Nightwood - Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot This is an odd novel, because it begins seeming as though it might be a romance/melodrama and by the time you're well into things (or sooner) you begin to realize there's some "questioning the idea of what a romance/novel is" as well as the usual symbolism that gets tossed into Serious Novels of this era. It's also kind of hard to put your finger on "what is this book about?" (Here's the wikipedia page - you can check out the plot summary there if you want more than I'm about to share.)The back of the book (on a 1961 paperback):"...It is the story of Robin Vote and those she destroys - her husband the "Baron," their child Guido, and the two women, Nora and Jenny, who love her; the whole illuminated by the fantastic monologues of the renegade doctor, Matthew O'Connor, one of the strangest characters in all fiction.And here's my problem with that summary. Whenever the Doctor comes "on stage" in the book he completely takes over. His monologues drown everyone out, a few characters attempt to talk but he talks over them and remains The Central Figure for as long as he's there - and afterwards too, in a way. He does remind me of the kind of person who sucks all the oxygen out of the room and leaves the other inhabitants insensible on the floor - because no one is going to get a word in edgewise once this person begins to talk. And they are speeches and it is a stage because no one speaks that long in conversations, even in novels that give up pretending to be realistic - these are speeches suitable only in lectures or on a stage.That's when you start realizing that Barnes is doing something more than a novel, she's actually making fun of or examining (I can't be sure which) the structure of the novel/the romance/etc. and the tropes that abound in other such books of her time. On the romance side of things - the sex is mostly implied (probably still scandalously frank for 1936), but the lesbianism isn't in any way glossed over - these are relationships, just as Robin has had relationships with men. There's a bit of "why is Robin like this" but it has more to do with the character's inability to settle down and be with anyone. All of this felt very modern - which I liked. The Doctor is a transvestite, but that seemed just a part of his character, which was already complicated. Perhaps it makes him even more complicated. In any case he's never shamed about it, and there is never any traumatic or cruel public revelation (I dreaded that happening) - the lack of that was also something I liked.Even though the novel (or the back of the novel anyway) claims to be about Robin we don't see inside of her head much, and mostly find out about her and what she's doing via other people talking about her. So she feels hardly in the book at all - and the same time is the subject everyone is talking about. At the end I still feel I don't really know anything about Robin, not that I can be sure is truth. (But then, what is this thing called truth anyway...)I'm not entirely sure what happens in the ending. I think it's one of those "no one knows what happens at the ending" things. Normally I REALLY hate those kind of endings - a feeling which goes way back to those stories in elementary school readers (the ones where There's A Lesson To Be Learned by the characters) which end abruptly - cliffhanger! - with the lines "What do YOU think happened next? Discuss with your group and answer the following questions..." Questions which always had something like "Did Fred save the old lady or the kitten? Why?" Ugh. Hated, hated, hated that. I did enjoy the teachers (there were a few) who would actually have us write the end of such stories, in which I usually took great glee in killing off the characters. (This was also fun in later English classes with the "how would you have ended Famous Novel Name Here?" writing assignments. I ended Cat's Cradle with an attack of giant radioactive ants shamelessly stolen from Them! Very satisfying.)Um, where was I...Oh right, Nightwood. The ending. Well, it just suddenly ends. I thought that one of the characters - Nora - might be dead. But apparently not - wikipedia sums it up as she "hits the door jamb, and is knocked unconscious." Meanwhile Robin could be acting like a dog and thus insane - or she could just be showing the weird behavior she sometimes enacts for no reason - or she could be drunk, as usual. Again, no answer there because bam, the book ends. Artificial - or is the typical novel-romance expected ending of total happiness or depressing tragedy just as artificial? That might be the point. Maybe. Who can say? Did I really need a spoiler for that? I never can tell.Perhaps the most helpful thing for me was the book's introduction by T. S. Eliot. Specifically (p xi):"In describing Nightwood for the purpose of attracting readers to the English edition, I said that it would "appeal primarily to readers of poetry." ...I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term "novel" has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel....A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give. To say Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it. Miss Barnes's prose has the prose rhythm that is is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse. This prose rhythm may be more or less complex or elaborate, according to the purposes of the writer; but whether simple or complex, it is what raises the matter to be communicated, to the first intensity."I'm not sure if I'm reading into this, but there's a bit of "if you don't like it, you're not the right kind of reader." (But it may be that I'm an ordinary novel reader? Heh.) So ignoring that tone - if you look at Barnes' writing as prose-poetry - oh yes, somehow that makes sense. I love her descriptions, and the dream-like way many people, things, and scenes are described and played out - yes, viewing this all as a prose-poem makes a lot of sense somehow. Or as much sense as my viewing it all as a sort of stage-play in novel form.An entire essay could be written - and probably has been, somewhere, by multiple college students - on descriptions and stereotypes of the Jew in this book. I'm not sure what to make of it, as some of that talk is the Doctor speaking to Felix (the Baron), who is Jewish - and the Doctor going on and on about Jews and Christianity, about the Catholic church (and Protestant too), tossing in some philosophy about the Irish (himself) as well - and I'm sure it's probably somehow Meaningful and Saying Something - but I'm not going to wrap my head around it. At least not this read-through.I'm going to currently give this three starts, but honestly I could see giving it four - first because I want to reread and rethink it, and second because I really like what Barnes does with her prose. It makes me want to read something else she's written to see what else she's created - and to read something without the Doctor popping in every so many pages and monopolizing the story.Anyway, here are some quotes, some of which are examples of what I've just rambled on about. You'll note the Doctor monopolized things here too, but he does have most of the great lines:p. 6-7, description of portraits:"...Against the panels of oak that reared themselves above the long table and up to the curving ceiling hung life-sized portraits of Guido's claim to father and mother. The lady was a sumptuous Florentine with bright sly eyes and overt mouth. Great puffed and pearled sleeves rose to the pricked-eared pointings of the stiff lace about the head, conical and braided. The deep accumulation of dress fell about her in groined shadows; the train rambling through a vista of primitive trees, was carpet thick. She seemed to be expecting a bird. The gentleman was seated precariously on a charger. He seemed not so much to have mounted the animal as to be about to descend on him. The blue of an Italian sky lay between the saddle and the buff of the tightened rump of the rider. The charger had been caught by the painter in the execution of a falling arc, the mane lifted away in a dying swell, the tail forward and in between thin bevelled legs. The gentleman's dress was a baffling mixture of the Romantic and the Religious, and in the cradling crook of his left arm he carried a plumed hat, crown out. The whole conception might have been a Mardi Gras whim. The gentleman's head, stuck on at a three-quarter angle, had a remarkable resemblance to Guido Volkbein, the same sweeping Cabalistic line of nose, the features seasoned and warm save where the virgin blue of the eyeballs curved out the lids as if another medium than that of sight had taken its stand beneath that flesh. There was no interval in the speed of that stare, endless and objective. The likeness was accidental. Had anyone cared to look into the matter they would have discovered these canvases to be reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors. Guido had found them in some forgotten and dusty corner and had purchased them when he had been sure that he would need an alibi for the blood."p 15, Dr. O'Connor:"...but think of the stories that do not amount to much! That is, that are forgotten in spite of all man remembers (unless he remembers himself) merely because they befell him without distinction of office or title - that's what we call legend and it's the best a poor man may do with his fate; the other" - he waved an arm - "we call history, the best the high and mighty can do with theirs. Legend is unexpurgated, but history, because of its actors, is deflowered - every nation with a sense of humour is a lost nation, and every woman with a sense of humour is a lost woman. The Jews are the only people who have sense enough to keep humour in the family; a Christian scatters it all over the world."p 127-8, Dr. O'Connor tells Nora an anecdote about birds' nests, which I really loved and the mental image is going to stick in my brain for some time:"She said: "She is myself. What am I to do?""Make birds' nests with your teeth; that would be better," he said angrily, "like my English girl friend. The birds liked them so well that they stopped making their own (does that sound like any nest you have made for any bird, and so broken it of its fate?). In the spring they form a queue by her bedroom window and stand waiting their turn, holding on to their eggs as hard as they can until she gets around to them, strutting up and down on the ledge, the eyes in their feathers a quick shine and sting, whipped with impatience, like a man waiting at a toilet door for someone inside who had decided to read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. ..."Of course that story's there just to show Nora what her relationship with Robin is like - but really, I couldn't stop imagining a line of impatient birds on a window sill. And trying to figure out how you'd use your teeth to make a nest. (I need to reread this so I can think more about Nora and Robin and get the bird images out of my head. Although the bird images do keep popping up in the text, so it's not really my fault.)p 130-131, the Doctor, going on and on again, here about a sort of prostitute:"...So I started for London Bridge - all this was a long time ago, and I'd better be careful or one of these days I'll tell a story that will give up my age.Well, I went off under London Bridge, and what should I see? A Tuppeny Upright. And do you know what a Tuppeny Upright might be? A Tuppeny is an old-time girl, and London Bridge is her last stand, as the last stand for a grue is Marseilles if she doesn't happen to have enough pocket money to get to Singapore. For tuppence, an Upright is all anyone can expect. They used to walk along slowly, all ruffles and rags, with big terror hats on them, a pin stuck over the eye and slap up through the crown, half their shadows on the ground and the other half crawling along the wall beside them; ladies of the haute sewer taking their last stroll, sauntering on their last Rotten Row going slowly along in the dark, holding up their badgered flounces, or standing still, letting you do it, silent and as indifferent as the dead, as if they were thinking of better days, or waiting for something that they had been promised when they were little girls; their poor damned dresses hiked up and falling away over the rump, all gathers and braid, like a Crusader's mount, with all the trappings gone sideways with misery."Via this blog, Gay Paris: a grue is a crane. Here is Urban Dictionary's definition of Tuppeny Upright (if you need more clarification). Now think about speaking all that bit aloud - the Doctor often speaks in those long sentences. It's a wonder he can manage to breathe around them.