96 of 97 people found the following review helpful
This review is from: Nightwood (Paperback)
First, I should tell you what Nightwood isn't. It's not acelebration of love between women, or of the glamour of Paris, or ofmodernism's traditionally spare aesthetic. It is, however, a wonderful book, which will probably try your patience but will repay your efforts with the pleasure of reading some of the most wonderful writing to have been produced this century. Djuna Barnes, born in the US, spent some twenty years in Europe, during which she wrote innovative journalism, a novel (Ryder), short stories, poetry and plays, and, slowly, the autobiographical fictional narrative that was finally published as Nightwood in 1936. The novel was hard to place, and finally published by no less of a modernist luminary than T.S. Eliot, then working at Faber and Faber.
Barnes' novel chronicles a love affair between two women: Nora Flood, the sometime "puritan," and Robin Vote, a cipher-like "somnambule" -- sleepwalker -- who roams the streets of Paris looking for -- well, it's not quite clear, but it's a fruitless quest she's on. Nora finds herself roaming the streets too, looking for Robin, but, like most of the characters of the novel, she bumps up against Dr Matthew O'Connor instead. O'Connor, an unlicensed doctor from the Barbary Coast, dominates much of the novel with his astounding barrage of anecdote, offering a stream of stories that all point, ultimately, to the sublime misery of romantic obsession. The love story (if it can even be called that) is framed by the history of Felix Volkbein, a self-styled Baron who marries Robin early on, and whose family tree provides the structure on which the rest of this dawdling narrative hangs.
But nothing I say here can give you a sense of Barnes' dense, lyrical prose, and quite amazingly complex and beautiful writing: you simply have to puzzle over the book yourself to experience perhaps the most idiosyncratic novel produced by an American writer between the wars. It's a dark, melancholy story, with much detailed description of the decaying expatriate lifestyle Barnes herself (sometimes) enjoyed. The final chapter of the book has been regarded as controversial, opaque, and/or vaguely pornographic: Eliot wanted to exclude it when the novel was first published. It might certainly surprise you, and perhaps dismay you if you want to see all threads neatly tied together at the end. But I've read this book several times, and have never regretted it for a moment.
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Initial post: Jul 24, 2013 1:02:35 PM PDT
Nice review. Minor point: I believe O'Connor is not from the actual Barbary Coast, but from San Francisco. According to Wikipedia, "Barbary Coast" was the name of a red light district in S.F.
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