Sunday, March 17, 2019

“Life is eternal, therein is the beauty…”: Nightwood, Vampires and the Ways We Read

Djuna Barnes, Nightwood, her life, times and fans.
Our Activist Informed Reading Group read Nightwood as our follow up to Moby Dick last Saturday.  It took me more than a week to grapple with what happened that afternoon.    

Looking at the slender volume Nightwood, by the ex pat,  Djuna Barnes, I was immediately drawn in - Paris,  vampires, what isn't there to  love?  Digging into the volume, I reread through Gayle Rubin’s introduction to Deviations. Before becoming an anthropologist, she compiled her lesbian bibliography during the early 1970’s, exploring the cemeteries of Paris for the traces of Djuna Barnes and her expatriate adventures between the wars.

The iconic novel has inspired countless reactions through the years.

 Blogger Megan Mayhew Bergman confesses
“As readers may recall, I publically chided myself for my inability to get through a book I truly wanted to read–. Fond of her other work (RyderCreatures of an AlphabetLadies Almanack,How it Feels to Be Forcibly Fed) and convinced of her importance, I’d made previous attempts to read the book, and failed miserably, finding the prose of the first few pages thick and slow-going.  I still found those first pages slow going, but, as T.S. Eliot promised I would in his introduction to the work, discovered upon completing the novel “a great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.”

Reading it, I was intrigued from the first page, reading and rereading the introduction, notes by TS Elliot and Jeanette-Winterson, and the first pages of this ex pat roman à clef, tracing stories of Jews before Hitler, women loving women,  but not necessarily lesbians, people having kids, looking for new stories, lives,  prose and poetry, desire, hopes, adventures, and a “false baron Felix Volkbein,” a lesser cousin in the House of Hapsburg:
“From the mingled passions that made up his past, out of a diversity of bloods, from the crux of  a thousand impossible situations, Felix had become the accumulated and single—the embarrassed.”
And from there, we are off as Felix meets Robin, has a child with her, before she gets bored, leaves the old world for the USA, has an affair with Nora.  They move to Paris where Robin gets bored after the sex.  Along comes Jenny Petherbridge, the beat goes on in eternal return.  Heartbroken, Nora turns to Dr Matthew O'Connor, “an Irishman from the Barbary Coast (Pacific Street, San Francisco), whose interest in gynaecology had driven him half around the world.”
The doctor introduced Felix to Robin before offering solace when it all went bad, just as he does with Nora.
And that’s really it for plot.  What happens does not matter as much as what is said.
“Its a goth vampire novel in Paris,” I gush to my friend Laura, who teaches a Goth Queer fiction class at the college.

“Blew me away...”

“I adore Nora!!!”  Everyone is the AIR group was crushing on  Nora.

“My little one is reading all the Twilight stories over and over again now.  I guess we all have to decide if we're going to date wolves or vampires.  That’s what growing up is all about…”

“Wolves, Vampires or both…!” my friend  replies.

And that’s what the characters in Nightwood have to figure out as they navigate between Paris, Berlin, Vienna and decay, an old world crumbling, while a new sensibility takes shape.
“His Chamberlain, wondering at the cause of such drought, remarked on it and was answered in one word so wholly epigrammatic and in no way befitting the great and noble British Empire …
 ‘And the legs?’ Felix asked uncomfortably. ‘The legs’, said Dr. O’Connor, ‘were devoted entirely to vine work…a terse account in early monkish script—called by some people indecent, by others Gothic-—of the really deplorable condition of Paris before hygiene was introduced, and nature had its way up to the knees. And just above what you mustn’t mention, a bird flew carrying a streamer on which was incised, “Garde tout!” I asked him why all this barbarity; he answered he loved beauty and would have it about him. ’

‘Are you acquainted with Vienna?’ Felix inquires…” 
The doctor counsels:

“‘The last muscle of aristocracy is madness—remember that— ’ the doctor leaned forward, ‘the last child born to aristocracy is sometimes an idiot, out of respect—we go up—but we come down.’
Lost in the death in Vienna of it all, before the Anschluss of Austria into Nazi Germany on 12 March 1938, Felix finds Robin:

“She was gracious and yet fading, like an old statue in a garden, that symbolizes the weather through which it has endured, and is not so much the work of man as the work of wind and rain and the herd of the seasons, and though formed in man’s image is a figure of doom. Because of this, Felix found her presence painful, and yet a happiness. Thinking of her, visualizing her, was an extreme act of the will  to recall her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty, without its details. When she smiled the smile was only in the mouth, and a little bitter: the face of an incurable yet to be stricken with its malady.”

As he knows her, the malady only spreads and spreads.

“Her hand lay still and she would turn away. At such moments Felix experienced an unaccountable apprehension. The sensuality in her hands frightened him. Her clothes were of a period that he could not quite place. She wore feathers of the kind his mother had worn, flattened sharply to the face. Her skirts were moulded to her hips and fell downward and out, wider and longer than those of other women, heavy silks that made her seem newly ancient. One day he learned the secret. Pricing a small tapestry in an antique shop facing the Seine, he saw Robin reflected in a door mirror of a back room, dressed in a heavy brocaded gown which time had stained in places, in others split, yet which was so voluminous that there were yards enough to refashion. He found that his love for Robin was not in truth a selection it was as if the weight of his life had amassed one precipitation. He had thought of making a destiny for himself, through laborious and untiring travail.”

Robin wonders about her son, history and inevitably sex:

“She tried to think of the consequence to which her son was to be born and dedicated. She thought of the Emperor Francis Joseph. There was something commensurate in the heavy body with the weight in her mind, where reason was inexact with lack of necessity. She wandered to thoughts of women, women that she had come to connect with women. Strangely enough these were women in history, Louise de la Vallière, Catherine of Russia, Madame de Maintenon, Catherine de Medici, and two women out of literature, Anna Karenina and Catherine Heathcliff; and now there was this woman Austria. She prayed, and her prayer was monstrous, because in it there was no margin left for damnation or forgiveness, for praise or for blame—-those who cannot conceive a bargain cannot be saved or damned. She could not offer herself up; she only told of herself, in a preoccupation that was its own predicament. Leaning her childish face and full chin on the shelf of the prie-Dieu, her eyes fixed, she laughed, out of some hidden capacity, some lost subterranean humour; as it ceased, she leaned still further forward in a swoon, waking and yet heavy, like one in sleep. When Felix returned that evening Robin was dozing in a chair, one hand under her cheek and one arm fallen. A book was lying on the floor beneath her hand. The book was the memoirs of the Marquis de Sade…”

I got lost in Anna Karenina too, reading about her in the library at Vassar, wondering about what Tereaza  thought running around with her a copy the novel in Unbearable Lightness of Being,  learning what  it felt like to be Nora.   

We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it. Yes, we who are full to the gorge with misery, should look well around, doubting everything seen, done, spoken, precisely because we have a word for it, and not its alchemy.”

“‘Then/ Nora said, ‘It means—I’ll never understand her—I’ll always be miserable—just like this.’”

Rome burns laments the author.  Gradually death joins the conversation, along with Morpheus, the god of dreams, vampires looming.

Burn Rome in a dream, and you reach and claw down the true calamity. For dreams have only the pigmentation of fact. A man who has to deal in no colour cannot find his match, or, if he does, it is for a different rage. Rome was the egg, but colour was the tread.’ ‘Yes,’ said Nora. ‘The dead have committed some portion of the evil of the night; sleep and love, the other. For what is not the sleeper responsible? What converse does he hold, and with whom? He lies down with his Nelly and drops off into the arms of his Gretchen. Thousands unbidden come to his bed. Yet how can one tell truth when it’s never in the company? Girls that the dreamer has not fashioned himself to want, scatter their legs about him to the blows of Morpheus. So used is he to sleep that the dream that eats away its boundaries finds even what is dreamed an easier custom with the years, and at that banquet the voices blend and battle without pitch. The sleeper is the proprietor of an unknown land. He goes about another business in the dark—and we, his partners, who go to the opera, who listen to gossip of café friends, who walk along the boulevards, or sew a quiet seam, cannot afford an inch of it because, though we would purchase it with blood, it has no counter and no till. She who stands looking down upon her who lies sleeping knows the horizontal fear, the fear unbearable.”

Friends come and go, each departure a mini death, before it all ends.

“‘Matthew,’ Nora said, ‘what will become of her? That’s what I want to know.’

 ‘To our friends/ he answered, ‘we die every day, but to ourselves we die only at the end. We do not know death, or how often it has essayed our most vital spirit. While we are in the parlour it is visiting in the pantry. Montaigne says: “To kill a man there is required a bright shining and clear light,” but that was spoken of the conscience toward another man. But what of our own death— permit us to reproach the night, wherein we die manifold alone.”

In this world, friends  are expendable.

“‘God help me, I went! For who will not betray a friend, or, for that matter, himself, for a whisky and soda, caviare and a warm fire…”

Nora confides in the doctor.

“She said: ‘I can only find her again in my sleep or in her death; in both she has forgotten me.’

‘Listen,’ the doctor said, putting down his glass. ‘My war brought me many things; let yours bring you as much. Life is not to be told, call it as loud as you like, it will not tell itself. No one will be much or little except in someone else’s mind, so be careful of the minds you get into, and remember Lady Macbeth, who had her mind in her hand. We can’t all be as safe as that.’ Nora got up nervously and began walking. ‘I’m so miserable, Matthew…”

Life is full of openings and closings, many loves, losses, there she goes; here he comes. It’s not always possible to see what’s coming or  how  we’re finding something new even in the midst of losses, an old world disappearing, into another way of being.

I adore Nora, seeing a lot of myself in her.

“… the  lesson we learn is always by giving death and a sword to our lover. You are full to the brim with pride, but I am an empty pot going forward, saying my prayers in a dark place; because I know no one loves, I, least of all, and that no one loves me, that’s what makes most people so passionate and bright, because they want to love and be loved, when there is only a bit of lying in the ear to make the ear forget what time is compiling. So I, Dr. O’Connor, say, creep by, softly, softly, and don’t learn anything, because it’s always learned of another person’s body; take action in your heart and be careful whom you love—for a lover who dies, no matter how forgotten, will take somewhat of you to the grave. Be humble like the dust, as God intended, and crawl, and finally you’ll crawl to the end of the gutter and not be missed and not much remembered.’….  My life was hers.”

But what of Robin, whose engorged Felix, Nora, and Jenny?

Because Robin’s engagements were with something unseen; because in her speech and in her gestures there was a desperate anonymity, Jenny became hysterical. She accused Robin of a ‘sensuous communion with unclean spirits’. And in putting her wickedness into words she struck herself down….”

What is this “sensuous communion  with unclean spirits” ?

We talked and talked and talked  about the  book, looking out into Chinatown, the sun of the afternoon becoming  magic.

“Its Fred Tuten’s favorite novel,” gushes Joan  E.

“I  wanted to turn down every page,” Catherine follows. “I wanted to savor every page."

“Me too,” I replied. “I kept on thinking of Gayle Rubin wandering through Paris, tracing her steps."

“The horror is dying and realizing you are already dead, facing the meaninglessness of it all.”

“Dr O'Connor is not sure it all had meaning either…”

“Its hard to care about Nora’s obsession.”

“Oh I  disagree,  completely.”

“I found the last section phenomenal.  It was hypnotizing like a Greek drama.”

We all read the book in our own ways.

“For me, reading Nightwood is looking in a tarnished mirror,” writes Touchstone.  “As the novel  nears  its  end, wretched  Nora asks, “Have you ever loved someone and it became yourself?” Yes Nora, I have.  I have loved Nightwood.”

We all navigate the story in  our own ways.

I read it for the prose, not  the plot. While I didn’t catch it. There was a lot there.  All I could see were lost Felix and Nora. My protagonist Cab suffered a similar loss of himself, struggling to find something else within it all.  We all see what we need to see in such  stories, O’Connor at the bar, with the contessa, she’ll pick up the tab. But  few of us have the advice  he dispenses. 

“Such unique characters.   They seem so familiar to us.”

“Nora is Djuna.”

“What does this book say about being  obsessed?”

“Robin reads Marquis de Sade.  O’Connor says it is ok to lose your mind.”

“I do so every week,” I add as the group begins whirling with conversation.

“Robins looking for someone to say you are ok, drifting from one thing to the next.”

“Is she liberated or a mess, hanging out in the woods, in the parks, in the bars.”

“You can see her as American manifest destiny, colonizing,  one person after another,  from one city to the next.”

“Why are we malcontents, always searching, searching, searching,” wonders Catherine.

“But the author is trying to create a new subjectivity,” I add.

“Trying to create something there is not a name for.”

“It is hard to create a culture. She’s making a sensibility we’re  still chasing, trying to wrap our heads around.”

“All alone in this life no matter how much you try, you are on your own.”

“Robin doesn’t and she does.”

“She’s a femme fatale”

“Disconnected with herself,  always taking something but can she connect?”

“Or is she a vampire?”

“What are ‘these unclean spirits’? Is it a condemnation or self-loathing.”

“Out, out damn spot…”

What is the spot?

Sex wildness.


“…what's done cannot be undone…"

Why read another novel?

Can’t we get back to nonfiction, we debated as the club ended, unable to find consensus about what to read next.

What’s the difference?

Why not blur the two?

Good writing is good writing. Great writing is an  act of activism.

It all creates change.

“…the characters suffer rather than act: and as with Dostoevski and George Chapman, one feels that the action is hardly more than the shadow-play of something taking place on another plane of reality,” writes TS.Elliot. The book gets better each time we read it, as we navigate between the dreams and surrealistic shadow play of it all.

But its never easy making our way to another plane of reality. 


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