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Nightwood (New Edition) Paperback – September 26, 2006
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30 Essential LGBT Books for YA Readers
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Nightwood is not only a classic of lesbian literature, but was also acknowledged by no less than T. S. Eliot as one of the great novels of the 20th century. Eliot admired Djuna Barnes' rich, evocative language. Lesbian readers will admire the exquisite craftsmanship and Barnes' penetrating insights into obsessive passion. Barnes told a friend that Nightwood was written with her own blood "while it was still running." That flowing wound was the breakup of an eight-year relationship with the lesbian love of her life. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“One of the great masterworks of twentieth-century fiction.” (Vogue)
“Djuna Barnes is a writer of wild and original gifts. . . .To her name there is always to be attached the splendor of Nightwood, a lasting achievement of her great gifts and eccentricities---her passionate prose and, in this case, a genuineness of human passions.” (Elizabeth Hardwick)
“A masterpiece of modernism.” (The Washington Post Book World)
“To have been madly and disastrously in love is a kind of glory that can only be made intelligible in a sublime poetry―the revelatory and layered poetry of Djuna Barnes's masterpiece, Nightwood.” (Dorothy Allison, author of the National Book Award-nominated novel Bastard Out of Carolina)
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Top Customer Reviews
I will start by saying that `Nightwood' is a work of undoubted genius. Let me also say that I started by reading the reviews here, the Introduction by T. S. Eliot and the Preface by Jeanette Winterson, and -- especially in regard to the latter two -- I rather wish I hadn't. Eliot begins (and ends) by suggesting it might be better to refuse the license offered by being given the opportunity to introduce this work and, while I understand why he went ahead and did so, personally, I wish he'd followed his first inclination. Maybe he could have said, "Just read the book. You'll understand why when you're done," but it is not my place to put words in the great man's mouth.
Winterson began by saying, "Certain texts work in homeopathic dilutions; that is, nano amounts effect significant change over long periods of time. Nightwood is a nano-text." I think Winterson is a very good author, but aside from finding that a dubious description of homeopathic dilutions, I can't figure out what it means in regards to `Nightwood', especially after reading it. Starting out feeling a bit lost, I wandered in the Preface a short while and gave up.
The reviews were interesting and some were quite fun to read, but I'm glad I didn't have to base my decision to buy this book on them. That is not a slam against them, for this book is many things to many people, and on reading it again (as Eliot said) I may have (probably will) new opinions. So this is a review written before the first blush has faded. Due consideration can wait for another day.
`Nightwood' has a reputation as a difficult book. I did not find it so. I fell in during the first two paragraphs and gratefully submerged myself to the end. Perhaps that is because I am shallow. But to me, the essential fact of the book is the language. The language is astounding. So much so that I will term `Nightwood' a tale told inside-out. By that I mean, in story telling as it is most often done, there are people, places, events, thoughts and feelings, and the author chooses her or his words and style to convey these to the reader.
Here we have words; brilliantly arranged and sumptuously presented, in streams and sometimes in torrents, magnificently relentless. It is the words that engender the people, places and events in `Nightwood' because words need a referent to have resonance. Thus, the entities that populate the story are surreal, for they are born of language, not `reality', which must obey a different canon. The doctor is an amazing creation, but you will not meet him on this plane. The description of Jenny Petherbridge is a monumental achievement, and like a monument, it's hard not to get overwhelmed by it. Consider a few brief examples, minute beside the whole, but brilliant in their own right:
`The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; had she been forced to invent a vocabulary for herself, it would have been a vocabulary of two words, "ah" and "oh."'
`She was avid and disorderly in her heart. She defiled the very meaning of personality in her passion to be a person."
And my favorite: `Only severed could any part of her be called "right."'
No being that physics admits outside the imagination of a genius could merit such a description.
It has been said that `Nightwood' is about `meaning' (a loose term) not information, and that is true, as far as it goes, but the degree is questionable. Considering that meaning, or perhaps more concretely, the thoughts that give that `meaning' meaning, some are not a thing of words, while in other cases, words can outrun the thoughts that inspired them. Which is the case in `Nightwood', I have no idea. The language is so dense, so rich, so layered and knotted, it has a life of its own, independent of its creator, as if it is no longer wholly the author's work, but shaped by other forces. Trying to root `meaning' out of it is truly difficult, perhaps impossible, if one's main concern is to ask: "What does `Nightwood' mean"?
That is not to say the book is "meaningless." Taken as data, the reflections in `Nightwood' say some fascinating things about love, about loss, about the human condition. But so do many works. Such data are fairly commonplace (though true eloquence in expressing them is not). In this regard, `Nightwood' is not unique. Nor are these reflections the most profound I've ever read. Perhaps (indeed, most likely), on revisiting the book I will find more meaning. But that is not why I will revisit it.
To me, `Nightwood' is first and foremost a sensual experience. I would not ask a sunrise what it means. A sunrise would never answer. I take `Nightwood' in the same spirit.
All that is preface to build whatever ethos about what comes next: I did not like Nightwood. It is short, and beautifully written, but the whole thing is written around the main character. She has no agency of her own and seems to exist as a character in the stories of other characters. And there’s the eternal student’s lament -- nothing happens. Even the Sapphic element, something of a angle for certain readers, feels downplayed. The lovers the main characters take on just happen to have multiple genders. Not hot at all. Maybe it was for the time, what do I know?
Basically, it was good enough that I wanted to keep reading to see if anything happened, but not good enough so that I wasn’t thumbing through the pages as I approached the end with anticipation of having finished the book. What I think it needs is one of those Cambridge Companion to Literature versions, where the text is just part of the whole and you have various academics writing around the text to help shape the context in which you read the book. There is introductory material, but it is too laudatory to really help the reader. At least it was for me. I’m just glad I’m not writing a paper on this book , because that would mean that I would have to flip right back to the start to see if I missed anything. It wasn’t good enough for that.
There is a lot in this story that one can form an intellectual intersection with, and just as much that is novel and will at first appear distant and hard to focus on, like a light source that has been blurred by a dirty lens. Readers may have to remove their prejudicial and conceptual bifocals in order to see just what the author has broadcast. This is the best feature of the story, namely that it requires a fair amount of cognitive perspiration for its appreciation. It cannot be understood with a mere surface reading, and is definitely not for the light-hearted or those who want rapid scene changes and simplistic dialog.
The characters are not mere slogans, but ones who display traits that one can find comradeship with, and themes that also have moral force, with this force being directed on purpose, with high-powered literary artillery. One will encounter for example in (Baron) Felix Volkbein the uncritical adulation of authority, with this an expression of his adaptation as a Jew living in a foreign land, with foreign meaning both in tradition as well as in its prejudices. And Felix’s affection for Robin Vote is expected and natural. Robin is the delicate and vulnerable character in the novel, the one who journeys the most and is followed the most as the novel unfolds. Robin is to be contrasted with Nora Flood, the character who is by far the most different from men, a “deviation” that men may aspire to but is always out of reach. The romance between Robin and Nora is atypical and deep, but at the same time refreshing without being frivolous. And then there is Jenny Petherbridge, the character that is certain to demand attention and perhaps disgust from the reader. Jenny may be subjected to condemnation by many readers, but she adds weight to the third vertex of the triangle, and in a way that makes it non-isomorphic to other triangles that readers might discover in novels of this genre.
By far the most interesting of the characters is Dr. Matthew O’Connor. Unlicensed to practice medicine but definitely deserving accolades for his ability to subject the reader to strong perturbations of verbal patterns, O’Connor nails Nightwood on a wooden plank as one of the best stories of the twentieth century. Whether it was the intent of the author or not, O’Connor is the “central figure”, most definitely so, and this is true despite his frequent cynicism and sometimes macabre attitude about love and life. Readers may find themselves in a kind of Hegelian opposition to him, an antithesis perhaps of all they stand for, but it is easy to delight in his frankness, and in the ease in which he can create strings of words that form patterns not matched before in literature.