Beginning Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

057123528x.jpgI 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.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “Beginning Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood

  1. Now I want to read this too!

  2. I’m in a sort of dilemma about Nightwood — I really want to pick it up now — but I’m also intimidated by it — because I suspect it’s the kind of book that I need to read and re-read to “get”

    That’s my whole issue with the Modernist. They intimidate me.

  3. hepzibah

    it sounds interesting, though the first sentence is kind of intimidating! Ummm…yes — that’s what gets to me about modernist texts — i can never understand anything completely!

  4. verbivore

    Oooh, I love books that make you want to re-read them while you’re still reading them. This one looks really interesting.

  5. My memory of “Nightwood” is very vague. You’re making me want to pick it up again!

  6. This strikes me as the sort of book where you can’t let your minder wander at all or you’ll be lost. At the same time, you’re right that the prose is very exquisite and if you really lose yourself it it, I bet it is really lovely. Sometimes those smaller books can be misleading–you think it will be a quick read when actually it is not necessarily easy going at all. It will be interesting to see how you get on with it.

  7. I have to confess that Nightwood is one of the books I never finished. I really wanted to like it, but I felt I never quite got it. Some people adore it, though, and consider it one of the great modern works, so you are quite right to persevere! I’ll look forward to understanding it better through your reading of it.

  8. Lisa

    I admit that first sentence made me think “eh, not now” and go for a (simpler) book. I never went back to it. You might inspire me.

  9. Becky — DO! :)

    Dark Orpheus — I get intimidated too. But this one is short at least! If you don’t get it, at least you won’t have to spend long with it. But I do think you’d get it …

    Hepzibah — yes, but isn’t it fun to be challenged now and then?

    Verbivore — it IS quite interesting. I love books that make me want to re-read them, although wanting to re-read them because I don’t get them the first time around isn’t quite as fun as wanting to re-read because they are just so great you don’t want them to end …

    Kate — it would be interesting to see if your impression of it changes the second time around if you did pick it up again.

    Danielle — yes, this isn’t a book to breeze through! It does require attention. I’m reading it in fairly small chunks, and that works pretty well.

    Litlove — well, if I continue to feel that I don’t get it, I’ll feel better knowing you experienced the same thing!

    Lisa — that first sentence is quite a challenge, isn’t it? I mean, a challenge to follow, but also a challenge to the reader — I dare you to continue reading me!

  10. That’s some sentence! I’ve got this on my list of books to read someday so I especially looking forward to what your conclusions on it are.

  11. carrie

    I am reading this book for a literature and gender class. I will need to read it a few times too. It is like decoding poetry. You need a translator to get it the first time.

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