So, I finished Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood last week and have decided to go ahead and read it again right away. My response to the first reading was a mixture of awe and bewilderment. The plot is simple to follow, so it was not the plot that bewildered me, but there is not much plot anyway; rather, it’s the things the characters were saying that I sometimes had trouble following. But their speeches were beautiful and in the moments when meaning broke through, I found myself moved.
I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t read and re-read passages until I understood them perfectly, because that moment didn’t always come; instead, I read slowly and figured out what I could, and kept going even if I didn’t get everything. I did this partly because I knew I’d mostly likely be reading the book again, but also because trying to figure everything out would lead to frustration. I think this is the kind of book where you can read for mood and atmosphere and for the beauty of the language as much as you read for logical meaning.
Here’s a typical passage, a speech from one of the most important characters, the doctor:
Suppose your heart were five feet across in any 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 now are, for any woman that you had to look for with a magnifying glass, or any boy if he was as high as the Eiffel Tower or did droppings like a fly? No, we all love in sizes, yet we all cry out in tiny voices to the great booming God, the older we get. Growing old is just a matter of throwing life away back; so you finally forgive even those that you have not begun to forget.
I’m not entirely sure what this passage means, but I do like it. The book it not entirely made up of passages like this one; it also has plenty of dialogue and narration that’s easier to follow. The novel tells the story of a group of characters, following them through many years as they wander around, fall in love, marry in some cases, break up, despair, talk it over, despair, talk it over, etc. There’s the doctor, who has most of the eloquent, poetic speeches, who doesn’t seem to do much but talk to the other characters. There’s Baron Felix, who marries Norah Flood, who then leaves him to pursue Robin Vote, who leaves Norah to pursue Jenny. The conversations that come out of all this loving and leaving are more important than the actions themselves — the book is really about the sense that the characters make of what happens to them.
I do not at all feel as though I have a handle on this book, but perhaps after a second reading, I’ll get more of it. Perhaps I’ll look up some critical work as well.