Written in 1936 I wanted to read this as a counterpoint to This Side of Paradise, one from the beginning of the Jazz age and one from the end. But it wasn’t quite that neat, the atmosphere of the jazz age is here but I think Nightwood is set in its own world and not trapped by any particular time. I found this a demanding and difficult read.
The plot is very slight. Baron Felix Volkbein is married to Robin Vote they divorce and Robin falls in love with Nora Flood who eventually loses her to Jenny Petherbridge. At the centre of these characters is the doctor, Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante O’Connor. In Paris, they’re all strangers and misfits, knotted together by Robin and her effect on them.
Robin first meets Nora at the circus and there was the feeling of circus throughout. In the shadows everything and everyone is whirling and brash, it’s a slippery seedy world where nobody is what they seem and huge garish characters make impossible demands of each other. Robin, ‘a wild thing caught in a women’s skin’ spends the nights haunting streets and cafe’s, while first Felix and then Nora spend the nights trying to find her, each caught up in their misery and turning to the doctor for help.
I realised I was going to have to change the way I was reading, this wasn’t about characters and plot but about language. In the introduction Jeanette Winterson says, ‘The language is not about conveying information; it is about conveying meaning.’ T. S Eliot, in the preface talks of its musicality and refers to the chapters as ‘movements’, but I couldn’t get on with it, I didn’t want to be a part of their world even vicariously. It’s about obsessive love, but I couldn’t understand why Robin was so desirable. Mostly she’s a ghostly sort of presence, drunk in bars picking up strangers or being picked up and it’s her effect on others that we’re reading but on two occasions she appears front of stage and I thought they were quite disturbing.
Robin gives her lovers a china doll, one night when she thinks Nora hasn’t given her enough attention she raises the doll above her head and smashes it to the ground, putting her foot on it she crushes her heel into it until its china head is dust – the doll represents their child. And at the end when she sets out to find Nora (after she has left Jenny):
‘She circled closer and closer. Sometimes she slept in the woods; the silence that she had caused by her coming was broken again by insect and bird flowing back over her intrusion, which was forgotten in her fixed stillness, obliterating her as a drop of water is made anonymous by the pond into which it has fallen.’
but when she finds Nora with her dog she begins snarling and barking, taunting and teasing the whimpering dog until its submissive.
Everyone turns to the doctor as confident ‘half-leprechaun, half-angel, half-freak, half -savant, half-man, half-women’, is how Jeanette Winterson describes him. He talks on and on and on as if his talking is going to solve everyone’s misery ‘To think is to be sick’ he says. It’s a bleak look at the world.
T.S. Eliot was a huge admirer of Nightwood and Djuna Barnes and although incredibly pompous when he says ‘A prose that is altogether alive demands something of the reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.’ I do think my mistake was to think I could just pick this up and start reading.
‘The doctor lit a cigarette; lifting his chin he blew the smoke high. “To treat her lovers to the great passionate indifference. Say,” he exclaimed, bringing his chin down. “Dawn,of course, dawn! That’s when she came back frightened. At that hour the citizen of the night balances on a thread that is running thin.”‘