We all go down in battle, but we all come home.’

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood comes praised by many of my own personal literary heroes. TS Eliot was a fan. So too Jeanette Winterson. Even William Burroughs apparently loved it. With all that to recommend it how could I not love it too?


With that opening it’s probably not a surprise to learn that I didn’t love Nightwood. I didn’t even like it very much. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, given its champions I think that would be arrogant. I’m confident though in saying that if it’s a good book I am not a good reader for it.

Nightwood opens strongly:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms – gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

The child is “Baron” Felix Volkbein. His title is slightly dubious and therefore all the more fiercely clung to. He’s a man with his gaze fixed firmly on the past, intent on preserving traditions his family never had more than questionable claims on.

Note that line about “perpetuating that race”, because Felix’s is part-Jewish and here that’s indicative of character. The first third or so of the novel is filled with characterisation based on racial essentialism, common in the early 20th Century but deeply tedious here in the early 21st.

That essentialism leads to cod-philosophy like this:

It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the ‘collector’ of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a ‘sign’. A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.

Which is frankly bollocks, and not particularly meaningful bollocks at that. Then you get stuff like:

The people of the theatre and the [circus] ring were for him as dramatic and as monstrous as a consignment on which he could never bid. That he haunted them as persistently as he did, was evidence of something in his nature that was turning Christian.

After a long silence in which the doctor had ordered and consumed a Chambéry fraise and the Baron a coffee, the doctor remarked that the Jew and the Irish, the one moving upward and the other down, often meet, spade to spade in the same acre.

I could pick many more examples. To be Jewish or Christian or Irish here is more than an accident of birth and culture (at one point the novel observes that Felix, being Jewish, is ” racially incapable of abandon”). Race here is a fixed part of the self. It’s the breed you belong to, as might a horse or dog.

Mercifully this sort of thing dies back after the first third of the book or so (if it didn’t I sincerely doubt this would be viewed by anyone as a classic). Felix marries Robin Vote and has a frail and sickly child by her. Robin leaves him, and the novel follows her to her relationship with Nora Flood. Felix married Robin because he thought a man of his intended station should marry by a certain age and beget heirs. Nora takes in Robin because she loves her.

Most reviews of Nightwood focus on Robin and Nora and for good reason. Nora’s passion provides everything Felix’s dry and dwindling ambition lacks. Unfortunately, Robin’s is a restless soul. Nora’s love isn’t enough to keep her and Robin starts to stay out late, to pick up other women, to push back against the comfort Nora offers. Nora pursues her but can’t hold her, and soon Robin is poached by “the squatter” in her and Nora’s lives, the aging Jenny Petherbridge.

Felix wanted Robin for reasons that were ultimately sterile, and it’s telling that the child they have is weak and unlikely to live to see adulthood. Nora loves Robin so much that she’ll let her sleep with other women, wait at home and when Robin stops coming home follow her to cheap waterside bars and into the darkness Robin seeks out. Jenny Petherbridge just wants what others have, and takes Robin because Nora has her. As for what Robin wants, who truly knows? She thinks “unpeopled thoughts”. She’s more catalyst than character, aimless and promiscuous though whether from desire or listlessness is hard to say.

Looking up after an interminable flow of fact and fancy, [Felix] saw Robin sitting with her legs thrust out, her head thrown back against the embossed cushion of the chair, sleeping, one arm fallen over the chair’s side, the hand somehow older and wiser than her body; and looking at her he knew that he was not sufficient to make her what he had hoped; it would require more than his own argument. It would require contact with persons exonerated of their earthly condition by some strong spiritual bias, someone of that old régime, some old lady of the past courts, who only remembered others when trying to think of herself.

Observer and chorus to all of this is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O’ Connor, a kind of holy fool. He’s friend to Felix and counsels and comforts him when Robin leaves. He becomes friend to Nora too and in one long dark night does the same for her. He’s a garrulous Irish cross-dresser and whole pages are given to his flights of rhetoric. As Nora asks on first meeting him as he talks with Felix: ‘Are you both really saying what you mean, or are you just talking?’

He’s doing both of course. O’ Connor speaks for the sake of language itself, but there’s meaning amidst the torrent. When Nora comes to him in despair his ocean of words gives her the space for her own pain. His loquacious nonsense is a kind of mercy.

Nightwood is, above all, a novel of emotion. The characters here are damned souls driven by their own passions, the only one of them to achieve any kind of grace does so by abandoning the follies that drive them. In that they’re human, if perhaps somewhat exaggerated humans.

It’s rare for posts here (or at any blog) to get people commenting below the line in strong disagreement. It happened when I criticised Heart of Darkness (which I rather welcomed) but it happened all the more when I reviewed Wuthering Heights which I took to even less than Nightwood. The thing about Wuthering Heights is it’s a novel of sensibility, not sense. Nightwood is the same. If the passion doesn’t speak to you then you’re left with unlikely characters doing improbable things in overblown language.

One little review isn’t going to dent Nightwood’s status any more than it will Wuthering Heights. There is though a chemistry between book and reader as there is between lovers, and just as it wasn’t there for Felix and Robin it isn’t there for me and Nightwood either.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere I know of, save for Bookslut’s rather positive one here before she abandoned blogging. She makes a comparison to Proust. I wouldn’t. Jeanette Winterson wrote a characteristically lovely foreword which is reprinted in full in the Guardian here and is worth reading. The spoilers are few and Nightwood isn’t the sort of book that would be spoiled by knowing its slender plot in any event. Winterson is insightful on the book in a way I can’t be, because it spoke to her but merely spoke at me.

As a final aside, I do find the habit in early 20th Century English novels of dropping in little bits of dialogue in other European languages immensely irritating. Here it’s occasional phrases in German, but elsewhere I’ve seen both French and Italian. Huxley loved that sort of thing and I imagine it reflects how people of a certain class spoke, but it is wearying.


Filed under Barnes, Djuna, Modernist fiction

19 responses to “We all go down in battle, but we all come home.’

  1. “If the passion doesn’t speak to you then you’re left with unlikely characters doing improbable things in overblown language.”


    “As a final aside, I do find the habit in early 20th Century English novels of dropping in little bits of dialogue in other European languages immensely irritating. Here it’s occasional phrases in German, but elsewhere I’ve seen both French and Italian. Huxley loved that sort of thing and I imagine it reflects how people of a certain class spoke, but it is wearying.”

    Have you read A Legacy? Plenty of suchlike…excellent novel but a considerable amount of what you’re talking about and, when your language skills are as impoverished as mine, slightly annoying.

  2. Who’s it by again? Huxley irritated me hugely with this, not least when his characters (I’ll be charitable and assume it wasn’t him) got the languages in question wrong as they occasionally did with Italian.

    Frankly, it comes over as an affectation of the age. The characters don’t converse in these languages, they sprinkle their conversation with fragments of them as best I can see for no purpose but to show they can. I mentioned the racial essentialism, I could also have mentioned a certain amount of snobbery which I think is the great failing of much famous early 20th Century English fiction.

  3. Sybille Bedford – superb stuff but spoilt slightly by this preponderance for exhibiting language chops.

  4. I thought I had read this a long time ago, but I can’t remember *anything* you mention in your review so maybe I didn’t. And frankly I’m not sure I want to now… Certain allowance has to be made for the views held in the past, but this sounds just beyond the pale.

  5. I’m with you on this one. I read it years ago, and I came to the book expecting to find something special. It was a balloon with the air gone out for me. Can’t remember specifics but I do remember wondering what all the brouhaha was about

  6. Tredynas Days

    Interesting piece, Max. I’ve long considered reading this, but had picked up some negative feelings about it from somewhere, can’t recall where, and your review confirms them. I may offend by saying i’ve had a similar reaction so far to most of the Clarice Lispector ‘Collected Stories’ I started a while back, and keep drifting away from – though I’m only just over a hundred pages into it. I wrote about A Legacy a while back over at mine – I liked it a lot. Btw, it was maybe the Russians who started the trend for dropping in then-fashionable French snippets of dialogue – Tolstoy comes to mind.

  7. Ah yes, I had that impression which may be partly why I’ve not yet read her, though I don’t rule her out as I’ve seen some good reviews.

    Kaggsy, it’s not anti-Semitic, just essentialist. Felix is a sympathetic character by and large. It reflects the upper-class prejudices and snobberies of its age. It is merciful though when those elements of the book recede.

    Guy, a balloon with the air gone out is a nice way of putting it. I had hoped for more here. Certainly it won’t be on my end of year list.

  8. Simon, it was you I was thinking of when I said I’d seen good reviews of Bedford. You made a very good case for her as I recall.

    I loved the only Lispector I have read so far, so plan to read more. What reminded you of her here? The language/style? Anyway, disagreement doesn’t bring offence, it gives us something to talk about.

    Good point re the Russians.

  9. Felt momentarily bad I hadn’t read this but luckily your second paragraph put a stop to that. Not convinced it would speak to me either.
    As for the language comment – it’s bad enough in an English book, more irritating when translated (e.g. from Russian with French left in)

  10. I’d never even heard of this book until I read your post so maybe I’ve been living in a literary cave for the past several years. I doubt whether it would click with me either – the prose seems a bit overwrought.

    Interesting that Lee should mention A Legacy as I read it fairly recently (there’s a review at mine and one at Guy’s blog too). While there’s much to enjoy (some of the descriptions of the lifestyle are priceless), I didn’t love it as much as I’d expected/hoped. Bedford’s prose can be quite allusive at times, so it feels as though you are walking into the middle of a number of conversations without really knowing who is speaking to whom (or what they’re discussing). That’s fine every now and again, but it can get a bit tiresome after a while. Nevertheless, I’m sufficiently intrigued by Bedford and her milieu to give her another go.

  11. Tredynas Days

    Jacqui – yes, ‘allusive’ is a good way to describe her style. I found it very much to my taste – I wrote about A Legacy on mine a while back, as Max has kindly pointed out, and consider it a fine and interesting contribution to the literature in English that takes as its subject the life on the continent of Europe in the earlier 20C – far better than, say, Isherwood. She’s a serious writer. Ivy C-Burnett can also get confusing with her habit of unattributed dialogue, so it’s hard to determine who’s saying what. Great dialogue, though. Max: yes, it’s that slightly overwrought prose style I think that reminded me of Clarice L, and an obliquity in treatment of subject matter. I quite like that, in fact, and it’s one of CL’s traits that I find rewarding.

  12. Yes, I recall your pieces, Simon – they were excellent. Just had another look at my comments on the first one. I liked way you described the A Legacy as having a collage structure – it’s a good way of picturing it.

  13. I haven’t read Ulysses, War and Peace or Moby Dick Grant, I don’t think we ever need feel bad about these things.

    Russian with French is tricky. Where the original had long passages in French there is a question of how you reflect that. If you put it all in English it’s no longer distinguished, so you need a footnote or to italicise it or something to flag at least the original intent.

    Jacqui, I hadn’t heard of it until I think last year. It’s fans I think see it as overlooked, and even in the introduction Jeanette Winterson says it’s more studied than read.

    The prose is certainly highly wrought. Over I’ll leave to the individual reader, though it certainly passed my own wrought-threshold.

  14. Although I haven’t read Nightwood yet, I’m currently making my way through her Collected Stories (Sun & Moon Press) which are often quite extraordinary, and which have been, I feel, unjustly overlooked and neglected. She’s certainly an idiosyncratic writer (in both the positive and negative senses of that term). She uses startling and peculiar turns of phrase which often have me having to reread them to get the gist of what she is saying. There is also a profound pessimism and morbid bent to much of her writing, as well as the blackest of humour, which all appeals to me. One strange story (“The Head of Babylon”) concerns the marriage of Theeg, a rich landowners paraplegic daughter, while one of her best (“No-Man’s-Mare”) concerns the death of Pauvla Agrippa (“She had not wanted to live, because she did not mind death. There were no candles about her where she lay, nor any flowers. She had said quite logically to her sisters: “Are there any candles and flowers at birth?” They saw the point, but regretted the philosophy, for buying flowers would have connected them with Pauvla Agrippa, in this, her new adventure.”). In order to get Pauvla’s corpse to the cemetery, it’s bound with a fishing net to a wild horse, with bizarre and moving consequences.

    Some of her idiosyncrasies may well be because she apparently had no formal education and led a traumatic and remarkable life, one which would be almost inconceivable today. I’m rarely drawn to reading the biographies of writers but I will definitely be seeking out Philip Herring’s one (there’s even what is described as ‘an infernal memoir’ of her by Hank O’Neil which takes it’s title from one of her self-deprecatingly lugubrious quotes: “Life is painful, nasty and short . . . in my case it has only been painful and nasty”). For me, she’s akin to being an outsider artist, and is up there (and out there) with other brilliant eccentrics like Katherine Anne Porter and Jane Bowles. She is simply that good.

    P.S. While I understand the reticence and opprobrium you may feel about examples of anti-Semitism in Barnes’ writing, it’s rather perplexing that you began the piece citing a couple of your (and my) literary heroes like T. S. Eliot, who was no stranger to anti-Semitism, and William Burroughs, who was often virulently misogynist.

  15. David,

    I’m on holiday so only have mobile access. I’ll respond properly when I return. Re your last question, I think for me it’s about distinguishing between art and artist. Eliot’s anti-Semitism isn’t central to the work and his Prufrock for example contains no hint of it. Here the first third of the book or so is weighed down by racial essentialism. I don’t really care what the artist believed, I care what’s in the work.

    Burroughs in honesty I’ve not read since I was a teenager so I may just not have noticed his issues then and forgotten them since…

    Good question and thanks for the comment.

  16. Apologies for interrupting your holidays, Max, that was not my intention. Merely to point out that there might be more to Djuna Barnes than Nightwood.

    However, you raise an interesting point when you say “I don’t really care what the artist believed, I care what’s in the work.”. While I think this may be valid to an extent, authorial intentions, together with their cultural backgrounds and philosophies, are important to understanding a text. This is particularly so in the first half of the 20th century, when anti-Semitism and extreme political views were commonplace. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read the likes of Wyndham Lewis, Celine, Knut Hamsun, Paul de Man, Pound, Stein, Heidegger etc., but we should be conscious of their anti-Semitic and/or Fascist beliefs, at least in some periods of their lives. In the same way, the Marxist and Communist philosophies of writers during this period are often crucial to an understanding of their writings. I can’t see how these things, or say the colour and culture/sexuality of a writer, can just be ignored or forgotten when we read a book.

    P.S. I hope the rest of your holiday went swimmingly well.

  17. Not at all David, I was in an airport hotel room when I wrote that so there wasn’t yet anything to disrupt anyway (if there had been I wouldn’t have answered at all until I got back).

    I’m fairly purist when it comes to the text as an entity in itself, though I grant it’s far from the only approach or indeed the most popular. It’s partly an issue of authorial intent. If you look at my recent review of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness there’s a lot of discussion on this in the comments. I see that book as flawed by virtue of racist language and attitudes in the text which don’t appear to me purely attributable to in-character views (though that’s debatable since the entire text is presented as an in-character view). I have no view on whether Conrad was racist, nor do I really care.

    If, for sake of argument, I’m right that Heart of Darkness has issues with racism then Conrad’s intent and own views become of biographical interest, but the text remains what it is. If Conrad had racist views, there they are. If he didn’t, it may be that an issue of execution meant his (perhaps) intent to undermine such views failed leaving the views unchallenged. Either way, the text is what it is.

    I reviewed Hamsun’s Hunger here. I’m aware of his politics, but I don’t particularly see them in that text and I’m not persuaded they’re relevant to it. Not in the same way say HP Lovecraft’s xenophobia is relevant to his texts – where frankly you could know nothing of his life and views at all and yet it would still be apparent after reading a few stories that he had issues in those areas.

    So I think when we assess writers, arists, scientists, thinkers, as people then their views absolutely matter. When we assess the work, the work matters. As I say though, I’m something of a purist on that front.

    Of course, if we want to analyse the work further there comes a point where we do have to return to the person because the work didn’t emerge from the sea resting upon a shell. Somebody wrote it by reference to their life, their imagination, their beliefs and goals, their precedents and inspirations. I think there though that’s become more an investigation of how the work came to be than what the work is once it’s come to be. My interests are much more in the latter than the former.

  18. The first quote made me think it was unlikely this one would increase my TBR. Your mentioning Wuthering Heights (I’m with you on that one. What a bore) just confirmed it.
    I’ll pass…

  19. Happy as ever not to have increased the TBR pile Emma.

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