Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book


Rate this book
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 love of her life.

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. 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." Recognised as a twentieth-century classic, the influence of Djuna Barnes's novel has been, and continues to be, exceptional.

Now with a new preface by Jeanette Winterson, Nightwood still crackles with the same electric charge it had on its first publication in 1936.

153 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1936

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Djuna Barnes

77 books449 followers
Barnes has been cited as an influence by writers as diverse as Truman Capote, William Goyen, Isak Dinesen, John Hawkes, Bertha Harris and Anaïs Nin. Writer Bertha Harris described her work as "practically the only available expression of lesbian culture we have in the modern western world" since Sappho.

Barnes played an important part in the development of 20th century English language modernist writing and was one of the key figures in 1920s and 30s bohemian Paris after filling a similar role in the Greenwich Village of the teens. Her novel Nightwood became a cult work of modern fiction, helped by an introduction by T. S. Eliot. It stands out today for its portrayal of lesbian themes and its distinctive writing style. Since Barnes's death, interest in her work has grown and many of her books are back in print.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
3,152 (26%)
4 stars
3,669 (30%)
3 stars
3,057 (25%)
2 stars
1,464 (12%)
1 star
580 (4%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,360 reviews
Profile Image for mark monday.
1,643 reviews5,092 followers
January 25, 2018
Nightwood is the sound of hearts breaking, written on the page, spread out for all to see, five lives, five people eviscerated and eviscerating each other. These people fucking kill me, they are so sad and so full of nonsense and so determined to live in their own personal little boxes, striving for epiphanies that they barely even understand, trying to be a certain idea of What a Person Is. Is that what I'm like? Maybe that's what everyone is like. Barnes lays out these characters' lives like beads on a string, one after the other. "Baron" Felix, that whole fake heritage made by his father that he now lives out as if it were real. I can't help but identify a little bit with the Baron, his bullshit, his need to please, to be calm and careful as a way to prop himself up. His stiffness. Not really sure how Barnes feels about him - she spends a lot of time with him, such an elaborate backstory, so that's something (although I hate all the derogatory Jew crap, 'Jews are like this, Jews always think this way' - bogus, and the only thing that is boring in Nightwood). She creates this hollow man and then she fills him up with life and sadness and a rigid sort of sweetness towards his son, I see myself in him, and other people I know, my dad especially. Barnes seems more interested in the Robin-Nora-Jenny triangle. Makes sense; I'm more interested in them too. Robin Vote. That name! Is it supposed to mean something? She is like something out of a Duras novel, a hollow vessel, an intellectual kind of id, a sick need to define herself by rejecting those who want her, rejecting those who want to define her. I see a lot of myself in Robin, that fucked up need to keep people at a distance, no real connection means no proprietary relationship, let's just be friends, friends are easy, I love my friends. Except Robin has no real love in her, just a blind, mindless need... for what? Something. When we first meet her she is passed out, insensible; Barnes describes her as "La Somnambule", a sleepwalker in life - except sleepwalkers don't destroy. She is more like an exterminating angel, a sleepy one. In the end, confronting a dog, she is transformed into a kind of dog herself. I think that's unfair to dogs. My sympathies are mainly with Nora Flood, a tough dyke of the old school, a listener, a person people gravitate towards, to tell their stories, to be listened to and so given a kind of identity by that listening, being made human by being seen as human by another human. I see a lot of myself in Nora. There is a remoteness to her, different than the alien quality of Robin's hollow vessel, more like a stillness, a need to stay still and understand and truly see the world around her. And then when she's hurt, when she is filled with longing and damage and pain, it is so debilitating and yet filled with such sad fury, a painful howling fury, I've felt that, it just takes over and you don't want to feel anything but pain, your mind is just blank with it, all bright and dark hues of hot angry red. Poor Nora. Why does her life become defined by her pursuit of Robin? That's not even a life. But it is a better life than Jenny Petheridge's life, the third part of this strange, sorrowful triangle. Triangle? Why do I keep saying that? If you include Baron Felix, it is more of a square. But he barely counts in their lives, his poor sad son becomes his life, a son who is all need and reaching towards some kind of meaning, something to define him. I felt such empathy for that son, like I was that son. I am that son. But back to Jenny. Djuna Barnes must have based Jenny on someone she hates. There is so much detail about her craziness. And a lot of it is so funny, a terrible kind of funny, laughing at someone who is a rich basket case, at a person who is basically a straw man - woman - for the author's hate. She is all gruesome softness and blind stabby moments, crying hysterics and desperate neediness, such intensity and so little affect, defining herself by creating these fake worlds to live in, this dramatic love affair with an empty vessel, not caring who she hurts - shoving, scratching her emotions right into, onto a person's face, literally. And those who love her die - her history of dead husbands, leaving her better off and with more of nothing. I can't help but identify with Jenny, with her weakness, her desperate yearning. I remember when my heart was broken, except I was the one who did the breaking, broke two hearts, another person's heart isn't enough, let's break mine too, like Jenny with her insensible angry intrusive neediness, her boring self-abnegating self-flagellating, I hate all that. How can a person like Jenny compete with a person like Nora, how can Robin choose possession over true understanding? Well, that happens all the time I suppose. And Robin doesn't really even choose her, she chooses herself, again and again. I get Robin, I see her in the mirror; she's coming and going from and to nowhere.

And then the renegade doctor, the berserk socialite, Dr. Matthew O'Connor, railing against form and tradition, gentle and strong and angry and petty, a drunkard, a man who loves life, a transvestite living in his little squalid apartment, a man full of warmth and kindness and vitriol, a man who secretly defines himself by helping others, spitting out monologues about life and death and appearance and sanctity and desire. He delivered Nora Flood into the world and is her sounding-board, his long rants are not just violent flows of sound and fury and pathos, they are not merely self-absorbed, they are trying to speak to her by speaking of himself, he is trying to break through to her by breaking himself down in front of her, shaking her back to life, away from insensibility and morbid obsession, until the rant turns on the ranter and he in turn is broken down, seeing himself and the world around him for what he and it truly is, is becoming, is falling back into. His delirious rants are like the novel itself, discretely separated into chapters, separated by character and incident, and yet the parts are flowing into each other, the language flows into reality and out of it, the narrative folds up into itself until it becomes unrecognizable as a narrative, like a flower all mashed up so that the pulp is barely recognizable as the original flower, just little parts here and there, you pull a piece out and it is still a flower but what connection does it have to the original thing? It turns in on itself, it becomes something different and it stays essentially the same. I see a lot of myself in Matthew O'Connor, him most of all, most of all, I Am Matthew O'Connor, I live and breathe him, I read about these breaking hearts and they are all my heart too, all of it, none of it, it all comes together, it's all the same, each separate one of them, right?

...Is this a mobius strip, of sorts?:




looking back on this a few weeks later, i see that in my desperate attempt to write this review as a kind of stylistic homage to my favorite reviewer MARIEL, i neglected key things that i usually like to put in my reviews.

okay, here goes...

the writing itself: beautiful! hypnotic. excessive. idiosyncratic. modernist (duh). drily amusing. rich with off-kilter nuance. flows like a bad dream.

the characterization: despite the experimental nature of the novel and a regular use of caricature, these are some amazingly three-dimensional characters. i got to understand them on a really human level, and not just as quirky conceits on a page.

the narrative: broken, unstable, constantly challenging - and often very annoying as well. annoying like sand in an oyster's shell! Nightwood: a pearl.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,887 reviews1,926 followers
July 19, 2022
Rating: 1.75* of five, rounded down because I feel unclean every time I run across this book in my memories

WATCH THIS BOOKTUBE PIECE: Nightwood as Gothic: Hauntings of Love and Death


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.
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books248k followers
January 12, 2020
”’You know what man really desires?’ inquired the doctor, grinning into the immobile face of the Baron. ‘One of two things: to find someone who is so stupid that he can lie to her, or to love someone so much that she can lie to him.’”

 photo Nightwood Backless Dress_zpsh8sdfbye.jpg

Baron Felix is a man of pretenses. He is not really a baron at all, but his father had perpetrated the deception his whole life so Felix’s filial legacy is to carry on the social duplicity. ”He kept a valet and a cook; the one because he looked like Louis the Fourteenth and the other because she resembled Queen Victoria, Victoria in another cheaper material, cut to the poor man’s purse.” Notice there is no mention about how good a valet he is or how good a cook she is. It is all about how they look and, when looked upon, what value they convey to the people whom the “Baron” needs to impress.

I am left wondering if his Victoria is the young Victoria, more in the vein of Jenna Coleman from Masterpiece, or the older Victoria, as portrayed by Judi Dench in Mrs. Brown. Louis the Fourteenth, we can only hope, looks as dashing as George Blagden from the Ovation show Versailles.

The theatrical production of the Baron’s life is maintained by his own performances, but also by the supporting cast with which he chooses to surround himself.

Baron Felix becomes enamored with a beautiful American named Robin Vote. It is best that, if your life is a sham, you do not allow yourself the indulgence of love, exploitation yes, but love...never.

If Felix were observing more carefully and not blinded by the aurora borealis of infatuation, he may have noticed that Robin is not really interested in anything but having a good time. Raising children, being a supportive wife, or being faithful to a husband are, by definition, selfless acts, and she is incapable of performing any of those roles with any level of believability. Felix needs to make a new casting call.

Robin bounces from Felix’s bed into the arms of Nora Flood, who wants to take care of Robin, but Robin wants the world collectively to take care of Robin. Jenny Petherbridge, a woman incapable of creating her own happiness, has made a life of looting other’s happiness. She soon has Robin, at least temporarily, under her control.

Robin leaves in her wake not a satisfied audience, no tears brimming at the corners of their eyes, fond memories, or even brilliant soliloquies to explain her behavior. She follows the brightest star until it dims in comparison to another.

We could generalize that everyone in this novel is horrid to everyone else. Jenny stealing Robin from Nora could be seen as inducing unhappiness in another, but frankly can any of us steal someone from someone else? Doesn’t a foot, an elbow, quite possibly a heart already have to be out the door before a lover can be absconded with? Baron Felix is a charlatan who makes a living out of contrived theatrics. It is hard to feel sympathy for him, but at the same time he is left nearly shattered by Robin leaving him. It isn’t even so much that Robin leaves, but she just seems to drift away.

Robin is the truly destructive force in the novel, whose beauty is a ”sort of fluid blue under skin, as if the hide of time had been stripped from her, and with it, all transactions with knowledge.” She could be a stand in for any of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. That might be a job she could stick with.

And who is there to pick up the pieces of each of these fractured relationships? The doctor, Matthew O’Connor, a man uncomfortable in his own skin, but who seems to somehow induce trust in those around him. ”Why do they all tell me everything then expect it to lie hushed in me, like a rabbit gone home to die?”

One character refers to the doctor as a ”valuable liar,” but he does seem to be the most honest with himself of anyone in the novel. He has desires he can only indulge in private, but he doesn’t deny any revelations about himself. He is, almost universally, the most liked person in the novel. Even T. S. Eliot, in the forward, feels the novel drags until the appearance of the doctor. I admit there is no tale of any relevance without the doctor, but there are some fascinating passages in the early pages that, despite how discombobulated I felt with the plot, are still rife with intricate sentences I enjoyed reading and reading again.

Djuna Barnes has a discerning eye and a flair for bold sentences. Some critics have said that only poets can truly enjoy Nightwood. I think that what is required of the reader is some patience. If you are confused, it might be that Barnes has you right where she wants you. Read on; do not let her scare you away. You will experience some descriptions or thoughts that you have never read before. Do not indulge in cannabis or go beyond a two drink minimum while reading this book. You will need your wits about you; maybe this book is better served with a cuppa and a piece of dark comforting chocolate.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visithttp://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,150 reviews1,686 followers
January 24, 2022

Foto di Maurice Brange: Solita Solano and Djuna Barnes a Paris, 1922.

Come ha fatto Djuna Barnes, che si autodefinì “la più celebre sconosciuta al mondo”, ad attraversare il secolo breve quasi per intero, vivendo fino a novant’anni (1892 – 20 giugno 1982), subendo uno stupro a 16 anni, forse da parte dello stesso padre o forse invece da parte di un vicino, e poi l’anno dopo con il consenso del padre, teorico praticante della poligamia, il quale la diede “in comodato”, a Percy Faulkner, cinquantaduenne fratello della sua seconda moglie?
Probabilmente con questa semplice ricetta che lei stessa descrive:
Le sole armi che mi concedo di usare: il silenzio, l’esilio e l’astuzia.

Foto di Berenice Abbott: Djuna Barnes.

Io non ho conflitti; sono estranea alla vita, sono perduta in un’acqua ferma.

Appare molto bella nel celebre ritratto fotografico che realizzò Berenice Abbott, sua amante. Tra le tante. Uomini e donne, ma soprattutto donne, furono donne i suoi grandi amori, le sue passioni.
Trascorse vent’anni a Parigi tra le due guerre, anni frenetici e densi sia per quella città che per lei: conobbe tutti, amica di tanti, amante di molti, fu ammirata. Gli ultimi quarant’anni della sua vita furono invece completo isolamento, scelta quasi da stilita.
Essere una leggenda è infinitamente più facile che vivere quello che è necessario per diventarlo.

All’inizio della sua attività Djuna Barnes fu giornalista, per così dire, d’assalto, che sperimentava in prima persona le storie che raccontava: eccola sottoporsi a nutrizione forzata per l’articolo “How It Feels To Be Forcibly Fed” uscito il 6 settembre 1914 sul New York World Magazine.

L’edizione Adelphi descrive così la trama di questo libro:
Al centro della Foresta della Notte dorme la Bella Schizofrenica, in un letto dell’Hôtel Récamier. È Robin. Intorno a lei vediamo disporsi gli altri personaggi del romanzo: Nora, che cela nel suo cuore «il fossile di Robin», quasi una memoria ancestrale; la rapace Jenny; il falso Barone Volkbein, pateticamente devoto a una nobiltà fantomatica. Ma su tutti torreggia il dottor Matthew O’Connor, ciarlatano mistico, Guardiano della Notte, il cui sontuoso e corrusco blaterare si contrappone alle rare e monche parole di Robin. Il dottor O’Connor ci viene incontro come un cliente pittoresco del Café de la Mairie du VI° e sentiamo, per così dire, la sua voce echeggiare da tutti i bar perduti degli Anni Venti. Ma nella sua apparizione riconosciamo anche una voce perenne, penetrante, ossessiva, che continuerà a parlare «finché la furia della notte non avrà fatto marcire fino in fondo il proprio fuoco». È una figura indelebile, un dottore non della malattia, piuttosto del «male universale»: quel male che non guarisce, ma vuole disperatamente chiamarsi per nome – e quel nome è la letteratura.

Ed ecco qui la Barnes che si fa “salvare” da un pompiere (per la terza volta) esperienza diretta per scrivere l’articolo poi pubblicato col titolo “My Adventures Being Rescued”.

Elémire Zolla, invece, la riassume così:
Una giovane ebete con possibile sospetto di possessione diabolica viene contesa tra donne allucinate che paiono tutte guidate insensibilmente da un orrido, obeso, cinguettante, saggio, ermafroditico medico irlandese il quale annega ogni avvenimento nella sua eloquenza da personaggio shakespeariano, nel suo appello costante a entrare nella foresta della notte.

Il personaggio in questione, il dottor O’Connor credo sia il primo transgender della letteratura, impegnato a far nascere e far abortire, che si lancia in interminabili monologhi da ubriaco molesto.

Peggy Guggenheim (1898 – 1979) fu grande amica della Barnes e la sostenne economicamente con generosità negli ultimi quarant’anni di vita ritirata e solitaria della scrittrice.

Quanto precede mi pare evidenzi quanto poco conti la trama di quest’opera, sorella dell’Ulysses joyciano (peraltro, ottimo amico della Barnes). Intreccio evanescente al limite dell’inconsistenza, che se davvero esiste, non racconta nulla. O, se qualcosa racconta, io me la sono persa.

A dire il vero, mi sono proprio perso fra queste pagine. Sono rimasto sommerso da domande, perso in una foresta di punti interrogativi, di giorno e di notte. Leggerle è stata un’esperienza. Come per me è spesso leggere la poesia: non capire, e godere, non sapere che dice, ma sentire una musica che mi parla, o forse anche meno di una musica, puro suono, un flusso sonoro.
Gertrude Stein tenta di sfruttare tutti gli effetti della ripetizione, nella forma in cui si trova di frequente nella parlata comune, Cerca di sottolinearne la qualità ipnotica e di pervenire per suo tramite a effetti surrealistici e astratti. Musica pura.
Il suono dà l’idea di buio notturno, di veleno, e di notte e di foresta, ed è duro, nel senso di corposo, semplice eppure singolare: così definiva la scelta del titolo la Barnes in una lettera a un’amica amante.

Poi, certo, se si vuole è anche un manifesto LGBT, è uno dei romanzi più sperimentali della storia, o uno dei primi. Leggerlo è come arrampicarsi su una corda sospesa nel buio, le parole scorticano le mani di chi le pronuncia. Ogni personaggio parla a sé per sé, i dialoghi si sovrappongono, nessuno ascolta, tutti cercano amore e identità…

La scultrice americana Thelma Wood (1901 – 1970), un grande amore della Barnes.
Profile Image for Jeff Jackson.
Author 4 books467 followers
July 14, 2014
The novel that almost ended my book club.

We'd previously read work by Robert Coover, Anne Carson, and Ben Marcus. Cormac McCarthy's Suttree and The Story of O. But it was Nightwood that most of the usually intrepid group didn't bother to finish, a few unwilling to even venture past the first chapter. Bitter complaints of overly baroque language, old fashioned concerns with ancestry, and a story where "nothing happened." Folks were pissed.

To be honest, I'm still mystified. While it took me far longer to read this 180 page novel than I'd anticipated - the prose demanded an attentive slowness as key moments often passed within a short phrase - I felt rewarded every time I stopped to parse out a particularly knotty section or unpack an ambiguous aphorism. There's a level of psychological insight into the characters here that's astounding - coupled with Barnes setting an almost unknowable anti-heroine at the dead center of the story, serving as a sort of swirling black hole.

While at first the book seems to play like a series of portraits, the cohesive structure slowly reveals itself. This is a book that's reticent to shine a light on its secrets. Even the very last scene seems to suggest a new meaning for everything that came before. It forces you to reconsider where you've been placing the dramatic emphasis - and empathy.

It's a story where little might happen on the surface, but there's simultaneously too much to take in on one reading. The doctor's monologues ricochet around the page like indoor fireworks and it's hard to know whether to enjoy the explosions or duck for cover. Under the restrained veneer of the descriptions, Barnes documents a world of transexuals, cruising, defrocked priests, drunken mothers who abandon their infants, feral encounters with animals, etc. It's often incredibly debauched without being the least bit judgmental of its characters. And of course it's a love story. It's about a love for oblivion, that oblivion you can sometimes find in other people.
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews966 followers
July 11, 2018
From the start, an overwhelming sense of dread and despair pervades Nightwood: Barnes alternates between entrancing readers with the novel’s ethereal prose and jerking them awake with moments of unspeakable torment. In spite of the pain that structures the novel, though, the character of the (fake) Doctor provides much needed comic relief in each of Nightwood’s eight short sections.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68.1k followers
May 22, 2019
Passing in Paris

To Pass; verb, intransitive: to be accepted as being something that you are not, esp. something better or more attractive:
Marion looks so young she could pass for 30
Do this jacket and skirt match well enough to pass as a suit?
- Cambridge English Dictionary

“Love, that terrible thing!,” says one of Barnes’s characters. Terrible because the demand of love is the voluntary loss of oneself. To make oneself lovable it is necessary to strive toward some other identity. Maintaining the identity of the beloved is always hard work. But the task is made harder when the love itself must be kept secret.

Thus it is with Felix, the pseudo-Baron, who loves what he takes to be European culture; he must deny his lineage from ‘that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people.” So that “He became for a little while a part of their splendid and reeking falsification.” He passes, well sometimes.

And also with his young wife, Robin, a somewhat needy person who cannot understand the bargain that love is even when it is laid out plainly to her. Felix is bemused because “though he said it calmly, ‘I am deceiving you!’ And he wondered what he meant, and why she did not hear.” She passes, briefly, as wife and, even more briefly, as mother.

The Irish-American Catholic doctor is yet another. He knows how love often works with hate, especially between Christians and Jews. As he says to Felix, ignorant of his heritage, “The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood.” Of course, the doctor is not licensed to practice; he is an abortionist; and a transvestite. But he also passes - as a counselor to the love-lorn as well as a bombast.

Then there is Nora, by temperament “an early Christian; she believed the word.” She falls in love desperately with Robin, who understands less about love with women than with men. Nora, however knows the drill: “She defiled the very meaning of personality in her passion to be a person.” She exists only to the extent that she exists for Robin. Poor dear. Until she sees the doc’s penchant for feminine attire and then she realizes that “He dresses to lie beside himself, who is so constructed that love, for him, can be only something special.” Changing identity to love oneself is a novel but rational solution. Nora passes, but it is unclear as what.

And Jenny, she who steals the affection of Robin from Nora (without much effort). Jenny has an identity which depends only on context: “Jenny with the burning interest of a person who is led to believe herself a part of the harmony of a concert to which she is listening, appropriating in some measure its identity, emitted short exclamatory ejaculations.” What she passes as is somewhat variable; but she passes - as lesbian, as paedophile, as “beast turning human.”

These love-sick protagonists are supplemented by a cast of various actors, artists, poets and assorted hangers-on in the Europe of the 20’s, all of whom are sacrificing whatever identity remaining to them in the search for love, or at least temporary, if unsatisfactory, affection. It is Parisian Bohemia on the make (and not for employment).

The doctor is the sage who tries to advise on the reality of love’s demands. “The reason the doctor knows everything is because he’s been everywhere at the wrong time and has now become anonymous,” he contends to Nora. Not having an identity to sacrifice is the philosophy of his transvestism. “I have divorced myself,” he says. But even this is not a solution. The secrecy, other people’s as well as his own, is debilitating: “I talk too much because I have been made so miserable by what you are keeping hushed.”

Love in any form is a bargain with the devil. He writes the contract and we who sign it have no idea about its arcane clauses. Barnes had it figured rather eloquently. All these people “are our answer to what our grandmothers were told love was, and what it never came to be; they, the living lie of our centuries.” The devil also passes... as God.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,194 reviews9,454 followers
December 31, 2020
Djuna Barnes was quite obviously a tremendous person and lived a fairly spectacular life – born in a log cabin on a mountain (!) – father was a polygamist and lived with two women and produced many children – four of her brothers were named Thurn, Zendon, Saxon and Shangar so Djuna fit right in there – she hardly got any education at all but in her 20s moved from upstate to NYC and very swiftly broke into journalism and THEN became the hot-shot reporter/feature writer – she interviewed James Joyce for example (Writing about a conversation with James Joyce, she admitted to missing part of what he said because her attention had wandered). After ten years in NYC she did ten years in gay Paree and after a lot of high living she hopped over to England in 1932-3 and wrote Nightwood, a profoundly weird novel.

I am gonna read a biography of Djuna Barnes, she sounds like Rebecca West’s fascinating gay sister. She sounds like a total scream. Alas then that Nightwood nearly made me scream. As I read it I could feel parts of my mind shutting down, like when they switch the lights off section by section in a large auditorium. Sentence by sentence the conviction grew upon me that I couldn’t understand more than ten percent of every page. For instance – some guy says :

Those who love everything are despised by everything, as those who love a city, in its profoundest sense, become the shame of that city, the détraqués, the paupers; their good is incommunicable, outwitted, being the rudiment of a life that has developed, as in man’s body are found evidences of lost needs.

What even does that mean? Those who love a city become the shame of that city? Huh?

The narrator and the characters are fond of head-scratching aphorisms such as

A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s.

Finally I’m way too dim-witted for this book. I can tell Djuna Barnes has a grand style and we would hope she probably knew what she meant at the time of writing, but maybe you had to be there. Try this single sentence – if you like it, you could be the next Djuna Barnes fan :

As the altar of a church would present but a barren stylization but for the uncalculated offerings of the confused and humble; as the corsage of a woman is made suddenly martial and sorrowful by the rose thrust among the more decorous blooms by the hand of a lover suffering the violence of the overlapping of the permission to bestow a last embrace, and its withdrawal: making a vanishing and infinitesimal bull’s eye of that which had a moment before been a buoyant and showy bosom, by dragging time out of his bowels (for a lover knows two times, that which he is given, and that which he must make)—so Felix was astonished to find that the most touching flowers laid on the altar he had raised to his imagination were placed there by the people of the underworld, and that the reddest was to be the rose of the doctor.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,306 reviews750 followers
December 17, 2015

It is wise of me to mention that from here on out, I have no idea what I'm talking about. Which, admittedly, is the usual truth of the matter concerning these reviews, but this book in particular makes me give a damn about how much knowledge did not or has not yet trickled down and damned up in my mind. Not enough to get mad over, or perhaps rather not the right type. No, this is a shaft of light breaking into countless beams that my eye has populated itself with multitudes in hopes of catching only a few, a strain of music too high and soft for my bumbling ears to quiver along with, all the sensory inputs that my body has not yet found the means of registering, fine-tuning, appreciating. However, it must be said that the evolution of the reader is far faster than that of physical form. And what does come through, despite all that, is an aurora borealis.

Books like these utterly spoil me. For example, after finishing up another section somewhere in the middle, I attempted to read through summaries of future tomes that I had not yet decided to set my sights on. Horrors. The words were simply there, jettisoning their meaning this way and that without care of interpretation or context, screaming out simplicity! Get your simple definitions, your clear cut cultures of conciseness, your straight-to-the-point and no-nonsense daily dose of saying what you mean and meaning what you say! No, I said, and spent the next twenty minutes huddled over my coffee and staring at nothing in particular. I don't want boxes of commercial goods. I want to fly.

For that is the talent trapped within these pages, and if you forced me at gunpoint to encompass it with a single word, I would say metaphor. If you shot a single bullet past my head and brought the red-hot funnel agonizingly close to my forehead and demanded that I do better, I would say Pynchonian. Fortunately for all, there is no gunperson of staggering menace, and I can afford to not commit the crime that I decried early on, that of lazy linguistics. For Pynchonian is easy, easy easy easy, and more likely to get omnipresent nods of approval than any sort of comprehension.

It would be better to say that Pynchon is in fact Barnesian, although I do like the feel of Djunian better despite all calls for lexiographical order, so I will most likely stick with it until someone manages to convince me otherwise without resorting to offended spittles. I cannot stand offended spittles. Regardless, I suppose we should return to Pynchon, who if he had lived a little earlier and gone into liberal arts rather than the sciences and did some amount of experimenting, he may have come quite close to the lady of whom he is most certainly a bastard child through some sort of decrepit lineage that invested heavily in the idea of said lineage. Or rather, history, society, ideology, and the rest of that decaying mass circling around our craniums and swooping in every so often for a quick bite, shit, and piss.

The worst of it is the words that we think we know and therefore treat as fact when really, metaphor. Linguistic joy, convivence between the reality and the abstract at its finest, the very structure of our civilized existence that has fossilized meaning into packages anyone can use but not everyone can utilize. For it takes a boundless amount of seductive metaphor to draw us in and keep us there until we can come out into the sun and see that in the place of the old crumbling same old same old, there is something else. A little fragile, perhaps, a little heartbreaking in the effort it makes to grip the wisps of its self together, with all the world and its ponderous assumptions of the truth against it. But oh, so beautiful.

The monotone of sexuality, the binary of gender, and the question of love and its many, many sorrows. That's all that I will say on it, for Djuna does much, much better, and I'd rather you went and saw for yourself the wonder. Don't trust the summary. It tells the story as well as a web of diaphanous rainbow copes with bricks thrown through its core.

Djuna is the writer, the doctor is her character, and we are her audience. Djuna is the god, the doctor is her prophet, and we are at the base of Mount Sinai in defiance of the morals to be decreed and the history of persecution to come. That is a lie in respect to the culture with a true hold on the story I have made use of, but it is also a metaphor, and I use it with full respect. For we are prophesied to by the doctor from Djuna in ways strange and unfamiliar, for the meaning is too large for simple statement. Or rather, it is too small, and would be quickly overwhelmed with biases and prejudices that fuel the tragedy felt along the lines of script, amongst the pages of lines. If Djuna let it be so. But she doesn't, and so the doctor rants and raves his saving and his solutions, for everyone ill comes to him but not everyone knows the extent of their illness.

Self? Society? Yes, but no, more. Night in all its unconscious yearnings unbound in full? Day that must carry the night and keep the skeleton of it bound within its paper skin? Yes, but no. Closer. Life and all its disparate yearnings on the backs of all these unfed nights, all these costumed days? Death and the end of every need for a word to explain the life to itself, and to others?

Perhaps. Remember, I have no idea what I'm talking about. I do know, though, that I'm talking.
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,508 followers
December 28, 2017
I am a fan of experimental literature since first experiencing the fun rides I got from Postmodernist novels of Barth, Vonnegut, and Pynchon in my college days in the early 70s. I recently set out to give myself a dose of ten radical novels ranging from Woolf’s first exploration of Modernist forms in “The Voyage Out” (1915) to a recent example of the “new weird”, Nell Zink’s “The Wallcreeper” (2014). Among the set I chose, the most challenging to read and digest in my soul was the one on my plate here.

Barnes’ short novel, published in 1936, precedes by a few years the work of Flan O’Brien which many scholars credit as a clear precursor to Postmodernism. According to the fascinating Wikipedia entry on the subject, the boundary with Modernism involves a recognition by writers that the failure of reality to conform to rational, orderly principles is not a subject for existential crisis, but a doorway to the freeing of imagination and play. From this perspective, Barne’s dark and brooding novel is still Modernist. However, the ways her characters minds work is so freakish in their twisted flight between the gutters and the clouds, I was totally blown away and made ready to believe in an alternate reality invisible to me up to now.

Our anti-hero is this American bird Robin who is so alluring she makes a series of people do the Icarus dance. First in line is the Austrian businessman Felix Volkbein, a closet Jew and fake Baron, whom she marries and bears a son by in Paris. The free spirit he loves cannot be caged in domesticity, and he cannot deny her need to wander away to frolic with others. Nora Flood, a bohemian socialite (and former circus performer) is the next to be swept away by Robin. The happy household they form in free-spirited Paris of the 20s does not last as soon the greedy and homely American Jenny Petherbridge, rich from a sinister line of four dead husbands, gets Robin in her talons and sweeps her off the U.S. We spend a lot of time commiserating with Felix and Nora in the wreckage left behind. As a chorus in this tragedy, we also spend a good chunk of the book in the company of a friend of them both, one Matthew O’Conner, a cynical, cross-dressing ex-pat from the U.S. living as a fake obstetrician. He has the last say in everything. You never know if anything he says is true, but he is the closest to wisdom we can find in this cockeyed tale.

That is only the skeleton of this book. The divine ferment of its living flesh lies in the polarities that garland almost every thought and every sentence in the narrative. What do I mean by polarity? You know, like those maxims such as pleasure always being relative to pain, life forever embodying death and decay, or rewards being proportional to risk. Songs can often capture paradoxes that ring true, such as “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” The richness and textures of the polarities in the book often soar close enough to the sun to melt the wax of my wings or to remind me as Leonard Cohen sang “even damnation was poisoned by rainbows.” Nothing I’ve said is enough to tempt a prospective reader of the brilliance to be found here without some adequate examples.

When Felix first encounters Robin as a patient of the doctor, he is drawn to how her eyes remind him of a wild animal. Get this as a strange place for the mind to travel:
Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human. Such a person’s every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable a joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil;, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its breast to its prey.
Such a woman is the infected carrier of the past: before her the structure of our head and jaws ache—we feel we could eat her, she who is eaten death returning, for only then do we put our face close to the blood on the lips of our forefathers.

In another scene Nora shares with the doctor how her lost love for Robin is driving her mad:
”Everything we can’t bear in the world, someday we find in one person, and love it all at once. A strong sense of identity gives a man the idea he can do no wrong; too little accomplishes the same. …There’s something evil in me that loves evil and degradation—purity’s black backside! That loves honesty with a horrid love; or why have I always gone seeking it at the liar’s door?”

“Suppose your heart were five feet across in my place, would you break it for a heart no bigger than a mouse’s mute? Would you hurl yourself into any body of water, in the size you are now, for any woman you had to look for with a magnifying glass, or any boy if he was the height of the Eiffel Tower or did droppings like a fly? No, we love in all sizes, yet we all cry out in tiny voices to the great booming God, the older we get.” …
“Man,” she said, her eyelids quivering, “conditioning himself to fear, made God; as the prehistoric, conditioning itself to hope, made man—the cooling of the earth, the receding of the sea. And I, who want power, chose a girl who resembles a boy.”

Obviously, real people don’t talk like this. But realism is not the goal. It feels more like the poetry of the figures stuck in Dante’s Limbo due to their indecisiveness about God. People who don’t even make it to Hades or get a chance to travel with Virgil beyond to Purgatory on ascend to Paradise. A brilliant and disturbing read that will remain etched on my consciousness.

Despite an early presentation of a bisexual character, there is little in this version that really delves into substantive issues of gender and sexuality. Robin is a cipher no matter what. I read that there was much in this novel that was taken out to make it acceptable for publication and that an edition of the Dalkey Archive Press contains as much as possible the version Barnes intended.
Profile Image for Barry Pierce.
556 reviews7,410 followers
January 21, 2018
Many of the reviews of Nightwood on this website seem to reflect the same sentiment, 'how do I even review this?' I often think this is a bit of a cop-out review but in the case of Djuna Barnes' Modernist novel from 1936, utter disorientation seems to be the most fitting response.

A novel generally follows a basic plot with some semblance of a structure and often has one main character. Nightwood begins the birth of Baron Felix. We learn about his false patronage and we follow him in his attempt to produce an heir. Then we move on. The book forgets about him and Robin Vote becomes the main character. Then Doctor Matthew becomes the main character. Then Nora becomes the main character. Then it ends. Also over half of this book isn't even narrative. It's just the transsexual Irish gynaecologist Doctor Matthew O'Connor talking about essentially nothing. There is no plot. There is no structure. There is no one main character. And yet, Nightwood is totally immersive and highly readable.

Within the genre of Modernist literature, Nightwood is a relatively easy read. Barnes doesn't resort to the stream-of-conciousness style that many of her fellow Modernists adopted. Instead she relies on transgression. This novel was one of the first in Western literature to portray a lesbian relationship. Also our pseudo-narrator Dr. Matthew is openly transsexual. But these were the days before WWII, when the Weimar era was flourishing in Germany and the rest of Europe was following suit. This novel is set in bohemian Paris during the rein of Gertrude Stein. It presents an almost unbelievable oasis of decadence and liberality that genuinely did exist before Nazism ended it all. That is the bittersweetness of reading the flamboyant novels of this era, we have the foresight of history and we know how it's all going to end eventually.

Nightwood is a fabulous little novel. It is not hard to believe why Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot and William S. Burroughs all believed it to be one of the greatest novels ever written. It also recently appeared on the list of Greta Gerwig's ten favourite books, which was the catalyst for my reading it as I bow down at the heels of Gerwig. I would also suggest that this book would be a good starting place for those of you who want to dip your toes into the world of Modernist literature. Believe me, it's a lot safer than my tragic attempt to read Woolf's The Waves unassisted.
Profile Image for Nathan "N.R." Gaddis.
1,342 reviews1,331 followers
May 20, 2017
I still see far too frequently folks adding the Truncated Nightwood to their reading. The one slashed up by Eliot in order to get it past the Uptight Folks. If you want Barnes as Barnes wrote herself, you'll have to do better than a slim cheap pb (even if it is a New Directions). And it's easy enough to do with this beautiful (OUT OF PRINT) Dalkey ed by Cheryl J. Plumb.

If you're interested in the controversies about BAN'd Books and things of this nature, you'll not be reading that ubiquitous victim of The Editor's Knife.

The Dalkey Archive has produced a beautiful critical edition of Djuna Barnes'Nightwood, salvaging from the censors that material which T.S. Eliot and Emily Coleman thought might doom the book to perpetual non-publication. Grateful as one is to have had Barnes' book published in 1936--in any form--today we should not be satisfied with any version short of what Barnes' herself had intended to write. Editor Cheryl J. Plumb has returned to Barnes' three original typescripts, Barnes' letters to friends and editors, and all editions of the work from 1936 to 1995 to produce a version of Nightwood which is as close as possible to what Barnes would have had published had she the freedom then of her reputation now. In addition to the restored text are helpful annotations explicating some of Barnes' musical, literary, and historical allusions as well as several interesting instances of her self-explication in attempting to clear up her meaning for various translators. The book is typeset in a very friendly manner with critical apparatus interruptions quietly left to the margins, leaving the appearance of a non-surgical text. Rare among critical editions it is both reader-friendly and critically deep, the entire apparatus being readily ignored. And for the committed Barnes student, Plumb has included 75 pages of related draft material, photographically reproduced with hand corrections and comments by Barnes and her editors. Although this edition is far richer in content than the average fiction reader may require, one should not settle for an outdated text. And for any student of modernist fiction this edition is the essential avenue by which to approach Barnes and her most well known novel.

As for the book itself, I cede ground to those who love better. The book has its lovers. It deserves them. It is that good. But I am certainly not worthy of it. Please, for the readerly experience allow me to recommend those four- and five-star reviews here on goodreads written by its lovers.

Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,425 reviews2,494 followers
July 20, 2021
As an amputated hand cannot be disowned, because it is experiencing a futurity, of which the victim is its forebear, so Robin was an amputation that Nora could not renounce.

Barnes' writing is extraordinary: hypnotic, mesmerising, deliberately excessive and even florid, but its strangeness also functions as a rejection of pre-modernist values of Enlightenment empiricism and objectivity, even the secure weightiness of tradition and ancestry that are so important and yet so faked in Felix, the 'Baron' Volkbein who appears at the start of the book.

Instead, the characters here are the inhabitants of Nightwood's decadent underworld: adrift, half in love with melancholy and death - though not, I think, in a comfortably Freudian sense. Especially striking is the use Barnes makes of grotesque bodies and body parts: from the unsexed trapeze artist ('the stuff of tights was no longer a covering, it was herself, the span of the tightly-stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll') to the vivid description of the wrongness of predatory Jenny Petherbridge: 'only severed could any part of her have been called 'right'.' And it comes as no surprise to find a character reading de Sade.

I'm somewhat surprised that this seems to be classified as a lesbian novel - while it certainly features women who are lovers, the book seems to actively derail all kinds of taxonomies from the doctor who shape-shifts into female attire to Robin's near-affinity with animals: the lion at the circus, the uncanny scene at the end with the dog.

In places this is like a fevered nightmare, at others like a decadent dance while sipping absinthe. I was thinking about Baudelaire's sublime corruption in Les Fleurs du Mal mashed up with Virginia Woolf's disruptive interventions to the traditional novel - but, really, this book is, sui generis, in a category of its own - gloriously strange!
Profile Image for Sean Barrs .
1,113 reviews44.4k followers
April 10, 2017
It’s hard to believe what this book turned into as I got further in. In the preface, the book receives copious amounts of praise from Jeanette Winterson. She was influenced by the blatant lesbian content Barnes presents here: it encouraged her to display the same in her works. T.S Eliot even praised it, and T.S Eliot criticised everything to death. That first page will, nevertheless, always remain awful. But this is a book about appearances; it is a book about seeming rather than being, as the book progresses it does, indeed, change completely. The language became almost poetical and eloquent:

“Those long remembered can alone claim to be long forgotten.”

For me, this is a book that requires a completely new approach to reading. If you go into this expecting a linear progression or a sense of fulfilment, then you will be highly disappointed. This is something different, a piece of art that captures the intertwining lives of a bunch of people who are in themselves a little bit different.

Centre to them is the character Robin. She has a strange effect on people; she possesses a power, an ability that draws people to her. A sense of strangeness or otherness that is hard to pinpoint, though it is one that makes people fall in love with her rather quickly. She is not a conventional person. Anyone who spends time with her drastically risks getting hurt. She moves on from lovers rather quickly but her partners most certainly do not move on from her, ever. Her existence is a strange one. I would argue that she’s not really living, but only existing. In this sense she reminded me very much of Andre Bretton's Nadja

She seems to float through life without a sense of purpose or direction. Instead she has this innate drive that she doesn’t quite understand. She is always drawn away from what she has. It’s almost like she harbours a perpetual sense of emptiness that she is longing to fill; thus, she goes roaming at night: she goes looking for something. In the romantic sense, this seems to be a communion with nature. The ending of the book could suggest that she finds it, but it could also suggest that she has gone completely insane due to her unfulfilling life. It’s also worth researching the author’s personal biography and its comparison with the lesbian elements of the story. It’s worth reading up on the see the parallels, and the shadows at the back of the book that suggest that this is, at least in part, semi-autobiographical.

“And must I, perchance, like careful writers, guard myself against the conclusions of my readers?”

Nightwood is an unusual book, highly experimental even by the parameters of modernist literature. It is one that must be experienced and pondered. In a strange sort of way, it is more like poetry than a novel. The words are a vessel for capturing an essence of something meaningful. This is a book to be scrutinised and studied to see the depth of the work, but it is not one I overly enjoyed reading. A patient reader is required.
Profile Image for Jesse.
435 reviews419 followers
April 25, 2017
Fourth reading, and it remains just as much a mystery as ever. Marianne Moore said that "reading Djuna Barnes is like reading a foreign language, which you understand," and while I don't disagree I find that any sensation of "comprehension" simply feels like entering another locked room to puzzle out of. A labyrinth with no exit, and I wouldn't have it any other way. [Apr 2017]


After a second reading was compelled to include the missing fifth star. Maybe someday I'll be able to write something that would do this magnificent, enigmatic text justice. [Mar 2014]


So I'm not used to this kind of reaction with a book--finished it this morning, and I might very well start it all over again. Immediately. This never happens to me.

And this despite not knowing what the hell was going on half (most?) of the time, but by the end I became intoxicated by the sheer absurdity that made me laugh stupidly despite being in public, the unexpected submersions into harrowing despair, the (to blatantly steal Ned Rorem's characterization) "gorgeous claustrophobia" the novel evokes. I've never come across anything quite like this before.

Was initially intrigued by Susan Sontag's comment in her journal that her and her friends were essentially characters out of this novel; I wonder now how much of her own romantic sufferings were modeled off of Norah Flood's...

"'How do you stand it, then?' she demanded. 'How do you live at all if this wisdom of yours is not only the truth, but the price?'" [Apr 2009]
Profile Image for Kai Spellmeier.
Author 6 books13.6k followers
February 1, 2018
"We are but skin against a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality."

The language of this novel is outstanding. It's vibrant, engaging and utterly confusing. It's philosophy made poetry. And I am neither a philosopher nor a poet.
This book is and will most certainly always remain a mystery to me. The plot is the easy part:
Woman marries dude, has his child, leaves him for another woman, leaves her for another woman, and everybody is friends with the Doctor. Not the Doctor, though.
What remains in the shadows are Robin's (woman who leaves everybody for somebody else) motives. And the Doctor's monologues. And the ending. So basically everything.
But if you're looking for a queer classic novel and truly beautiful prose, this is your book.

Find more of my books on Instagram
Profile Image for Cosimo.
415 reviews
July 30, 2019
Anche la terra ne ruggisca

“Un uomo può odiare ed evitare il male sul proprio piano, ma quando esso è l'orlo sottile dei suoi sogni, egli lo accoglie nel suo cuore come si accoglie nel proprio cuore l'oscuro tormento dell'incubo opprimente, nato e ucciso dalla mente particolare; così se uno di loro morisse di sifilide, si vorrebbe morire allo stesso modo, con due sentimenti, terrore e gioia, ricongiunti chissà dove in un mare informe nel quale affonda piangendo un cigno, che saremmo noi stessi, oppure lei, o lui, o un mistero di tutti”.

Di famiglia trasgressiva, con una gioventù di dolore e fatica, modernista tra Parigi e Greenwich Village, poetessa imagista e cattiva ragazza, Djuna Barnes scrive questo testo indelebile e indecifrabile con l'anima sotterranea e la polvere di una preghiera: in una notte metafisica che ospita la furia e l'orrore, prigione di una bellezza incapace di vivere tra bene e male. La scrittura è doppia e simbolista, innocente e ossessiva; l'amore attraversa il male universale come la memoria della guarigione, come la sentenza di una malattia. L'essere umano è a metà strada tra angelo e bestia; la donna un cigno, una figura impenetrabile, fantasma e fuoco elisabettiano, impronta e fossile della grazia. "Tutto ciò che non possiamo sopportare a questo mondo, un giorno lo troviamo in un'unica persona, e immediatamente lo amiamo”. Djuna Barnes è tragica e triste, è tremenda e patetica, disabita il proprio corpo sensuale e sonnambulo, offre il cuore come una santa maledizione. Nelle notti alcoliche si inseguono amanti effimere e atroci, tra bar sconfinati, sentieri minacciosi e teatri di insensatezza. Echeggiano tra le parole la solitudine, il viaggio, il delirio, la calamità dell'estasi e la salvezza dell'amicizia. Sembra, hanno scritto, ricaduta dal cielo la sua prosa poetica, ancestrale rapace intrappolato in pelle di donna. La lingua qui appare cruda e nuda, qui è concettuale e perenne, quasi religiosa. T.S. Eliot prova a spiegare il realismo del romanzo e dei personaggi; tra temi, eventi e tempi sempre fluttuanti e incoerenti, è insidioso cercare un ordine lineare, è doveroso rileggere e abbandonarsi alla non conoscenza. Di mistero in mistero, il lettore cerca una o molte interpretazioni, in un bosco disorganico e inviolabile di significati e contenuti, in una forma immersa e mutevole, in una tensione che attrae e respinge. “C’è una fenditura nel dolore del mondo attraverso la quale l’essere singolare cade senza posa e per sempre”. La coscienza fluisce allora nella scrittura, tormentata forse dalla violenza; tratti di fiaba, colpi di satira, antimateria lirica. Il cuore scrive da piccola estremità, incapace di moltiplicare le lacrime e il vento; aggredisce la fine con passione, pensa a come essere dolce senza far male. La sensibilità di Djuna risuona profonda, parla universalmente di infelicità e schiavitù, descrive le passioni degli ultimi con imbarazzo e separatezza, fa suo ciò che è altrui e sconosciuto, tollerando disprezzo e differenza. Così come l'unicorno non è né uomo né bestia defraudata, ma fame umana che preme il petto contro la preda”. Poi, di avventura in difficile destino, uscita dalle porte dell'inferno, Djuna volle disperatamente essere anonima e visse da reclusa e la sua opera influenzò molti grandi artisti e accrebbe il loro talento.

“Così io, dottor O'Connor, dico, passate oltre, piano, piano, e non imparate nulla, perché quel che si impara lo si impara sempre sul corpo di un altro; agite nel vostro cuore e state attenti a chi amate – perché un amante che muore, per quanto dimenticato, porterà qualcosa di voi nella tomba. Siate umili come la polvere, come Dio vi ha voluti, e strisciate, e a forza di strisciare arriverete in fondo alla fogna e nessuno sentirà la vostra mancanza né si ricorderà di voi più di tanto”.
Profile Image for Paul.
1,178 reviews1,935 followers
April 5, 2013
A short, but by no means easy novel set in Paris (mostly) in the 1930s. It is semi-autobiographical and contains some strong and memorable characters. My edition has two introductions. The first by T S Eliot says that to truly understand Nightwood you have to have a poetic sensibility (Well thsnks for that Tom; if I don't get it that means I am a complete philistine!!!}. After that I really wanted to hate the book but sadly couldn't. The other intro is an achingly heartfelt and passionate recommendation by Jeanette Winterson.
The group of characters is small. Central is Robin Vote who weaves in and out of the lives of the others; chaotic, destructive, childlike and completely lost. Robin marries Baron Felix, who is trying to maintain and old-fashioned and dying sense of nobility. Guido, the son Robin has with him is the apple of his eye and his hope. Nora is Robin's lover; Robin leaves Baron Felix for her. Nora is hopelessly in love with a wraith that slips through her fingers; " I have been loved by something strange and it has forgotten me". Jenny is a four times widow who really does not know what she wants and seems to have lost the ability to desire. She attaches herself to Robin to recapture what she has lost (my interpretation) and Robin leaves Nora. The core and conscience of the novel is Dr Matthew O'Connor; he just pretends to be a doctor and is a transvestite. He is the one people talk to. His speech towards the end of the novel to Nora is a tour de force; Winterson argues it is as good as Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses.
Nightwood is about love, loss, desolation and anguish; it has force and power and the ending still has the power to shock, even now.
Dylan Thomas rated it as one of the three best prose works by a woman (if you duck the back handed compliment will miss you!) and Burroughs thought it was one of the twentieth centuries great books. I think they are right and I suspect there is much I have missed on a first reading. Certainly recommended and the tragedy is almost Shakespearean.
Profile Image for Roula.
499 reviews137 followers
August 25, 2020
Το Νυχτοδάσος ήταν μια απόλυτη αναγνωστική απόλαυση για μένα. Ένα βιβλίο που χρειάστηκε πολλά χρόνια να βρει την αναγνώριση που του αξίζει ως ένα μεγάλο και σημαντικό δείγμα μοντερνισμου, που ο ίδιος ο Τ. Σ. Έλιοτ φρόντισε για την έκδοση του και επεσήμανε πολύ πετυχημένα κατά τη γνώμη μου πως οι λάτρεις της ποίησης θα το αγαπήσουν. Η πλοκή του, πολύ λίγη σημασία έχει, καθώς εκει που κερδίζει, είναι στο χτίσιμο 5 κυρίως εντυπωσιακών χαρακτήρων που μπλεκονται μεταξύ τους επηρεάζοντας ο ένας τη ζωή του άλλου,με απόλυτο πρωταγωνιστή για μένα τον εκκεντρικό, τραβεστί γιατρό, Μάθιου ο κονορ που κυριολεκτικά λύνει και δένει και ειδικά προς το τέλος του βιβλίου δίνει ρεσιτάλ μονολογων. Το θεμα του βιβλιου είναι ο έρωτας και όλες οι πλευρές του (μη ξεχνάμε πως το βιβλίο αυτό είναι από τα πρώτα γενναια δείγματα λεσβιακης λογοτεχνίας), αλλά κυρίως αυτή η σκοτεινή πλευρά του που καταρρακωνει..
Όσο για τη γλώσσα που χρησιμοποιείται, είναι απλά ένα υποδειγματικο δείγμα πρόζας που σίγουρα θα με οδηγήσει κάποια στιγμή να διαβάσω το βιβλίο και στο πρωτότυπο.
Είναι ένα βιβλίο που με ταξίδεψε στα ακριβότερα σαλόνια της αριστοκρατίας όπου οι άνθρωποι κουνουσαν με δήθεν κατανόηση το κεφάλι σε πομπώδεις και ανούσιους διαλόγους, που όλοι ήξεραν και έβλεπαν το ψέμα πίσω από τα λόγια, αλλά όλοι ήθελαν να το ζήσουν.. Άκρως απολαυστικό..

"η αγάπη γίνεται ο χώρος όπου φυλάσσεται η καρδιά, αναλογος, από κάθε άποψη με τα
" ευρήματα" ενός τάφου. Όπως σε έναν τάφο χαρτογραφείται το σημείο που καταλαμβανουν το σώμα, τα ρούχα, τα χρειωδη σκεύη για την άλλη ζωή, έτσι και στην καρδιά του αγαπημένου  θα χαρτογραφηθει ανεξίτηλη η σκιά εκείνου που αγαπά. "
Profile Image for Jimmy Cline.
150 reviews189 followers
February 20, 2020
T.S. Elliot said of Nightwood, that it was "so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it". It's really more like a poetic dream than it is a novel. This isn't really because there is no narrative to be found, there is, and what's more, there is a clearly defined romantic conflict between the two main female characters, Nora Flood and Robin Vote. What makes it poetic is probably the flowery digressions that follow the brief explanations of what is happening in the story. These digressions are eclectic though, with a focus on a variety of themes; the war, Catholicism, Judaism, and the cultural qualities of several different nationalities. Although, the book's main focus lies in Nora Flood's complicated and, more or less, unrequited love for Robin Vote.

To be honest, it seems as though one's opinions of Nightwood should be reserved for after a second reading. The opening introduces a world that goes through a number of alterations in tone and feeling. As the reader starts to pay attention to the story, Barnes' overwhelming flood of poetic language dominates the narrative, almost to the point where they are stunned by the beauty of the sentences and descriptions, not to mention the countless aphorisms spouted by Barnes' characters. Lines such as "To pay homage to our past is the only gesture that also includes the future." sort of tranquilized my mind. I found that I had stopped reading, glanced out of the window of the bus, and mused on the paradox of time for about five minutes.

So, in short, it's a book of so many beautiful distractions that it's difficult to describe. What I've just read still eludes my mind to an extent, but whatever it was, I remember being moved by its poetic boldness.
Profile Image for Jonathan.
917 reviews947 followers
June 17, 2015
My second reading of this, but my first of the Dalkey edition. Reading it along with other of her work this year I have no doubt of her place amongst the great literary geniuses of the inter-war era. She is unafraid of complexity, subtlety and nuance. She is unabashedly, proudly, queer (and the un-censored Dalkey edition does much to bring the transgressive power of this text back to life). She has the intelligence, ambition and courage to produce truly great art.

This is one of the great books of the dark, of that which we have always already hidden. It is a great work of Modernism, and was recognised as such by at least one of the Trinity - as T.S.E's editing and introduction make clear, he certainly recognised the importance of the text, despite his over-eager use of the red pen...

This book does not need a review from me, it has managed to remain above the earth and no spade-work is required. If you plan to read it, I would say that the only edition worth getting is the Dalkey and that you do the book and yourself a disservice by reading any other version...
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,686 followers
January 18, 2020
“The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy.”
- Djuna Barnes, Nightwood


I listened to this novel one night as I drove from Phoenix to Las Vegas. It was ominously dark, beautiful and creepy. I guess that equally applies to the book as to the drive. Art exists when something can be both creepy and beautiful at the same time. This isn't David Lynch, but I can imagine few other directors directing this book into a movie. Nightwood also gave my The Alexandria Quartet vibes. Barnes like Durrell can capture the humanity of freaks and outcasts. She can disturb you and seduce you at the same time. I can see veins of Nightwood web through the later novels by Patricia Highsmith. As a CIS white male, reading books like Nightwood are useful. They give me a glimpse or shade of an experience that is completely foreign to mine. But, I'm not sure how far to extend that because at times, reading Nightwood felt like I was traveling through a nightmare drunk. I was disoriented, disturbed, and on shifting literary sand. But I have rarely read something that felt more like a trip.
August 12, 2022
Όταν μπεις στο νυχτοδάσος δεν βγαίνεις ποτέ.
Απλώς αισθάνεσαι. Βλέπεις. Μαθαίνεις. Ακούς.
Μυρίζεις και αρρωσταίνεις βαριά από την ανίατη οικουμενική ασθένεια που πάντα θα πεθαίνει και θα ανασταίνεται μέσα σε καρδιές.
Αρρωσταίνεις από την οικουμενική αρρώστεια της αγάπης. Από την καρδιά που σου ξεριζώνουν μέσα από τα σπλάχνα σου και αυτή αμέσως λέει

Δεν έχει σημασία το υποκείμενο της αγάπης σου.
Ούτε κάποια ανθρώπινη διαδικασία εκπλήρωσης και αναπλήρωσης προς την εξέλιξη του ατόμου.

Το νυχτοδάσος σε τραβάει μέσα του και σε αφήνει να λιώσεις από αγάπη, από φόβο, από τρόμο, από αγωνία, από απώλεια ζήλεια μοναξιά αυτοκριτική σοφία παράνοια ξεπεσμό εξευτελισμό και θεοποίηση.
Μην προσπαθήσεις να βγεις τα χαράματα από μέσα του διότι οι πόρτες που ανοίγουν εκείνη την ώρα είναι τόσες πολλές που θα καταλήξεις να απωθήσεις τον ίδιο τον εαυτό σου.
Να αποχωρήσεις από το είναι σου, να παίξεις με τις κούκλες και τα αλογάκια κάποιας παθιασμένης ιστορίας για γυναίκες που αγαπιούνται με τρέλα

Για άνδρες που δεν ολοκληρώθηκαν ποτέ ως προσωπικότητες και πάντα μεθυσμένοι φιλοσοφούν ανάμεσα σε προσωπικές ανωμαλίες που τους προσάπτουν οι ειδικοί στην αναπαραγωγή του πραγματικού τίποτα.
Το βιβλίο τούτο είναι σκο��εινό, δυσπρόσιτο και αβυσσαλέα έκλυτο σαν εφιάλτης που βασανίζει την γαλήνη της νύχτας, μα όλοι
γι’ αυτόν τον εφιάλτη κλείνουν τα μάτια τους σφιχτά και προσμένουν.

Είναι αλήθεια πως δεν υπάρχει εδώ κάτι σταθερό για να κρατηθείς ως αναγνώστης και να απολαύσεις πλοκή, δομή, εξέλιξη.
Μαθαίνεις όμως τους χαρακτήρες σαν μαγική εικόνα που εμφανίζει φιγούρες και τις στολίζει σιγά σιγά μέχρι να ολοκληρωθούν οι προσωπικότητες.
Μαγεία όμως δεν υπάρχει και η εικόνα που έχουμε μπροστά μας λέγεσαι απλά τέχνη.
ΔιαβάΣτε το.

Καλή ανάγνωση.
Πολλούς και σεμνούς ασπααμούς
Profile Image for Mala.
156 reviews210 followers
May 5, 2015

Night people do not bury their dead, but on the neck of you, their beloved and waking, sling the creature, husked of its gestures. And where you go, it goes, the two of you, your living and her dead, that will not die; to daylight, to life, to grief, until both are carrion.

Nightwood is such a strange book and this isn't so much a ramrod- straight person's reaction to gay-lesbian literature as the feverish, dream-like quality of the text– like you've stumbled into someone's nightmare & can't find a way out.

It's a simple book, really- plotwise- a handful of characters- expats, exiles, outcasts living a rootless existence in Paris & New York– "All the characters are exiles of one kind or another - Americans, Irish, Austrian, Jewish. This is the beginning of the modern diaspora - all peoples, all places, all change." The narrative also moves to Vienna & Berlin but other than the seedy, underworld nightlife of Paris, of cheap bars & prostitutes, the grand old mansions & parks of Vienna- the 'action' mostly takes place through dialogues, by which the characters reveal themselves & one another. Most important in this regard, is the character of Dr. Matthew O’Connor whose scathing, weary, penetrating monologues* form the bulk of this slender book & foreshadow many happenings.

I wisely used points from T.S.Eliot's introduction as signposts, that:

The book is not simply a collection of individual portraits; the characters are all knotted together, as people are in real life, by what we may call chance or destiny.

The book is not a psychopathic study. The miseries that people suffer through their particular abnormalities of temperament are visible on the surface: the deeper design is that of the human misery and bondage which is universal...To regard this group of people as a horrid sideshow of freaks is ...to miss the point.

It's a deeply revealing psychological novel though, with surrealist tone where the Id is displayed on the pages for everyone to see– at the centre of this nightly world of secrets, shadows and sin- stands the beautiful, enigmatic, androgynous & vulnerable Robin Vote– desired & lusted after by her ex-husband Felix & her lesbian lovers Nora & Jenny. They want to know everything about her the way M.Swann wanted each & every detail of Odette's life– to possess her soul as it were & isn't something inherently evil about that, this desire for control, for possession? For our soul belongs with God & the only person fighting for it is the devil.

Religion is there in Nightwood in a big way– is it incidental that two important scenes involving Dr. Matthew & Robin respectively take place in a church? Or that they are practising Catholics forever condemned to guilt for their sexuality which marginalises them?
The people in Nightwood are hurt & hurting– I wondered if the passions played out on such a large tragic scale- such love, such devotion, such jealousy, such anguish, cause the desire was a forbidden one? The book was written in 1936 after all & who can really say, even now, that alternative sexuality has found mainstream acceptance!?

A note on the ending*

Nightwood's ending has puzzled & baffled critcs & readers alike: for character resolution though, the ending has psychological veracity– in her regression to animal-like state, Robin, achieves the primal state which her introduction had promised:

She’s “a woman who is beast turning human,” “an infected carrier of the past," and her skin is “the texture of plant life."

Many would like to see in her final defiance; her degradation– the erotic subtext of the final scene is hard to miss. I'm reminded of an incident when I was 13/14 yrs old, reading Manto's* short stories, in one of them, a woman jilted by her rich lover, sleeps with a diseased, filthy mongrel as an act of insult towards him. Now I had seen, in my friends' homes, their pet kittens lolling all over the bed so I thought maybe a dog too could sleep in the bed! I asked my mom to explain the story to me, needless to say I got a sound verbal thrashing & was told to immediately return the book to the library & not to go around asking neighbours the meaning of the story!
I wonder what mom would say now!

(*)Not soliloquy or dialogue but monologue cause Mr.Eliot says so: "His monologues, brilliant and witty in themselves as they are, are not dictated by an indifference to other human beings, but on the contrary by a hypersensitive awareness of them."

(**)Saadat Hasan Manto - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia– an author worth reading.

Links for Nightwood:
I loved this article cause our thoughts went in the same directions:


An interesting take on Robin's character & the final scene.

Creatures of the dark | Books | The Guardian
Profile Image for Daisy.
191 reviews67 followers
April 5, 2022
I would love to have given this 5 stars and pretend I was clever enough to admire, understand, perchance enjoy it. I long to repay T.S Eliot for the years of joy he has given me through his The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by agreeing with his opinion of this book. Alas wanting makes neither of these things possible.
I found this tedious in the extreme and ridiculous in parts. If I wanted to waste a couple of days listening to the Jameson lubricated monologues of a verbose Irishman I would have booked a plane ticket to the family in Kildare.
223 reviews195 followers
October 12, 2012
Nightwood plays out lenticularly: Christ-cum Rasputin- like Dr O’Connor dominates the central frame with secondary characters phasing in and out in tune with a subtle rotational accretion of meditational ‘om’ spiked Eurekas.

A trifecta of bisexual women in perpetual locomotion seek out a Pythagorian articulation of their triangular ‘saltarello’, overseen by the gregarious doctor and overshadowed by a jilted husband. This then is the plot, what little of it there is.

Character driven in extremis, ‘Nightwood’ is more akin to a loose compilation of essays which would serve just as well as their own, independent exegis. Barnes unleashes a whirlwind of speculation, contemplation, meditation and probably other kinds of ‘ations’ I can’t think of now. Her thinking is original, her language saturated with unusual and lyrical associations.

A tapestry of observations, then, on the compilations of living: with a rather umm, promiscuous extrapolation on the nature of ‘jewishness’ which most critics seem to gloss over, but which shocked me a little nonetheless. Of course its because she wrote this pre WWII. We don’t dare nowadays. Hell, we don’t dare much of anything nowadays: we’re too PCed (read as pissed).
Profile Image for Brodolomi.
210 reviews94 followers
March 9, 2022
„Šuma noći“ je lirski roman o aporiji erosa i o tome kada te neko drugi boli kao fantomski ud koji nikad nisi posedovao. Takođe reč je i o dekadentno-erotskom brevijaru i bestijaru, i to baš onako raskošno tamnom kako to već crno može da bude pošto u sebi objedinjuje sve boje duginog spektra.

Šire gledano, reč je o romanu zrelog i visokog modernizma (objavljen 1936) – urednik knjige je bio T. S. Eliot, pisanje je finansirala Pegi Gugenhajm - napisan osobenim, raskošnim jezikom koji je nastao u varenju Biblije, Dantea, elizabetanskih i baroknih pesnika, gotskih romana, dekadencije, rascvetalih prerafaelitske ljubičanstvenosti Pejtera i Raskina, modernističkog (s)loma jezika i ko zna čega još u veselo-tužnoj igri oponašanja, manirizma i parodiranja, visokog i niskog, neprestane akcije i beskrajne, raskošne stondiranosti ili, kako se to u ovom romanu kaže, čekanje nekog da na wc šolji završi sa čitanjem Gibonovog šestotomnika „Uspon i pad Rimskog carstva“.

Nije jednostavno prepričati fabulu. Recimo da je u središtu zapleta ljubavni višeugao koji čini Robin, njen suprug Feliks, njena ljubavnica Nora, zbog koje je napustila muža i mentalno zaostalo dete, i Dženi, njena druga ljubavnica zbog koje napušta Noru. Situacija postaje složenija za prepričavanje jer tu je i peti glavni junak Metju O’Konor - njihov zajednički lažni prijatelj, šarlatan, ginekolog sa fejk diplomom, transeksualni rimokatolik i prostitutka iz hobija i nužde. On pripada redu agresivnih Kinbot laktaša likova u književnosti koji prete da pojedu i zaposednu čitav narativ, stoga računajte da Metjuovi govori zauzimaju više od polovine romana. Specifičan stil, koji sam pokušao da opišem, u tim govorima postaje barem 3 puta više turbo. Načelno, Metju bi trebalo da ima ulogu rezonera ljubavnog višeugla, ali tu ulogu izbegava kao kiša oko Kragujevca. Teško je uhvatiti šta je tu glava a šta rep, pošto je Konorov jezik sačinjen od samouverenog iracionalnog niza aforizama, neobičnih metafora i poređenja, fantazmagorijskih anegdota i izvan logičkog razmišljanja o ljubavi, erotici, Bogu, teodiceji, žudnji, grehu, istoriji, identitetu itd. Ili još tačnije, čitalac može da uhvati šta je rep a šta glava, ali nekako se ispostavi da taj rep raste iz pupka, a glava stoji između guzova. Tako nekako, teško je objasniti. Ili tačnije iz trećeg pokušaja, Metju je pesnička figura u romanu i donosilac poetske istine o erosu, stoga mu se čitalac mora prepustiti kao da čita poeziju. Fluidnost, raskoš, podzemnost i frustriranost značenja noćnog jezika ovog romana odgovara istim osobenostima erotskih žudnji u čoveku, pošto su i one tako bogate, neograničavajuće, podsvesne i uglavnom ostaju nezadovoljene. Erotsko/noćno/iracionalno u romanu sve više korozivno uništava jezik kao logički/racionalni sistem da se roman završava najfantazmagorijskom i najdepresivnijom vizijom putene žudnje prema drugom čoveku. Ali, da ne spojlujem, samo ću reći da uključuje dosta psećeg cviljenja i lajanja.

Kako u praksi zvuči dekadentni brevijar i lirski govor doktora Metjua, dajem odlomak koji govori o ljubavi prema homoseksualcima:

Dobro - šta je ovo ljubav koju gajimo prema invertitu, bez obzira da li je muško ili žensko? Svaka romantična priča koju smo ikada pročitali bila je o njima. Šta je izgubljena devojka ako ne pronađeni princ? Princ na belom konju kojeg smo oduvek tražili. A lepi mladić je devojka, šta je on ako ne princ-princeza u finoj čipki – nije nijedno a dopola je ono drugo, slika na lepezi! U detinjstvu smo ih pritiskali dok su jahali kroz naše bukvare kao najslađa od svih laži, sad kao dečak ili devojka, jer u devojci je princ, a u dečaku je devojka zbog koje je princ-princ, ali ne i muškarac. Oni se naziru u maglovitoj daljini gde nas čeka ono što nikada nismo imali; bilo je neminovno da na njih naiđemo jer ih je naša pogrešno usmerena češnja stvorila. Oni su naš odgovor na ono što su nam naše bake rekle o ljubavi, a što ne postoji; oni su živa laž naših vekova. Kad se dugotrajna laž pojavi, ponekad je lepa; kad je kanete u neki rastvor, u lek i piće, u bolest i smrt , ona odjednom dobija neku čudnu i strašnu privlačnost.
Profile Image for Tony.
906 reviews1,510 followers
January 31, 2016
The reading gods have a lot of time on their hands. They conspire, they do. How else to explain that two of the last four books I've read were hi-jacked by characters who went on essentially book-length perorations. In Embers by Sándor Márai, an old man invites a very old friend to dinner and then, for 120 pages, tells him the story the friend already knows. Here, in 'Nightwood', characters find themselves drawn to Matthew O'Connor, a cross-dressing, tortured alcoholic, playing at a doctor, who has both insight and inside scoop, and shovels it out, chapter after chapter, in a stream of consciousness fantasy.

As you might imagine, some of this sounded like gibberish; lovely, but gibberish nonetheless:

Gurus, who, I trust you know, are Indian teachers, expect you to contemplate the acorn ten years at a stretch, and if, in that time, you are no wiser about the nut, you are not very bright, and that may be the only certainty with which you will come away, which is a post-graduate melancholy--for no man can find a greater truth than his kidney will allow.


As for me, I tuck myself in at night, well content, because I am my own charlatan.

And people accuse me of being enigmatic.

O'Connor is composing a new song:

The song is entitled, 'Mother, put the wheel away, I cannot spin tonight.' Its other name, 'According to me, everyone is a kind-of-a-son-of-a-bitch,' to be sung to two octarinas and one concertina, and, ........

....And if you wondered about racial notions in the 1930s, well, O'Connor shares. After some thought, and some erasures, I've decided not to.

There are few interruptions. But Nora ....

Nora stood up, but she sat down again. "How do you stand it, then?" she demanded. "How do you live at all if this wisdom of yours is not only the truth, but also the price?"

The author too, albeit in O'Connor's speech, intrudes: And must I, perchance, like careful writers, guard myself against the conclusion of my reader?

I appreciated, I liked, and I wearied at the inventiveness. The lesbian love triangle, the transvestite doctor, the deformed child did not shock me. Nor am I shocked that Barnes is championed for her 'feminism' while her racism is conveniently ignored.

I'm just one more flawed reader hoping the reading gods do not judge me any more than I judge an author (in time), and bring me back, as they like to do, with words like this from Djuna Barnes:

In time everything is possible and in space everything forgivable; life is but an intermediary vice. There is eternity to blush.

Profile Image for Kirstine.
453 reviews565 followers
February 9, 2017
Everyman dies finally of that poison known as the-heart-in-the-mouth. Yours is in your hand. Put it back. The eater of it will get a taste for you; in the end his muzzle will be heard barking among your ribs.

I wish I could say something clever about this book. I’ve put it off till now because I’m at a loss, as I so often am. Some novels force the breath out of your lungs, they force you to breathe the air they breathe, to live the life they create for you and to believe in the things they tell you. When done you forget your own words, you’re left with an empty spot where your language used to be. I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t, which is a compliment, truly, to the power of this novel.

There’s an obsessiveness to it, a desperate desire that you know cannot be fulfilled. Only the doctor of the story, a cross dresser, who perhaps inhabits more than simply one world, perhaps all the worlds, a sort of prophet, who spills truths as if they were drops of water, seems consigned to this fate of unfulfillment.

At the center is Robin, a child, a lover, an apparition, she slips through the hands of everyone, even those who loves her desperately. And Nora, the doomed lover, helplessly waiting for Robin to return, to settle down, knowing it’s not in her nature.

It’s a condensed story, weaving several fates together, always intersecting, touching each other even after the last goodbye has been said. The characters are not many, but they contain multitudes, worlds, they are so many things on so few pages.

I know you shouldn’t compare, but I read Ulysses last January, and I read Nightwood this January, and they are alike. In style, in tone, in vision, and in so many ways they are opposites. Perhaps Nightwood is what would’ve happened had Molly Bloom left her dull husband and had an affair with a woman. And this theme of lesbianism is crucial, because it gives voice to those who didn’t have one, and gives them a place in modern, classic literature. I’m saddened Nightwood is not a more widely known work (or so it seems to me), because it deserves attention, scrutiny, criticism and devoted love.

It’s love, obsession, joy, jealousy, sexuality, wonder, desperation, all the big things in a constantly transforming pattern. You give yourself up to the novel, it gives itself back to you.

"Our bones ache only while the flesh is on them. Stretch it as thin as the temple flesh of an ailing woman and still it serves to ache the bone and to move the bone about; and in like manner the night is skin pulled over the head of the day that the day may be in torment. We will find no comfort until the night melts away; until the fury of the night rots out its fire."
Profile Image for BrokenTune.
750 reviews202 followers
June 29, 2015
1.5* rounded up.

Matthew,' she said, 'have you ever loved someone and it became yourself?'
For a moment he did not answer. Taking up the decanter he held it to the light.
'Robin can go anywhere, do anything,' Nora continued, 'because she forgets, and I nowhere because I remember.' She came toward him. 'Matthew,' she said, 'you think I have always been like this. Once I was remorseless, but this is another love — it goes everywhere; there is no place for it to stop — it rots me away.”

I honestly feel that I have failed this book.

Nightwood was a slight volume but I found it really hard to finish. Some of the language is intriguing but at times trying too hard and coming across as pretentious - in the end I can't make up my mind what which aspect of the book I liked enough to finish it.

There was only one character (Nora) that drew my attention and it looks like that character is being ridiculed - though I'm not sure whether the ridicule is an expression of Barnes' attitude or an expression of Barnes' view of society's contempt for that character.
I'm sure I'll get my head around it at some point.

In short, Nightwood is the story of a cast of outsiders in which Nora and Robin take centre stage. Nora falls in love with Robin, but Robin is too wrapped up in her own desires to see or care about the trail of destruction she leaves behind her.

According to Wikipedia (and therefore absolutely reliably true, probably, or not) the character of Robin was based on this lady:

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Nora's character - again according to unreliable sources - seems to reflect Barnes in many ways. I have no idea whether there is an actual autobiographical connection, but having finished the book I don't care to find out.

This was a bleak rather bitter read full of pretentious and generalised statements such as:

"The heart of the jealous knows the best and most satisfying love, that of the other's bed, where the rival perfects the lover's imperfections."


"Sleep demands of us a guilty immunity. There is not one of us who, given an eternal incognito, a thumbprint nowhere set against our souls, would not commit rape, murder and all abominations."

And yet, the funny thing about Nightwood is that I'm still intrigued by the book because I couldn't help comparing it to Night Watch by Sarah Waters (of which I am a huge fan). The character I loved most in Night Watch is one of that could easily have been in Nightwood but where Waters likes her characters and celebrates gallantry, Barnes seemed to treat everything and everyone with disdain.

So, where Waters character expresses her view on life like this:

"Someone once said a happy ending depends on where you decide to stop your story. Then again, it could be when you realise your story is not yet over; that you are only at the end of the beginning." (Kay in Night Watch)

Barnes' character's outlook is far bleaker:

“My war brought me many things; let yours bring you as much. Life is not to be told, call it as loud as you like, it will not tell itself. No one will be much or little except in someone else's mind, so be careful of the minds you get into, and remember Lady Macbeth, who had her mind in her hand. We can't all be as safe as that.”

However, it is not just the bleak outlook that spoilt the book for me. The book starts off introducing the characters and what comes across right from the beginning is that they are all outcasts from society - some because of their physical attributes, some because of their gender, identity, or religion. Rather than to explore these differences, Barnes only emphasizes the stereotypical views held by society - but she does it in a way that seems to be at odds with the story and that seems to define and mock the character of her characters. It is never clear - or it wasn't to me - if this was meant to be irony or just Barnes being bitter and spiteful. It's a fine line and I could not make it out.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,360 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.