Classic Novels

NIGHTWOOD by Djuna Barnes

Reading Djuna Barnes’s NIGHTWOOD on the heels of IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME, it’s impossible not to notice the resemblance. Aphorisms that make sweeping generalizations? Check. Tortuous syntax? Check. Aristocrats faux and otherwise? Piling of metaphor upon metaphor? Obsession with capital-T Time? The Champs-Élysées and the Bois de Boulogne? Monocles? All check and double-check. Barnes even manages to drop the phrase “remembrance of things past” into one of the novel’s many rants.

Yet in other ways the two works couldn’t be more different. NIGHTWOOD is a compact 50,000 words, and rather than a linear narrative, it’s a dizzying tapestry of erudition, wit, philosophical speculation, and transgressive mythmaking, the product of a mind intoxicated by its own brilliance. Praised by both T. S. Eliot and William S. Burroughs, the novel shows the influence of one and foreshadows the other. Joyce also looms in the richness of the language and wordplay.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a romantic quadrangle in the Europe of the 1920s. Felix Volkbein, a dubious Baron, falls in love with Robin Vote, who leaves him for Nora Flood, before being spirited away to the US by Jenny Petherbridge. The decadent, unlicensed Dr. Matthew O’Connor sits above them all, observing, and venting impenetrably stunning soliloquies.

While not for everyone–I’m not sure all of the novel’s many digressions can actually be reduced to coherent sense, and it’s an understatement to call its ending “abrupt”–NIGHTWOOD makes a lively retaliation to Proust’s messy masterpiece.

A tip of the chapeau to Lisa Tuttle for the recommendation.

By Lewis Shiner

Lewis Shiner is the author of OUTSIDE THE GATES OF EDEN, the cyberpunk classic FRONTERA, and the award-winning GLIMPSES, among other novels. He's also published short story collections, journalism, and comics. Virtually all of his work is available for free download at For more information, browse to

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