I have begun reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, and I can already tell I’m going to need to read it again. I’m considering reading it again immediately after I finish the first time around, although I’ll wait to see how I feel when I get there. It’s a short book, 150 pages with large font, and I’ve already read about 45.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of it or even how to describe my difficulty knowing what to make of it. Perhaps quoting the opening line is the best thing to do:
Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin in which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms — gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.
Yes, that gives you a taste of what it’s like to read this book. The prose is exquisitely well-crafted; I love how this sentence slowly winds its way around to its point, taking in along the way all kinds of information about Hedvig, who turns out not to be a character in the book at all, but is important, perhaps, for the way she sets the tone and gives us information about what kind of person that son will be — who is a character in the book.
The pace of the book is both fast and slow; after two chapters a lot of events have occurred — that son has grown up and now has a child of his own — but the narrator also lingers over conversations at length, allowing the character called “the doctor,” although I don’t think he really is one, to go on and on. I’m not always sure exactly what he’s saying. The characters seem a little like Hedvig, larger than life, not quite real, and fascinating.
You see why I’m going to have to read this book again? It’s not coming together for me in the way books usually do by the time I’m nearly 1/3 of the way through. But this book strikes me as good enough to spend some time with, trying to figure it out.