Happy Halloween everyone! I’m sitting in my living room armchair, a place I rarely sit, so I can hop up and answer the door in case kids are out trick-or-treating. This is the extent of my Halloween celebrations, I’m afraid.
So, I finished Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood last week and have decided to go ahead and read it again right away. My response to the first reading was a mixture of awe and bewilderment. The plot is simple to follow, so it was not the plot that bewildered me, but there is not much plot anyway; rather, it’s the things the characters were saying that I sometimes had trouble following. But their speeches were beautiful and in the moments when meaning broke through, I found myself moved.
I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t read and re-read passages until I understood them perfectly, because that moment didn’t always come; instead, I read slowly and figured out what I could, and kept going even if I didn’t get everything. I did this partly because I knew I’d mostly likely be reading the book again, but also because trying to figure everything out would lead to frustration. I think this is the kind of book where you can read for mood and atmosphere and for the beauty of the language as much as you read for logical meaning.
Here’s a typical passage, a speech from one of the most important characters, the doctor:
Suppose your heart were five feet across in any place, would you break it for a heart no bigger than a mouse’s mute? Would you hurl yourself into any body of water, in the size you now are, for any woman that you had to look for with a magnifying glass, or any boy if he was as high as the Eiffel Tower or did droppings like a fly? No, we all love in sizes, yet we all cry out in tiny voices to the great booming God, the older we get. Growing old is just a matter of throwing life away back; so you finally forgive even those that you have not begun to forget.
I’m not entirely sure what this passage means, but I do like it. The book it not entirely made up of passages like this one; it also has plenty of dialogue and narration that’s easier to follow. The novel tells the story of a group of characters, following them through many years as they wander around, fall in love, marry in some cases, break up, despair, talk it over, despair, talk it over, etc. There’s the doctor, who has most of the eloquent, poetic speeches, who doesn’t seem to do much but talk to the other characters. There’s Baron Felix, who marries Robin Vote, who then leaves him to pursue Nora Flood and then leaves her to pursue Jenny. The conversations that come out of all this loving and leaving are more important than the actions themselves — the book is really about the sense that the characters make of what happens to them.
I do not at all feel as though I have a handle on this book, but perhaps after a second reading, I’ll get more of it. Perhaps I’ll look up some critical work as well.
5 responses to “Nightwood”
The book sounds hard but really interesting. The passage is lovely though I’m not sure I fully understand it. I will be curious to find out what you think after your second reading.
You did much better than me, Dorothy, as I never got past about page 50! I didn’t mind the lyricism, it was the plotlessness that got to me in the end, if I recall rightly. I believe that Barnes was caught up in the Parisian Surrealist movement when she was writing this (is that right?) so I guess like most texts at that time it defied interpretation in rational ways and was more interested in following the course of desire. Sometimes that’s more fun to think about than to read! But like Stefanie, I’m very interested to know what the second reading brings.
What an interesting passage. It completely meandered from the first sentence to the last. It’s sort of like thoughts that must pass by in someone’s head–not overly logical but just moving from subject to subject. I’m not sure I could make it through an entire novel like that, but it does sound like things actually happen in it, which is good. It will be interesting to see if it is clearer when you read it again. I wonder if all her work is like this?
Stefanie — we’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure how much more of it I’ll understand — but I’m trying not to get hung up on understanding!
Litlove — I don’t know anything at all about Barnes’s life or context, so what you say about surrealism is quite interesting! And it certainly makes sense; thinking of the novel as charting desire appeals to me … I will have to consider it as I read on.
Danielle — yes, it meanders! The novel is short (150 quick pages) or I wouldn’t be able to handle it, and the moments of plot do help out quite a bit. I don’t know anything about her other work — it will be interesting to look up.
Oh this book sounds like something I might want to tackle – I love difficult cryptic writing. And I love your decision to read it again right away. Do tell how your feelings change in the re-read.