Sunday, January 24, 2016

Pretentious, tedious, and frankly just not that good: NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes

New Directions
$14.95 trade paper, available since 1936 for some reason

Rating: 1.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Nightwood, Djuna Barnes' strange and sinuous tour de force, "belongs to that small class of books that somehow reflect a time or an epoch" (TLS). That time is the period between the two World Wars, and Barnes' novel unfolds in the decadent shadows of Europe's great cities, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna—a world in which the boundaries of class, religion, and sexuality are bold but surprisingly porous. The outsized characters who inhabit this world are some of the most memorable in all of fiction—there is Guido Volkbein, the Wandering Jew and son of a self-proclaimed baron; Robin Vote, the American expatriate who marries him and then engages in a series of affairs, first with Nora Flood and then with Jenny Petherbridge, driving all of her lovers to distraction with her passion for wandering alone in the night; and there is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor, a transvestite and ostensible gynecologist, whose digressive speeches brim with fury, keen insights, and surprising allusions. Barnes' depiction of these characters and their relationships (Nora says, "A man is another person—a woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own") has made the novel a landmark of feminist and lesbian literature. Most striking of all is Barnes' unparalleled stylistic innovation, which led T. S. Eliot to proclaim the book "so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Now with a new preface by Jeanette Winterson, Nightwood still crackles with the same electric charge it had on its first publication in 1936.

My Review: Serial adultress and all-around malcontent Robin leaves her too, too unendurable husband "Baron Felix" after presenting him with the desired heir...only the child is crippled...and takes up with Nora, a whiny dishrag of a nothing-much who represents Robin's desire for dreary domesticity. Needless to say, Robin can't stand too much of that and leaves Nora at home so she can cavort and disport herself with all and sundry. While so doing, Robin meets Jenny, a serial widow (why does no one wonder how this dry, juiceless woman LOST FOUR HUSBANDS?!) and a sociopath whose sole pleasure in life is making others unhappy. Bye bye Nora, hello Jenny, and ultimately Robin seeks the help of Dr. O'Connor, a male transvestite and fraudulent medico, with predictable results. The ending of the book is one of the weirdest I've ever read, involving Nora, Robin, a dog, and a truly weird accident in a church.

Queer Ulysses. Famous for "raunchy" sex descriptions,most of which would not raise a Baptist preacher's eyebrows in this day and time. Dreadful, sesquipedalian sentences recounting unpleasant peoples' doings in endlessly recursive and curiously directionless arabesques.

Do not read this after the age of twenty-four. It will cause your nose hairs to ignite and your T-zone to break out in painful cysts. Seriously...don't.


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