Monday, March 23, 2015

Notes on Nightwood

I find that with some regularity, novels that I read when I was much younger don't seem to hold up as well now that I have reached middle age.  I don't really think it is that I have a shorter attention span, but it is true that my preoccupations have changed. Probably at the root of it is that I have less time for or interest in characters behaving badly and then justifying their actions.  But if we take an objective eye to it, most interesting characters in literature are monstrous egoists; it is very, very difficult to make basically decent people into interesting characters.  I'm sure I'll have more to write on this down the road, as it is one of the dilemmas I face in my work -- how to add conflict and some dramatic intensity to stories where the stakes are generally lower.

In any event, perhaps because it is fairly short and perhaps a bit over-written, Djuna Barnes's Nightwood still holds up.  Quite a bit of it seems to be comprised of confessional speeches made by and to the Doctor in the night, which almost always turns out to be the long dark night of the soul. 

The Doctor Matthew O'Connor is by far the most interesting character, though the others have their moments as well.  I suppose one could talk about ambiguous poetry, particularly some of Shakespeare's sonnets, but O'Connor is one of the first characters I can think of who openly complains that he was born the wrong gender, and indeed, dresses as a woman periodically and has gay sex.  While the latter is not on-stage as it were, it is still quite obvious what is going on, i.e. his desires aren't all obscured in poetic whimsy.

What is somewhat curious is that the lesbian love trio of Robin, Nora and Jenny feels more evasive or at least less explicit about what is going on between these women.  Jenny tries to interfere between Robin and Nora, but that is because she feasts on the happiness of others and only seems complete when she has caused drama and broken up a relationship.  However, Nora's hold on Robin seems so slight to begin with, and yet Robin hardly seems a prize worth pursuing.  She strikes me as pretty but empty (and it is particularly hard to sympathize or empathize with a mother who would abandon her son without any internal struggle at all*), but I suppose most (tragic) love stories involve an unworthy partner, who is more an object of desire than an actual person.  I suppose things do make a bit more sense when it is revealed that Djuna wrote herself into the story as Nora.  She didn't feel like completely facing up to what a fool she made of herself over Robin.  I suppose a big part of the tragedy of lesbian life, prior to the 1970s perhaps, is that the sheer number of potential partners was so low (and the stakes of getting it wrong so high) that any lesbian woman or even bisexual woman was a prize of sorts.  While I don't think she gets it quite right either, the lesbian couple in Molly Keane's Devoted Ladies at least feels more like a couple (even if an unhealthy one) than Nora and Robin or Robin and Jenny.

I can sort of see where Nightwood would have inspired Carter's Nights at the Circus, particularly the first section of Nights where the aerialist Sophie Fevvers and her maid Lizzie tell the journalist Jack Walser her life story over what turns into an extremely long night.  Most of the characters in Nightwood (as well as Nights at the Circus) are outcasts of one sort or another.  Things are certainly not as they seem in both books.  There was probably some other direct reference that I have already forgotten, but I'll fill back in if it comes to me.  Both are certainly worth reading, though Nightwood (despite a relatively thin plot) is the one I am more likely to come back to a third or fourth time.

As it turns out, this is post #400!  I have been poking around on the blog and am finding quite a few posts of interest that are quite buried at this point, though at least for the reviews, there is a page that pulls all the links together.  While it probably isn't worth it, I am toying with the idea that when I get to post #500 (towards the end of 2015?), I will publish the best of them as an e-book (working title -- My Life in Lists).  I'll have to remove the majority of the images and thus may simply skip over the majority of the art posts, but I could still compile the writings on books and theatre.  If this seems like a good or particularly bad idea, feel free to let me know in the comments.  I do have a few other pressing posts to get to, but I really need to do some creative writing, so I may have to hold off on them for a bit longer.

* This actually puts her (Robin) in the same uncomfortable company as Karen from Elizabeth Bowen's The House in Paris where she has abandoned her son (Leopold) and seems largely indifferent to him.  While it surely was not the wisest course of action for Leopold to try to force a meeting with her, it will surely strike most readers as quite unnatural that she does not want to face her son.  For better or worse, this will not be an issue between Robin and her sickly son, though it can probably be said that Robin has no maternal feelings at all, while Karen's feelings are more complicated.  It's possible that today we would characterize Robin (and even Karen) as having some kind of trauma or even a psychotic break triggered by overwhelming postpartum depression.  I actually knew someone from grad. school who followed this latter script and had to have her baby taken away (not sure if this was permanent or temporary).  I think in her case it was not having sufficiently escaped her Mormon roots by the time the baby came along that was at the heart of her troubles.

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