Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 30, 2015

Sensational Snippets: Nightwood (1936), by Djuna Barnes


Nightwood is another title in the Faber Modern Classics series, and it seemed somehow appropriate to be reading it in view of he recent Yes! vote in Ireland because it’s a pioneering novel of gay love.

(Though truth be told, it’s not a novel of relationships that are likely to end up in happy-ever-after marriages! But, still!)

It was first published in 1936, by Faber and Faber in London, with an introduction (reproduced in this new edition) by T. S. Eliot, who advises that the book is best savoured with repeated readings:

It took me, with this book,  some time to come to an appreciation of its meaning as a whole. (p. xvii)

(Clearly, anyone venturing into writing a review of it these days, should heed his advice!)

Actually, I found Eliot’s Introduction a little pompous.  I preferred the Introduction by Jeanette Winterson for this new edition.  I didn’t care much for Oranges are not the Only Fruit, but reading her thoughts about Nightwood has made me reconsider.  She writes like an angel:

Nightwood is a nano-text.

It is, in any case, not much more than a couple of hundred pages long, and more people have heard about it than have read it.  Reading it is mainly the preserve of academics and students.  Others have a vague sense that it is a modernist text, that T. S. Eliot adored it, that Dylan Thomas called it ‘one of the three major prose works by a woman’ (accept the compliment to D.B., ignore the insult directed elsewhere), that the work is an important milestone on any map of gay literature – even though, like all the best books, its power makes a nonsense of any categorisation, especially of gender or sexuality.

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. (p. ix)

BEWARE SPOILERS (though, really, one doesn’t read Nightwood for plot.)

The plot is, as Winterson says, minimal.  The central character is a bohemian called Robin Vote, hard to like, and even harder to get to know. Unkindly, she marries the pseudo-baron Felix Volkbein, and even more unkindly, she has a child called Guido.  There are two women who (unwisely) love this destructive Robin, Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge (who, reminiscent of the carelessness deplored by Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, has been widowed four times).  And bringing it all together, though it takes a while to realise that’s what he’s doing, is Dr Matthew O’Connor, who launches into bizarre monologues that seem to have nothing to do with anything.  (He’s not really a doctor, but he does have healing qualities).

Here I simply must quote a little about Jenny:

Her walls, her cupboards, her bureaux, were teeming with second-hand dealings with life.  It takes a bold and authentic robber to get first-hand plunder.  Someone else’s marriage ring was on her finger; the photograph taken of Robin for Nora sat upon her table.  The books in her library were other people’s selections.  She lived among her own things like a visitor to a room kept ‘exactly as it was when – ‘.  She tiptoed, even when she went to draw a bath, nervous and andante.  She stopped, fluttering and febrile, before every object in her house.  She had no sense of humour or peace or rest, and her own quivering uncertainty made even the objects which she pointed out to the company, as ‘My virgin from Palma’, or ‘the left-hand glove of la Duse’, recede into a distance of uncertainty, so that it was almost impossible for the onlooker to see them at all.  (p. 60)

For reasons I can’t quite explain, especially since I haven’t completed the obligatory re-readings, Nightwood reminds me of the nightlife scenes from In Search of Lost Time.  It’s not just because they’re both set in Paris.  (Even when Nightwood is set in New York, it seems like Paris, or the Paris of literature that we associate with Paris).  I would need to re-read the Proust too to discover why there is some connection in my mind, but I think it has something to do with the arch way that characters speak to one another, the poetic circuitry of the prose or the noir elements.  Or it could just be the sexuality…

The star of this novella is Djuna Barnes’ intriguing writing.  I could have chosen any page at random for that, but this example shows just how much there is to think about on every page.  Heavily pregnant Robin is in the convent where Jean Valjean (Les Misérables) had worked in the garden.  The nuns there sense that they were looking at someone who would never be able to ask for, or receive, mercy and she wanders past the tomb of Lafayette where she thought her unpeopled thoughts.  In the chapel Robin tries to gather her disordered thoughts:

She tried to think of the consequence to which her son was to be born and dedicated.  She thought of the Emperor Francis Joseph.  There was something commensurate in the heavy body with the weight in her mind, where reason was inexact with lack of necessity.  She wandered to thoughts of women, women that she had come to connect with women.  Strangely enough these were women in history, Louise de la Vallière, Catherine of Russia, Madame de Maintenon, Catherine de Medici, and two women out of literature, Anna Karenina and Catherine Heathcliff; and now there was this woman Austria. She prayed, and her prayer was monstrous, because in it there was no margin left for damnation or forgiveness, for praise or for blame – those who cannot conceive a bargain cannot be saved or damned.  She could not offer herself up; she only told of herself, in a preoccupation that was its own predicament.

Leaning her childish face and full chin on the shelf of the prie-Dieu, her eyes fixed, she laughed, out of some hidden capacity, some lost subterranean humour; as it ceased, she leaned still further forward in a swoon, waking and yet heavy, like one in sleep.

When Felix returned that evening Robin was dozing in a chair, one hand under her cheek and one arm fallen.  A book was lying on the floor beneath her hand.  The book was the memoirs of the Marquis de Sade; a line was underscored: Et lui rendit pendant sa captivité les milles services qu’un amour dévoué est seul capable de render, and suddenly into his mind came the question: ‘What is wrong?’  (p.42)

(I translate the French as And gave to him during his captivity the thousand services that only love is capable of giving.)

T.S. Eliot is right: each time I re-read this passage my thoughts lead elsewhere…

PS If all goes to plan, I will be high in the sky when this post is launched into cyber space.  It may take a day or two for me to get over the jet lag and respond to comments, but I’d love to hear from anyone who has read this book:)

Author: Djuna Barnes
Title: Nightwood
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2015
ISBN: 9780571322862
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Fishpond: Nightwood: Faber Modern Classics


  1. I’m so pleased this has been re-released, I’ve been looking for a copy for the last few years and now I may actually be able to find one. Looking forward to reading it!


    • what a pity, I could have let you have this copy but I had to leave it behind in Singapore!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes! I read it at the height of my T.S. Eliot infatuation at uni, and I have to admit I really couldn’t understand why T.S. was so mad about it. But I dutifully told everyone how wonderful it was. Now older and wiser, and not nearly so keen on Tom, I must have another look.


    • I don’t think I would have made any sense of it when I was younger, now I’ve read more in the way of ‘odd’ books I was able to ride out some of the parts that puzzled me. And the writing is so spiky and clever, like Patrick White’s most incisive barbs, that made up for a lot. Even so, there were bits that baffled me completely. The scene at the end with the dog for one, maybe there was some symbolism happening there that went over my head…


  3. […] Djuna Barnes Nightwood is discussed in the last chapter, Legacies of Decadence, and Weir also mentions decadence outside […]


  4. […] Djuna Barnes Nightwood is discussed in the last chapter, Legacies of Decadence, and Weir also mentions decadence outside […]


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