Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood” and the virtues of reading good shit you don’t like

Nightwood

T.S. Eliot said of Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel “Nightwood” that “it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it”. There’s a poetic sensibility with regard to densely layered metaphor that made reading this novel a bit of a challenge for me -there’s a bit of Joyce in here, as well as Henry James, both authors that I simultaneously respect and struggle to enjoy reading. And that was my overall response to this book -I struggled, I acknowledged that it was good, I read it closely and deliberately, and I didn’t enjoy the reading experience. This happens sometimes, and it’s no poor reflection on the book. It’s a damn good book, just not my jug of absinthe.

It’s clearly modernist -even capital “M” Modernist- and it’s notable for both it’s collection of nuanced female characters (all males but Dr. Matthew are forgettable, albeit interestingly sketched) and it’s forward depiction of lesbian relationships. I’ve read some critics who describe the prose as “Gothic,” and while I understand what they are saying, it strikes me more as a metaphor-heavy reincarnation of turn-of-the-century Realism. There is plenty of foreboding and atmosphere, but more in the vein of James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” than anything by Poe. The aforementioned Dr. Matthew is a consistent voice of intellectual absurdity, mostly impenetrable and completely unforgettable.

This book really didn’t do it for me on a personal level. At the same time, I’m glad to have had the reading experience. It’s clearly an influential piece of writing, and it’s a remarkably progressive bit of fiction, considering the time -a welcome contradiction of values in an expatriate novel, when one considers the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Recommendation: Give it a pass, unless you are particularly interesting in historical examples of gay fiction, late-period modernism, or pre-WW2 expatriate writing.

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