Skip to main content

Have you ever thought of the night?

Djuna Barnes’ pivotal work, Nightwood, has drawn attention not only because of its literary importance in the Gay & Lesbian canon, but also because of the (rare) introduction by T.S. Eliot. After reading it, I see that Eliot was right when he wrote it was “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it,” especially those trained the sort of modernist Waste-Landish poetry that Eliot wrote (which I am not). I would have to apply textual analysis before it could be unpacked into a fluid read for me.

The book has been called carnivalesque, Baroque, and Elizabethan, all words I wish I had been the first to attach to the work, because they are so fitting. The prose is highly ornamented, soundly structured like little golden bricks, made up of monologues and maxims (“Death is intimacy walking backward”), encoded along Joycean lines but without Joyce’s lyrical intensity.

The novel’s setting is chiefly in Europe of the 1920s, in the salons, cafés, and streets of late night Paris and Vienna. Barnes employs a farcical troop of characters which Eliot suggests several readings to improve them: Baron Felix Volkbein, a Jew with a false title and aristocratic aspirations; his longed-for holy-fool son, Guido; Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a queer, cross-dressing Irish quack; Robin Vote (Felix’s wife), a boyish woman with her two female lovers (Nora and Jenny) who ruin themselves over her.

Though Robin is the character which the other characters destroy themselves against, Dr Matthew O’Connor is the axis around which the events, characters, and monologues wheel. He observes Robin, he listens to Felix, and he allows Nora to pour out her anguish over Robin to him. But this is not without its consequences, as his emptiness turns him to drink and madness. The book itself begins as an ornamental piece and descends into savagery; there are traces of it in the slap Robin gives Felix, or when Jenny hits and scratches and draws Robin’s blood, earning Robin’s curiosity and pleased submission.

The poet Dylan Thomas called it one of the three best books ever written by a woman, and despite my initial reaction to the offensiveness of that statement (and I would argue, inaccuracy), I won’t deny that Nightwood doesn’t display what I would call “typical” female writing – attention to emotional staging, dialogue, and lyrical writing (though there are many female authors who contradict this generality – A.M. Holmes for one, I’ve heard). Barnes’ characters talk at each other, they don’t converse well. There is an almost Biblical hollowness to words and phrases like “Sleep the slain white bull” and “temples like those of young beasts cutting horns, as if they were sleeping eyes.”

I can tell this is a jewel of a book – all light, intensity, hardness. But I don’t like it. Yet. It deserves several re-readings. It has passages that suddenly gripped me - like when Nora sees the doctor in his nightgown, heavily painted, she thinks

"Is not the gown the natural raiment of extremity? What nation, what religion, what ghost, what dream, has not worn it - infants, angels, priests, the dead; why should not the doctor, in the grave dilemma of his alchemy, wear his dress?"

I'll try it again in a bit, and I'm sure it will be improved by intimacy.


Popular posts from this blog

More Moomins

A friend once said that the thing she loved about Japan was that the Japanese loved every season, and made a great effort to celebrate holidays and seasons with specific rituals. As a person who enjoys holidays, and who finds meaning participating in the ritual of the Christian year, I feel a kinship with the Japanese. As humans, we respond to the larger, uncontrollable mysteries of life with stories, with food, with a renewed sense of connection to each other and to the world around us.

It is easy, with the early darkness and the frost on our windshields and the necessity of coats and thicker socks, to complain about the dying of the year and the coming of winter.

Here is a must-read this time of year: Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November. Where her other Moomin books have been characterized by happy bohemianism and quirky, midsummer adventures, this book is not afraid to deal with the stark and empty season that comes once a year.

It is raining steadily upon the tall dark trees. D…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.

Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,

Cassandra at the Wedding - Dorothy Baker

The perfect airplane read for a person en route to a wedding, this tautly written 1962 novel about a woman falling apart, coming home to her family’s ranch to derail her twin sister’s wedding. That’s the summary – but obviously it’s about so much more: about the nature of love and obsession, about identity and the self.

Cassandra Edwards, named for the doomed wailer at the gates of Troy, is a student at Berkley, an “Existentialist-Zen-Marxist, Freudian branch. Deviation, rather.” The reader is fully aware from the beginning that Cassandra feels antagonistically about the wedding – she anticipates duties of “tak[ing] over the bouquet while [Judith] received the ring, through the nose or on the finger, wherever she chose to receive it…” She purposefully gets the groom’s name wrong. She plans to stage a “last-minute rescue.”

The isolated family ranch the Edwards family as a self-sufficient unit – emotionally and intellectually. Her alcoholic father, a retired skeptical philosopher who act…