Monday, September 6, 2010

{review} nightwood

Djuna Barnes Nightwood (1936).

...I screamed and thought: 'Nora will leave that girl some day; but though those two were buried at opposite ends of the earth, one dog will find them both.'
This book has decided it for me: I'm not reading any more 'Introductions' before I read the book which they introduce. Jeanette Winterson is the illustrious introducer of Nightwood and she gives away all the good bits (and 'Nora' is misspelled 'Norah'). Grrr. I think part of Nightwood's historical (and literary) strength lies in its continued ability to shock the reader. And now I'll never have that genuine frisson of astonishment when I too first encounter Dr O'Connor in his bed-sitting room and discover that he is... No, I'm not going to spoil it!

I have wanted to read Nightwood for many years. Not sure why I put it off: fear of the classics, perhaps? Nightwood is a milestone in the development of the lesbian voice in fiction, and the reading of milestones can sometimes seem a duty not a pleasure. It is also not an easy read (but short).

If I had to sum up Nightwood? It's a nerve-gratingly painful cautionary tale about the terrors involved in loving another:
"I thought I loved her for her sake, and I found it was for my own."
"I know, said the doctor, "there you were sitting up high and fine, with a rose-bush up your arse."
Oh, and it's about Paris: a grimy, decadent sickly nighttime Paris of shadows and mistaken identities. One cannot forget the significance of the freedoms (sexual and literary) offered to lesbian women in Paris in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Nightwood centres around Robin Vote who leaves a wreckage of broken-hearts and minds in her careless wake - her beloved Nora Flood ("so 'haunted' of each other that separation was impossible"), her estranged husband the Baron, her sickly child, her predatory seducer Jenny Petherbridge, and many more.

The writing evokes an extraordinary claustrophobic tenseness in the reader - it's almost a muscular response. For example, after the birth of Robin's unwanted child:
One night, coming home about three, he found her in the darkness, standing, back against the window, in the pod of the curtain, her chin so thrust forward that the muscles in her neck stood out. As he came towards her she said in a fury, 'I didn't want him!' Raising her hand she struck him across the face.
He stepped away, he dropped the monocle and caught at it swinging, he took his breath backward. He waited a whole second, trying to appear casual. 'You didn't want him,' he said. He bent down pretending to disentangle his ribbon. 'It seems I could not accomplish that.'
'Why not be secret about him?' she said. 'Why talk?'
Felix turned his body without moving his feet. 'What shall we do?'
She grinned, but it was not a smile. 'I'll get out,' she said.
The use of closed interior spaces (I'll not get Freudian) in the novel heightens this sense of oppressiveness: as she loses Robin, Nora refuses to change the house, "the museum of their encounter" - "if she disarranged anything Robin might become confused - might lose the scent of the house."
Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the 'findings' in a tomb.
Images of death and corruption are rife in Nightwood

But Nora never really possessed all of Robin, a fact which batters her whenever, for example, she hears Robin sing fragments of songs from "a life that she herself had no part in... songs like a practised whore who turns away from no one but the one who loves her." When Robin vanishes - akin to the physical amputation of a limb for the devastated Nora ("She is myself. What am I to do?") - she tramps the city and finally turns to "doctor Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante O'Connor" whose playful Joycean monologues offer little consolation. The 'doctor' is an utterly memorable character and the true centre of the novel for me: cross-dressing, thieving, loquacious, logorrhoeic master of the night - "a doctor and a collector and a talker of Latin, and a sort of petropus of the twilight and a physiognomist that can't be flustered by the wrong feature on the right face..." When Nora interrupts him in his foul bedsit in the middle of the night, he asks her,
'Have you ever thought of the night?' the doctor inquired with a little irony; he was extremely put out, having expected someone else, though his favourite topic, and one which he talked on whenever he had a chance, was the night. 'Yes,' said Nora, and sat down on the only chair. 'I've thought about it, but thinking about something you know nothing about does not help.'
The doctor's language is a hearty stew of bizarrely twisted and funny imagery: like the birds "whipped with impatience, like a man waiting at a toilet door for someone inside who had decided to read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

Nora is the only character who is not a true night creature:
The doctor looked at her. 'For the lover, it is the night into which his beloved goes,' he said, 'that destroys his heart; he wakes her suddenly, only to look the hyena in the face that is her smile, as she leaves that company'.
Another terrifically drawn character is the "looter" Jenny Petherbridge:
Jenny Petherbridge was a widow, a middle-aged woman who had been married four times. Each husband had wasted away and died; she had been like a squirrel racing a wheel day and night in an endeavour to make them historical; they could not survive it.
When she fell in love it was with a perfect fury of accumulated dishonesty; she became instantly a dealer in second-hand and therefore incalculable emotions. As, from the solid archives of usage, she had stolen or appropriated the dignity of speech, so she appropriated the most passionate love that she knew, Nora's for Robin. She was a 'squatter' by instinct.
Don't read this book if you're feeling low:
"Personally, if I could, I would instigate Meat-Axe Day, and out of the goodness of my heart I would whack your head off along with a couple of others. Every man should be allowed one day and a hatchet just to ease his heart."
Favourite word: "gill-flirted".

Incidentally, Maîtresse discusses T.S. Eliot's original preface to Nightwood here, which I thoroughly recommend. It was at Eliot's urging that Faber published Nightwood's evocation of (as Eliot aptly described it) "la misère de la condition humaine".

Rating: 10/10

If you liked this... Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank (1986) provides background to the women writers of Paris. While Nightwood offers a post-war view of Paris, the pre-war lesbian community around Natalie Barney is important for understanding the novel: Suzanne Rodriguez's Wild Heart: Natalie Clifford Barney and the decadence of literary Paris (2002) is an easy read - and even more so is Diana Souhami's Wild Girls - and an authentic feel for the period can be garnered from My Blue Notebooks, the memoirs of the notorious courtesan Liane de Pougy (1979).

Women of the Left BankMy Blue Notebooks: The Intimate Journal of Paris's Most Beautiful and Notorious Courtesan 
Wild GirlsWild Heart: A Life: Natalie Clifford Barney and the Decadence of Literary Paris 

1 comment:

  1. The writing is wonderful and the descriptive passages are stuff of creative writing classes. The plot - such as it is - plods and plods. Suddenly in the last 60 pages or so the story picks up and (with a few dull overly descriptive interludes) becomes a page-turner. If only the entire book was like this it would be a classic on the order of say, COLD MOUNTAIN.


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