, kind of forgot... (4+ / 0-)

        ...about the whole obscenity uproar, but you're right - it was a happening thing. Thanks for the info!

        For what is the crime of robbing a bank, compared to the crime of owning one? BBrecht, Happy End

        by Miss Bianca on Mon Dec 09, 2013 at 04:23:48 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  To be honest, I've never re-read a book that I (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    suka, Brecht, RiveroftheWest, Youffraita

    felt I'd failed to grasp.

    There are a number of books that I've tossed aside unfinished.

    There's also a number of books that I've regretted finishing because it turned out that I'd grasped them only too well.

    It may not speak well for me but it's the truth.

    Nothing human is alien to me.

    by WB Reeves on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 02:31:55 AM PST

    •  I never used to reread books, on proud principle: (5+ / 0-)

      I figured I got most of them first time around, and there were hundreds of books I hadn't yet read once. Why rechew the stale, when I could devour the fresh?

      There's also a number of books that I've regretted finishing because it turned out that I'd grasped them only too well.

      It may not speak well for me but it's the truth.

      Hard to say. I infer from this slight conceit in you; but serious flaws in those books.

      Have you never started a book, then run aground: Not necessarily that the book was beyond your ken, but that it had too steep an effort/reward ratio to finish? But then, years later (and a little wiser, a little more adept) you picked it up again, and found it smoother sailing and far more fulfilling?

      I did this with One Hundred Years of Solitude, Swann's Way and Moby Dick.

      The first time I remember rereading a whole book, to see what I found the second time, was The Great Gatsby, a few years ago. And there was so much more there, than when I read it as a teen. I was picking up on literary style, sketched-in hints, subtleties of social relation and obliviousness, and American cultural mythos that had gone whoosh! above my head, before.

      Now I can see that a book as massive, dense and carefully crafted as Tolstoy, Eliot, Proust or Joyce's best has far too much to grasp fully on one go-through, no matter how gifted a reader you are. Also, I write these book diaries: I can't write a review with any authority, of a book I read two decades ago. So I've reread three books just this year (Tristram Shandy, Cold Comfort Farm & Emma - also all 10 of Zelazny's Amber books, just for the fun of the journey).

      With all the books on my list, which I haven't read once yet, there are only approx. 10% of books I'd reread (well, 15%, as I might not love a book, but still consider it interesting to write a diary about); and perhaps 2% I'd read thrice. And I'd rather wait a few years before rereading anything, so it feels at least mostly fresh (line by line, if not in the large design).

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 10:14:27 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I didn't mean to suggest that I never reread books (5+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Brecht, RiveroftheWest, Youffraita, poco, suka

        I just have never reread a book that I felt I'd failed to "grasp" the first time. I'm not sure I even understand what that means.

        For me, reading a book is an encounter with the personality of the author as much as with the characters or the tale being told. It's very much the same thing for me as a conversation, albeit necessarily one sided.

        Just as interaction with a flesh and blood person can gift me with flashes of insight into and consanguinity with their perspective, alternating with stark divergences and confrontations with the alien, so too with books. I have no expectation in either case of fully grasping the personality of the other. At best one can have sustained fascination and a sense of connection.

        I suppose that sounds terribly dry. It isn't intended that way. What I'm trying to express is that I find in books the same paradoxical dynamism and mystery that I find in people. A communion that doesn't require absolute comprehension so much as emotional and intellectual  resonance.

        Where such resonance is lacking I doubt any amount of effort could conjure it up, any more than one could will it into being in a personal relation.

        That being said, I do reread books in the same way that might spend time with a valued friend or to renew an old acquaintance. Most often it's a rewarding and enriching experience but there are times when it can be a considerable let down. I really enjoyed C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters when I was a kid. When I reread it as an adult it was a massive disappointment. Rather like meeting a childhood friend and discovering all the faults and shortcomings in them that one had previously overlooked.    

           

        Nothing human is alien to me.

        by WB Reeves on Tue Dec 10, 2013 at 04:24:13 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  'I just have never reread a book that I felt I'd (5+ / 0-)

          failed to "grasp" the first time.' Read Finnegans Wake twice: you'll see what I'm talking about.

          Just as interaction with a flesh and blood person can gift me with flashes of insight into and consanguinity with their perspective, alternating with stark divergences and confrontations with the alien, so too with books. I have no expectation in either case of fully grasping the personality of the other. At best one can have sustained fascination and a sense of connection.

          I suppose that sounds terribly dry. It isn't intended that way. What I'm trying to express is that I find in books the same paradoxical dynamism and mystery that I find in people. A communion that doesn't require absolute comprehension so much as emotional and intellectual resonance.

          On the contrary, that sounds precise and penetrating. That level of understanding, insight and expression occurs surprisingly and refreshingly often in R&BLers diaries, and it rewards me for my own work on the same fronts.

          I have a lot of yearning romantic in my heart. Which is good in many respects. It gives me the enthusiasm and buoyancy to keep reaching out, for new books, friends and experiences. The feeling of communion intoxicates, and too often we can elide over the "stark divergences and confrontations with the alien": we wallpaper over the cracks with our own assumptions, the understandings we think we have with an author or friend, which in fact are just our own projections of harmony over actual differences. A great shame it is, as delving into the differences could lead to a greater understanding in the end, if we just braved the work.

          Rather like meeting a childhood friend and discovering all the faults and shortcomings in them that one had previously overlooked.
          Ay, there's the rub. If we don't peer into the differences as we come across them, we're liable to have a bunch of them smack us in the face later on. We find, for instance, that we're married to someone we don't even know.

          "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

          by Brecht on Tue Dec 10, 2013 at 08:49:25 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  Excellent comment, WB Reeves... thank you! n/t (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Brecht, WB Reeves, Youffraita, suka
  •  Late in this thread, but wanted to thank you (7+ / 0-)

    This is one of the most interesting essays I have ever read on Nightwood--and I have to take the time to thank you for that. Nightwood is the only book, I can honestly say, that having finished the last page I flipped to the front and began again.

    Small miracles, or perhaps wounded grace, brought me to this book while I was waisting away in a small, delapidated apartment in Paris wondering both what I would do next for money and what I would do next with my life. I won't say the book itself gave me any answers (I barely understood what was going on), but it struck in me a distant, echoing chord that was as difficult to locate as it was to identify. Those pages got me moving somehow.

    While you may have read it only once, I would give much to have understood it as well even on my second reading.

    Again, thank you.

    •  I enjoy your thoughtful, sensitive, interesting (7+ / 0-)

      hippopotami. No, I meant writing, I just put hippopotami in to surprise you.

      Some of your comments make me want to read diaries of yours. But lo and behold, you have four diaries on books already (and the touching one on your son, and community). The Inferno, I'm meaning to reread; The Moviegoer, I'm meaning to read. So, after this comment, I'll go read your diary about the third book, and then come back and comment - in appreciation of your fine work, and for the joy of conversation.

      Some high praise you have there for Nightwood, if mostly because it struck such a personal chord with you. I can see how this book might seem written to you, if you read it "in a small, delapidated apartment in Paris wondering both what I would do next for money and what I would do next with my life." Brings to mind Orwell's first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (which came out 4 years before Nightwood).

      I'm not sure how those pages got you moving again, when they hold so much darkness and sadness in them; but there is beauty and truth there, too. And sometimes it's tha alien world which saps our hope, and just hearing a voice that speaks the language of our own heart is enough to make us feel human, and warm-blooded again.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 04:16:48 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I read 'Of Human Bondage' in my teens, and a load (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      RiveroftheWest, suka, Youffraita, P Carey, poco

      of his short stories, too (I recommend them). Somerset Maugham went to my boarding school (The King's School, Canterbury), and includes it in this book; he didn't like it.

      He also realizes that I comprehend and process the written word better than those spoken in a conversation. I need the time, the solitude to take ideas apart and put them back together in a way I can understand.
      That's one of the reasons I write these diaries. I'm pretty glib in conversation; but when I take the time to write and edit my ideas, they get smarter and clearer. I love having a good idea, writing a diary on it, and then discovering it's actually a great idea.

      You say the title, Of Human Bondage comes from Spinoza's Ethics:

      “[h]uman infirmity in moderating and checking the emotions I name bondage: for, when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune: so much so, that he is often compelled, while seeing that which is better for him, to follow that which is worse.”
      I see this, but a little differently. You recced my comment two days ago, about Jung's Theory of Psychological Types. He writes about the difficulty of Thinking and Feeling at once. They're both Judging functions, crunching all the data before us, but looking for different answers (gross oversimplification: Logical vs. Happy).

      The challenge I see - which few humans get a handle on - is how to Think and Feel simultaneously, without getting a horrible screeching interference, or just burying one of the functions in your unconscious. For example, a sharp and flexible critic might see two overlapping schemes of Value in Books: a blueprint and a redprint. The blue would be an intellectual map of measurement, and the red an emotional map (i.e. critic's personal taste).

      Your conclusion was satisfying and well-shaped:

      So, last night after reading my friend’s confessions of human failure, I understood more clearly that he, my son, and Maugham might all be telling me the same damn thing: there is solace in who I am where I am, in accepting and embracing the humanness of my condition.

      Still, to be perfectly honest, I want them to be lying to me.

      Isn't it grand, to be able to dig up echoes and find a conversation there? I mentioned before that "just hearing a voice that speaks the language of our own heart is enough to make us feel human, and warm-blooded again." R&BLers is a fine playground for me because, if I take the time to find the exact words for my meanings, and to weave them with humor, odd orderings, and leaps of intuition - well, there are experienced and subtle readers here, who actually get even the nuances of what I'm yammering about. It is a cool drink of water, to be well understood.

      I just read all the comments you got, and enjoyed them too.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 04:58:07 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've been out of town and reading this (5+ / 0-)

    on my puny iPhone, unable to chime in and do more than scatter a few rec's.  

    Just want to say congratulations to the diarist for this amazing contribution.   Although the name Djuna Barnes has echoed in my head for many decades, I've never taken the time to discover her writing.  Now I have good reason to add yet another name to my list of future reads.   I think I'm going to be smitten.

    A couple of quick remarks:

    Absalom, Absalom : I gave up on it, as well.  Faulkner, or so it seemed to me,  was going out of his way to embroider everything in his path.  I much preferred As I Lay Dying .  Big fan of Of Human Bondage and pretty much every other Somerset Maugham that I have read.  

    It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

    by Radiowalla on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 07:29:21 PM PST

    •  "I think I'm going to be smitten"; perhaps so - (5+ / 0-)

      she cast more of a spell on me than I realized, until awhile after finishing the book. I am drowning in the richness of all the books I've read, and the books I'm still thirsty to taste.

      It's hard to measure how distinct and well-crafted a book is, when I read it almost thirty years ago. I was impressed with a few Somerset Maugham short story collections - that's really the entire review I have of his work, as far as my memory goes; except, I did read a few novels, and Of Human Bondage struck me most. But I think I never read Razor's Edge, and should.

      I'll do As I Lay Dying next spring. It may take me a few more Faulkners, before I get back to Absalom, Absalom! My sense is that Faulkner has serious ability and originality, but is uneven in the execution.

      "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

      by Brecht on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 08:51:15 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Smitten is the term I should have used (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        RiveroftheWest, Brecht, Youffraita, suka

        to describe Faulkner's view of his own writing in Absalom .  I couldn't finish it because I couldn't help thinking that he was "showing off" rather than tending to his craft.  I had to keep reminding myself that this novel undoubtedly produced an entirely different reaction when it was published in 1936.  From the distant vantage point of 2013, it is perhaps too easy to pass judgment.   Many think this is the seminal novel of the South, but I wouldn't be among them.

        My reading of Maugham dates back several decades as well and I don't remember anything of the plots.  I did very much like  The Painted Veil and thought the movie was lovely.

        If you are going to drown, it might as well be in the richness of a good book.

        It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

        by Radiowalla on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 09:07:49 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Blast from the past! (6+ / 0-)

    I believe I read this in my twenties (thirty years ago, FCOL!) but I don't remember any of it!

    I went through a period back then reading Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and I think that's how I came across D.B.'s "Nightwood."

    But now I'd like to re-read it.

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