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.
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.