Sunday 24 February 2019

Nightwood - Djuna Barnes (1936)

Rating: Admirable

Almost everything about Nightwood is beautiful, from the eloquent introduction by T.S. Eliot, the intensely baroque language and the special green Faber and Faber edition (as pictured above) that exudes style and class. The novel's content, however, is a different matter altogether. Nightwood's characters are tortured, dissolute and trapped in dysfunctional cycles of their own making. It is also a great example of prime modernist writing, the prose being opaque, elliptical, poetic (Eliot points out in his introduction that lovers of verse would get the most out of the novel), and the narrative is episodic in a fragmented way. It is a typical modernist novel in that the detail defies easy interpretation; especially when the transvestite doctor (during certain nights at least) Mathew O'Connor spouts endless monologues of lyrical but nonsensical opinion and advice to the tortured women involved in a love triangle - Robin Vote, Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge, and yet the overall meaning is apparent.*

The novel is known to be one the earliest significant examples of lesbian literature and for that alone it makes for fascinating reading, particularly as the novel is a known example of a roman à clef narrative from that period. However despite Nightwood's reputation and charms the novel did not make for a particularly enjoyable reading experience. Like many modernist narratives it would be best appreciated as part of a literature course at university where all the hidden meanings and arcane language can be teased out and understood. If read as a novel to casually enjoy feelings of tedium gradually creep up, making the short novel a challenge to complete. Nightwood is really frozen in time, like a beautiful leaf preserved in an old book. No one writes like the modernists any more and if they do it ironically seems quaint and out of place. I'm pleased to have finally gotten around to reading it, but it is unlikely that I'll be recommending it to others to read.

* If you must know I believe that the novel represents its characters as being slaves to their subconscious desires and such desires are animalistic, particularly when expressed during the 'wilds of the night', which then leads them to suffer and never find the happiness they desire.

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