I will feel these things: a review of Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Posted 4 Oct 2018 by Writing Squad in Writing Squad Reviews

NightwoodBritish-American poet Sarah Fletcher reveals the book that most affected her, as part of an ongoing series of reviews by members of the Writing Squad.

"A drunk, trans-sexual faux-doctor in drag starts to cry in a 1920’s Parisian bar. He is overwhelmed by the increasingly damaging secrets he’s become privy too. Starting to spill each stream of salacious gossip into the sozzled crowd, he sobs, as he breaks every confidence he can, ‘Oh, it’s a grand bad story, and who says I’m a betrayer? I say, tell the story of the world to the world!’”

This is the sort of moment in the swirling, strange universe of Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel Nightwood that becomes normal throughout this glittering book. Written in a luscious, High Modernist style, Nightwood is surreal in the most genuine meaning of the word: marked by the intense irrationality of a dream that is utterly believed by the dreamer nonetheless. Nonsensical, grotesque and fantastic.

People fall in love with the wrong people; then in wrong with the loved people, ad infinitum.

Djuna BarnesThe gut of the story is the dithering and pathetic love of Nora Flood for her party-loving girlfriend Robin Vote, who leaves Nora each night in search of a new cocktail, a new social scene, a new set of arms to sleep in. Berlin, Paris, London and Vienna become almost interchangeable in their flapperish glamour and dangerous character. 

"The gut of the story is the dithering and pathetic love of Nora Flood for her party-loving girlfriend Robin Vote, who leaves Nora each night in search of a new cocktail ..."

If love-gone-toxic is the guts of this story, its heart is the delicate, spellbinding language that weaves the plot together. When Robin passes out after a drunken night, Nora describes her flesh as having “the texture of plant life…sleep-worn as if sleep were a decaying fish”.

It’s these startling turns of phrase and beautiful descriptions throughout the novel that make the sordid plot palatable.

"Championed by T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, Nightwood is often marketed as a lesbian love story for its portrayal of vicious, triangular relationships between women."

Championed by T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, Nightwood is often marketed as a lesbian love story for its portrayal of vicious, triangular relationships between women. While this is an important aspect, I still return to the faux-doctor’s cry of telling “the story of the world to the world”.

Nightwood is an imminently human story, that beautifully expresses the complex sorrows and desires that make up human relationships. For as peculiar its plot is, a reader may not be left thinking that this could happen to me but, in all its intensity, a reader will surely know that this could be felt by me, and, one day, I will feel these things.

About the reviewer

Sarah FletcherSarah Fletcher is a British-American poet living in London and studying for a postgraduate at Royal Holloway. Her poetry has been published in Poetry London, The Rialto and the London Magazine. She was named a 2012 Foyle Young Poet of the Year, has received the 2012 and 2013 Christopher Tower Poetry Prizes, and has been shortlisted for the Stephen Spender Prize and Bridport Prize. Her debut pamphlet Kissing Angles was published with Dead Ink Books in 2015 and her pamphlet Typhoid August with Smith|Doorstop in 2018 as part of the New Poets Scheme.


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