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For some of us, books are exaltation or ruin. We fall into the narrative. We take on the characters' personas. We absorb the attitudes of the author. When we put down the book, the aura remains and becomes part of our own. Some of that impact is a result of what we bring to the book, what we have been told about either the book or the writer. If the book is controversial, we look for the controversy. If it is lauded as a classic, we take a deep breath and prepare to be impressed. But every once in a while there is a novel that defies everything we might have been told, a book that confounds all our expectations. Nightwood is such a book. Falling into it, we find ourselves in a maze. Only the language can draw us through, the complex poetry that is both an examination of ruin and an altogether astonishing glimpse into a period in which the kind of women Barnes portrayed-modern, experimental, lesbian, and "new" were everywhere, even as they went almost totally unrecognized.
1936, the year Nightwood was first published, must have been a fascinating time to have been a writer. Innovation and experimentation were everywhere, but there were also powerful realist novels of social criticism stacked on shelves beside some of the most legendary experimental fictions. The year that Nightwood was published in London, Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! was published in the United States. The year after Nightwood came out, there was Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Three years after, there was James Joyce's last novel, Finnegans Wake, and in the same season John Steinbeck's TheGrapes of Wrath. Josephine Herbst was writing the cycle of novels that began with Pity Is Not Enough and detailed the destruction of a working class family. Antonin Artaud was staging his plays and talking about the theater of cruelty. Hitler was calling for an end to degenerate art and dangerous books. All the while, Djuna Barnes was spending her summers at Peggy Guggenheim's estate in England, paying for her patron's charity by being witty and distracting, while laying out various drafts of Nightwood on the carpet in her room. She wrote to tell her friend Emily Coleman that she knew her lover, Thelma (Wood) would never forgive her for what she was doing-violating their privacy by portraying Thelma as Robin Vote. But Djuna swore she couldn't help herself. The book was that great.
What I wanted when I first read Nightwood was a polemic, a manifesto, and a celebration of the lesbian in the demimonde. I had gotten the notion that Djuna Barnes had done something like that-perhaps because people had told me the book was a lesbian classic. I was twenty and hungry for anyone to say something I believed about love between women, so I soaked up her book like wine. Like wine it also thoroughly befuddled me. This was a book that could not be reduced to political slogans or fables. The women were not admirable or even entirely understandable. Still, I kept trying to find a way to claim Djuna Barnes and her creation for my nation, to name Nightwood a feminist work and the author a lesbian. Yes, the primary bond the novel portrays is between two women. Yes, Barnes has many things to say on the nature of love, passion, and perversity, and says it so beautifully. "A man is another person," she writes. "A woman is yourself, caught as you turn in panic: on her mouth you kiss your own." I underlined and copied out so many lines from the book, I had to buy another copy. But for all my love of the poetry, it seemed to me a kind of literary chimera, masks on puzzles, none of it meant to be easily deciphered, and trying to read Nightwood as a feminist text was profoundly awkward. Djuna Barnes did not lend herself easily to social critique.
There is a kind of innocence in reading novels as a student; an implicit prudery-or at least there was for me. I was a particular kind of innocent, but one that I think was fairly common in the women's movement of the late sixties and early seventies. I longed for a celebration of female sexuality and maybe even a little reassurance that women were both different and better than we were said to be. That is not what I found in Nightwood and it took me time to accept that and love the novel regardless. There is a deeply textured power in longing and despair that is impossible to address in radical polemic. Desire can come on like a fever. Love can lead to humiliation and heartbreak. Some grief, like some sin, stays with us. None of these are things I understood in my innocence. None of these served me as a young and doctrinaire feminist. The surprise is how well the emotional realizations of the novel serve in understanding the ways in which our lives do not conform to our political analysis.
In his introduction to the 1937 American edition of Nightwood T. S. Elliot wrote, "The few books worth introducing are exactly those which it is an impertinence to introduce." Where Djuna Barnes is concerned, it is best to be as impertinent as possible. She was a woman who scorned any pretense of manners, so much so as to become a legend of bad manners-details of which can be found in any of the biographies. Claiming Barnes and her work as both feminist and lesbian is a deliberate act of impertinence, a challenge to traditional notions of what constitutes a feminist text or a lesbian writer (though it will come as no great surprise to contemporary Barnes scholars who have been hashing over these issues for decades). Nightwood is a feminist novel in the best sense: complex, female-centered, and fearless. It preaches no Women = Good, Man = Bad sermon. It is not a mock-heroic tale of female triumph. Nightwood is a novel that dissects emotional and erotic obsession. Without benefit of marriage and its complement, divorce, or the recognition that her bond with Robin is genuine, Nora can not claim the grief inherent in the demise of her relationship. She becomes a madwoman talking to herself in the night, vainly trying to justify what has no justification-the love that consumes her even though it no longer has a focus. It is part of Barnes's accomplishment that this seems not neurosis but mythos. Her independent women are individuals in misery. The focus is on their suffering and that is taken as seriously as that of any man. It is only in contrast to other novels published at the same time that we realize what an extraordinary difference this is-how profoundly feminist was Barnes's approach to her own work.
Djuna Barnes was a "new woman"-and a contradictory one. She practiced her own version of free love, choosing both men and women as partners, and refusing any conventional form of relationship. She had been born into a most nontraditional family-her father's version of a commune, crowded with women and children whose main purpose seemed to be to comfort and care for him at their own expense. Though she never acknowledged whether it was true of herself or not, Djuna Barnes's novels provide numerous portraits of young girls subjected to sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of self-obsessed fathers or neglectful mothers. What is without question is that Djuna Barnes hated her family and the confusion, disorder, and misery of her childhood. She did admit that the family life she portrayed in her novel Ryder came directly out of her own, and though she occasionally expressed discomfort that so much was known about her, she never regretted her books. I can imagine her in my mind's eye, looking out at all of us with her mouth set in a no-nonsense hard line. She never had any intention of explaining the difference between her fiction and her real life. She once said that she had worked hard to forget, and did not want to go back and look at what she had forgotten. She left that to us.
But what about this notion of a lesbian classic? A lesbian classic should not be merely a book about lesbians. A lesbian classic should be more-it should reveal something unique and true, and particularly lesbian. It is part of Barnes's achievement that she wrote about lesbians as if they were an everyday part of the landscape-not unique at all. What is unique is that she did so at a time when lesbians were the great unspeakable. The Well of Loneliness had been published eight years before, provoking censorship and controversy. When Nightwood came out there was a sensation, but it was a "literary" sensation, not cause for court action. Barnes made no explicit arguments for the rights of lesbians as Radclyffe Hall had. There is not one plea for sympathy in Barnes's brooding manuscript, no acknowledgment of anything to be demanded. Robin, Nora, and Jenny do not give a damn what anyone thinks of their relationships, and it is the relationships-the emotional attachments-that are Djuna Barnes's focus. Disregarding sexual specifics for a celebration of the psychologically subtle, Barnes's characters are capable of subtleties of both passion and suffering that surpass anything endured by the heroine of The Well of Loneliness, poor Stephen Gordon-just as Barnes was capable of complexities of phrasing and metaphor that never would have occurred to Hall. More to the point, realist novels never interested her; they were not enough of a challenge. Djuna Barnes couldn't have written The Well of Loneliness for all Peggy Guggenheim's wealth. She would not have seen the point.
What has always been difficult for feminist critics is that Djuna Barnes hated being labeled a lesbian writer. She said of herself that she was not a lesbian, that she "Just loved Thelma." If we take her statement at face value, then she is one of the most famous lesbian nonlesbians of this century. She refused to be pigeonholed as a feminist or a lesbian, and it was not merely that she refused to be assigned to any camp. As stubbornly independent as her creation, Robin Vote, she saw herself as a special kind of creature, a writer-one outside the mundane categories of politics or ideology. Since she readily acknowledged her love for Thelma Wood-the woman on whom she based Robin Vote, it was not accusations about her sexual practice that were at issue. What she rejected was anything that would dictate what she might write. Though her novel is an examination of what it could mean to be a "new woman"-her women do not find happiness in their independence. They are existentialist in their misery, but they are not miserable because they are lesbians, as they would have been had the novel been written by any of Djuna Barnes's male contemporaries. And though Djuna Barnes chose not to identify herself as a lesbian, her novel echoes my experiences as a lesbian, and as a lover capable of passions, both sentimental and self-conscious.
What is unique and true and lesbian about Nightwood is inherent in the language and the characters' dilemma. The focus of the passionate prose is always female, even when voiced by the doctor, a "female man" who challenges all our notions of gender and gender-defined lust, or by Robin's husband, Felix, who manages to be more passive than Nora and never challenges Robin's decision to leave him. His reflections foreshadow Nora's grief when Robin abandons her. Both of them speak Barnes's convictions about the love story that can only end in despair. Felix sounds drunk on his own misery when he describes Robin-"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." Nora is defined by her unrequited longing. "In Nora's heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora's blood." This is so antirealist as to be almost indecipherable, language that is more felt than understood. That language is echoed in novels by lesbians who pay homage to the style, novels such as Lover and Confessions of Cherubino by Bertha Harris and The Passion by Jeannette Winterson-dense, gorgeous works that emphasize language over plot and style over everything.
You do not have to be a lesbian to recognize the character of Robin Vote. There are tortured heterosexuals who are her equal, but try to imagine, if you can, a heterosexual version. I cannot. Robin Vote's lonely desperation would be diminished-or rendered absurd in a heterosexual version. If she were a man, we would not question the promiscuity; we would have a category in which it made sense. We would even understand, though not necessarily approve, of Robin's desperate need to feel unfettered by love or desire the astonishingly casual way she walks away from first her husband and child and then her lover, Nora. That the passion is between women is what makes Nightwood unforgettable. The beloved who transgresses the laws of man and society is so much more powerful than one who might earn the blessings of church and family-however unlikely it is that she would be willing to do so. It is as an outlaw, a transgressor, that Robin becomes mythic. That all of the characters are smart enough to see their own sentimental and romantic excesses as just that-sentimental and excessive-is the accomplishment of a psychologically complex narrative. "I thought I loved her for her sake, and I found it was for my own," says Nora, and anyone who has ever looked back on a failed romance can appreciate what she means.
The issue of style is vital in experimental fiction, and there are few books that take such enormous risks in narrative style. Barnes's prose is so dense and demanding that it has provided thesis material for generations of literary scholars with no end in sight. Modern and postmodern theories of queer literature have rescued what many feminists could not bear to celebrate the stubborn refusal of Djuna Barnes to define her own sexuality or categorize her world or her writing in any gender-based system. Decades after Nightwood there are still few works of fiction that portray lesbians so frankly and yet place their sexuality so peripherally to the heart of the book. Yes, the women in Nightwood love, bed, and betray each other. For Barnes that was incidental. Her subject was not the sexual connection between the women but the way their love was acted out. Her subject was the emotional and psychological complexity of being human, and she wrote against novels that tried to reduce the human to the explainable.
It is tempting to read Djuna into her narrative-all the more so for how stubbornly she nursed her myth in the last half of her life. Almost more legendary than her books, her fate became a cautionary tale. Walled away in a one-room apartment for close to four decades, she dismissed the women's movement, spoke contemptuously of the "mushy" lesbians who came to camp on her doorstep, and insisted none of that had anything to do with her. Such "outlaw" behavior can make her seem even more heroic in contemporary terms. She never tried to please or curry favor with anyone. She hugged her misery to herself and ignored what anyone thought. Reading the biographies and commentary on her later years, I long for what we do not have-the autobiography she had no interest in writing. All we have is what we find in the work, and the elements of Barnes's personality that appear in her characters meld easily into her legend. It was she who boasted of refusing the desire of all those desperate young women who came to her apartment door in Greenwich Village, shouting at them through the closed door and laughing at their tears. It was she with those dark wounded eyes, that poet's passion, the boy's slender body and persona. It was Djuna Barnes who stalked the Paris streets in that worn dark cape, who lived on the charity of neurotic wealthy women, who hid herself away and cursed her life as if nothing she had done had been worth the trouble.
Djuna Barnes understood obsession, particularly erotic obsession. It is the exploration of erotic obsession that I have grown to admire in Nightwood as I have gotten older-all the more so for how initially I resisted it. Using remarkably few characters and no plot to speak of, she made plain the infinite capacity for human misery. She gave us characters who are as obsessed with petty resentments as they are with witty repartee. Nothing is minimal in this work. Passion rules. Anyone who has gone out of his or her way to walk past the lost lover's house, who has called the phone number only to hang up when the receiver clicks hollowly-that person knows the shameful secret that Djuna Barnes treats in such vivid detail. What we have lost sometimes defines us. Desire is a river deeper than psychological texts or well-meaning mantras of renunciation. Balked, it twists and turns back on those who fight hardest to deny it. This is what defines the human-that sometimes we want what we cannot have, futilely, desperately. To have been madly and disastrously in love is a kind of glory that can only be made intelligible in a sublime poetry-the revelatory and layered poetry of Djuna Barnes's masterpiece, Nightwood.
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Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed, of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms, - gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.
Turning upon this field, which shook to the clatter of morning horses in the street beyond, with the gross splendour of a general saluting the flag, she named him Felix, thrust him from her, and died. The child's father had gone six months previously, a victim of fever. Guido Volkbein, a Jew of Italian descent, had been both a gourmet and a dandy, never appearing in public without the ribbon of some quite unknown distinction tinging his buttonhole with a faint thread. He had been small, rotund, and haughtily timid, his stomach protruding slightly in an upward jutting slope that brought into prominence the buttons of his waistcoat and trousers, marking the exact centre of his body with the obstetric line seen on fruits, - the inevitable arc produced by heavy rounds of burgundy, schlagsahne, and beer.
The autumn, binding him about, as no other season, with racial memories, a season of longing and of horror, he had called his weather. Then walking in the Prater he had been seen carrying in a conspicuously clenched fist the exquisite handkerchief of yellow and black linen that cried aloud of the ordinance of 1468 issued by one Pietro Barbo, demanding that, with a rope about its neck, Guido's race should run in the Corso for the amusement of the Christian populace, while ladies of noble birth, sitting upon spines too refined for rest, arose from their seats, and, with the red-gowned cardinals and the Monsignori, applauded with that cold yet hysterical abandon of a people that is at once unjust and happy; the very Pope himself shaken down from his hold on heaven with the laughter of a man who forgoes his angels that he may recapture the beast. This memory and the handkerchief that accompanied it had wrought in Guido (as certain flowers brought to a pitch of florid ecstasy no sooner attain their specific type than they fall into its decay) the sum total of what is the Jew. He had walked, hot, incautious and damned, his eyelids quivering over the thick eyeballs, black with the pain of a participation that, four centuries later, made him a victim, as he felt the echo in his own throat of that cry running the Piazza Montanara long ago, "Roba vecchia!", - the degradation by which his people had survived.
Childless at fifty-nine, Guido had prepared out of his own heart for his coming child a heart, fashioned on his own preoccupation, the remorseless homage to nobility, the genuflexion the hunted body makes from muscular contraction, going down before the impending and inaccessible, as before a great heat. It had made Guido, as it was to make his son, heavy with impermissible blood.
And childless he had died, save for the promise that hung at the Christian belt of Hedvig. Guido had lived as all Jews do who, cut off from their people by accident or choice, find that they must inhabit a world whose constituents, being alien, force the mind to succumb to an imaginary populace. When a Jew dies on a Christian bosom he dies impaled. Hedvig, in spite of her agony, wept upon an outcast. Her body at that moment became the barrier and Guido died against that wall, troubled and alone. In life he had done everything possible to span the impossible gap, the saddest and most futile gesture of all had been his pretense to a Barony. He had adopted the sign of the cross; he had said that he was an Austrian of an old, almost extinct line, producing, to uphold his story, the most amazing and inaccurate proofs: a coat of arms that he had no right to and a list of progenitors (including their Christian names) who had never existed. When Hedvig came upon his black and yellow handkerchiefs he had said that they were to remind him that one branch of his family had bloomed in Rome.
He had tried to be one with her by adoring her, by imitating her goose-step of a stride, a step that by him adopted, became dislocated and comic. She would have done as much, but sensing something in him blasphemed and lonely, she had taken the blow as a Gentile must - by moving toward him in recoil. She had believed whatever he had told her, but often enough she had asked: "What is the matter?" - that continual reproach which was meant as a continual reminder of her love. It ran through his life like an accusing voice. He had been tormented into speaking highly of royalty, flinging out encomiums with the force of small water made great by the pressure of a thumb. He had laughed too heartily when in the presence of the lower order of title, as if, by his good nature, he could advance them to some distinction of which they dreamed. Confronted with nothing worse than a general in creaking leather and with the slight repercussion of movement common to military men, who seem to breathe from the inside out, smelling of gunpowder and horse flesh, lethargic yet prepared for participation in a war not yet scheduled (a type of which Hedvig had been very fond), Guido had shaken with an unseen trembling. He saw that Hedvig had the same bearing, the same though more condensed power of the hand, patterned on seizure in a smaller mould, as sinister in its reduction as a doll's house. The feather in her hat had been knife-clean and quivering as if in an heraldic wind; she had been a woman held up to nature, precise, deep-bosomed and gay. Looking at the two he had become confused as if he were about to receive a reprimand, not the officer's, but his wife's.
When she danced, a little heady with wine, the dance floor had become a tactical manoeuvre; her heels came down staccato and trained, her shoulders as conscious at the tips as those which carry the braid and tassels of promotion; the turn of her head held the cold vigilance of a sentry whose rounds are not without apprehension. Yet Hedvig had done what she could. If ever there was a massive chic she had personified it - yet somewhere there had been anxiety. The thing that she had stalked, though she herself had not been conscious of it, was Guido's assurance that he was a Baron. She had believed it as a soldier "believes" a command. Something in her sensitory predicament - upon which she herself would have placed no value - had told her much better. Hedvig had become a Baroness without question.
In the Vienna of Volkbein's day there were few trades that welcomed Jews, yet somehow he had managed, by various deals in household goods, by discreet buying of old masters and first editions and by money changing, to secure for Hedvig a house in the Inner City, to the north, overlooking the Prater, a house that, large, dark and imposing, became a fantastic museum of their encounter.
The long rococo halls, giddy with plush and whorled designs in gold, were peopled with Roman fragments, white and disassociated; a runner's leg, the chilly half-turned head of a matron stricken at the bosom, the blind bold sockets of the eyes given a pupil by every shifting shadow so that what they looked upon was an act of the sun. The great salon was of walnut. Over the fireplace hung impressive copies of the Medici shield and, beside them, the Austrian bird.
Three massive pianos (Hedvig had played the waltzes of her time with the masterly stroke of a man, in the tempo of her blood, rapid and rising - that quick mannerliness of touch associated with the playing of the Viennese, who, though pricked with the love of rhythm, execute its demands in the duelling manner) sprawled over the thick dragon's-blood pile of rugs from Madrid. The study harboured two rambling desks in rich and bloody wood. Hedvig had liked things in twos and threes. Into the middle arch of each desk silver-headed brads had been hammered to form a lion, a bear, a ram, a dove and in their midst a flaming torch. The design was executed under the supervision of Guido who, thinking on the instant, claimed it as the Volkbein field, though it turned out to be a bit of heraldry long since in decline beneath the papal frown. The full length windows (a French touch that Guido thought handsome) overlooking the park were curtained in native velvets and stuffs from Tunis and the Venetian blinds were of that peculiarly sombre shade of red so loved by the Austrians. Against the panels of oak that reared themselves above the long table and up to the curving ceiling hung life-sized portraits of Guido's claim to father and mother. The lady was a sumptuous Florentine with bright sly eyes and overt mouth. Great puffed and pearled sleeves rose to the pricked-eared pointings of the stiff lace about the head, conical and braided. The deep accumulation of dress fell about her in groined shadows, the train, rambling through a vista of primitive trees, was carpet-thick. She seemed to be expecting a bird. The gentleman was seated precariously on a charger. He seemed not so much to have mounted the animal, as to be about to descend upon him. The blue of an Italian sky lay between the saddle and the buff of the tightened rump of the rider. The charger had been caught by the painter in the execution of a falling arc, the mane lifted away in a dying swell; the tail forward and in, between thin bevelled legs. The gentleman's dress was a baffling mixture of the Romantic and the Religious, and in the cradling crook of his left arm he carried a plumed hat, crown out. The whole conception might have been a Mardi Gras whim. The gentleman's head, stuck on at a three-quarter angle, had a remarkable resemblance to Guido Volkbein, the same sweeping Cabalistic line of nose, the features seasoned and warm save where the virgin blue of the eyeballs curved out the lids as if another medium than that of sight had taken its stand beneath that flesh. There was no interval in the speed of that stare, endless and objective. The likeness was accidental. Had anyone cared to look into the matter they would have discovered these canvases to be reproductions of two intrepid and ancient actors. Guido had found them in some forgotten and dusty corner and had purchased them when he had been sure that he would need an alibi for the blood.
At this point exact history stopped for Felix who, thirty years later, turned up in the world with these facts, the two portraits and nothing more. His aunt, combing her long braids with an amber comb, told him what she knew, and this had been her only knowledge of his past. What had formed Felix from the date of his birth to his coming to thirty was unknown to the world, for the step of the wandering Jew is in every son. No matter where and when you meet him you feel that he has come from some place - no matter from what place he has come - some country that he has devoured rather than resided in, some secret land that he has been nourished on but cannot inherit, for the Jew seems to be everywhere from nowhere. When Felix's name was mentioned, three or more persons would swear to having seen him the week before in three different countries simultaneously. One would say that he had brushed against him as he climbed the steps of St. Patrick's; another that Felix had been observed punting up the Thames; and the third, that it could not be as he himself had just left Florence where Felix had been noted admiring the primitives in the Uffizi.
Felix called himself Baron Volkbein, as his father had done before him. How Felix lived, how he came by his money - he knew figures as a dog knows the covey and as indefatigably he pointed and ran - how he mastered seven languages and served that knowledge well, no one knew. Many people were familiar with his figure and face. He was not popular, though the post-humous acclaim meted out to his father secured from his acquaintances the peculiar semi-circular stare of those who, unwilling to greet with earthly equality, nevertheless give to the living branch (because of death and its sanction) the slight bend of the head - a reminiscent pardon for future apprehension, - a bow very common to us when in the presence of this people.
Felix was heavier than his father and taller. His hair began too far back on his forehead. His face was a long stout oval, suffering a laborious melancholy. One feature alone spoke of Hedvig, the mouth, which, though sensuous from lack of desire as hers had been from denial, pressed too intimately close to the bony structure of the teeth. The other features were a little heavy, the chin, the nose, and the lids; into one was set his monocle which shone, a round blind eye in the sun.
He was usually seen walking or driving alone, dressed as if expecting to participate in some great event, though there was no function in the world for which he could be said to be properly garbed; wishing to be correct at any moment, he was tailored in part for the evening and in part for the day.
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.
His embarrassment took the form of an obsession for what he termed "Old Europe": aristocracy, nobility, royalty. He spoke any given title with a pause before and after the name. Knowing circumlocution to be his only contact, he made it interminable and exacting. With the fury of a fanatic he hunted down his own disqualification, re-articulating the bones of the Imperial Courts long forgotten (those long remembered can alone claim to be long forgotten), listening with an unbecoming loquacity to officials and guardians for fear that his inattention might lose him some fragment of his resuscitation. He felt that the great past might mend a little if he bowed low enough, if he succumbed and gave homage.
In nineteen hundred and twenty he was in Paris (his blind eye had kept him out of the army), still spatted, still wearing his cutaway, bowing, searching, with quick pendulous movements, for the correct thing to which to pay tribute: the right street, the right cafe, the right building, the right vista. In restaurants he bowed slightly to anyone who looked as if he might be "someone," making the bend so imperceptible that the surprised person might think he was merely adjusting his stomach. His rooms were taken because a Bourbon had been carried from them to death. He kept a valet and a cook, the one because he looked like Louis the Fourteenth, and the other because she resembled Queen Victoria, Victoria in another cheaper material, cut to the poor man's purse.
In his search for the particular Comedie humaine Felix had come upon the odd. Conversant with edicts and laws, folk story and heresy, taster of rare wines, thumber of rarer books and old wives' tales - tales of men who became holy and of beasts that became damned - read in all plans for fortifications and bridges, given pause by all graveyards on all roads, a pedant of many churches and castles, his mind dimly and reverently reverberated to Madame de Sevigne, Goethe, Loyola and Brantome. But Loyola sounded the deepest note, he was alone, apart and single. A race that has fled its generations from city to city has not found the necessary time for the accumulation of that toughness which produces ribaldry, nor, after the crucifixion of its ideas, enough forgetfulness in twenty centuries to create legend. It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew's salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the "collector" of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a "sign." A Jew's undoing is never his own, it is God's; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian's. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew's history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.
Early in life Felix had insinuated himself into the pageantry of the circus and the theatre. In some way they linked his emotions to the higher and unattainable pageantry of Kings and Queens. The more amiable actresses of Prague, Vienna, Hungary, Germany, France and Italy, the acrobats and sword-swallowers, had at one time or another allowed him their dressing rooms - sham salons in which he aped his heart. Here he had neither to be capable nor alien. He became for a little while a part of their splendid and reeking falsification.
The people of this world, with desires utterly divergent from his own, had also seized on titles for a purpose. There was a Princess Nadja, a Baron von Tink, a Principessa Stasera y Stasero, a King Buffo and a Duchess of Broadback: gaudy, cheap cuts from the beast life, immensely capable of that great disquiet called entertainment They took titles merely to dazzle boys about town, to make their public life (and it was all they had) mysterious and perplexing, knowing well that skill is never so amazing as when it seems inappropriate. Felix clung to his title to dazzle his own estrangement. It brought them together. Going among these people, the men smelling weaker and the women stronger than their beasts, Felix had that sense of peace that formerly he had experienced only in museums. He moved with a humble hysteria among the decaying brocades and laces of the Carnavalet; he loved that old and documented splendour with something of the love of the lion for its tamer - that sweat-tarnished spangled enigma that, in bringing the beast to heel, had somehow turned toward him a face like his own, but which, though curious and weak, had yet picked the precise fury from his brain.
Nadja had sat back to Felix, as certain of the justice of his eye as she would have been of the linear justice of a Rops, knowing that Felix tabulated precisely the tense capability of her spine with its lashing curve swinging into the hard compact cleft of her rump, as angrily and as beautifully as the more obvious tail of her lion.
The emotional spiral of the circus, taking its flight from the immense disqualification of the public, rebounding from its illimitable hope, produced in Felix longing and disquiet. The circus was a loved thing that he could never touch, therefore never know. The people of the theatre and the ring were for him as dramatic and as monstrous as a consignment on which he could never bid. That he haunted them as persistently as he did, was evidence of something in his nature that was turning Christian.
He was, in like manner, amazed to find himself drawn to the church, though this tension he could handle with greater ease; its arena, he found, was circumscribed to the individual heart.
It was to the Duchess of Broadback (Frau Mann) that Felix owed his first audience with a "gentleman of quality." Frau Mann, then in Berlin, explained that this person had been "somewhat mixed up with her in the past." It was with the utmost difficulty that he could imagine her "mixed up" with anyone, her coquetries were muscular and localized. Her trade - the trapeze - seemed to have preserved her. It gave her, in a way, a certain charm. Her legs had the specialized tension common to aerial workers; something of the bar was in her wrists, the tan bark in her walk as if the air, by its very lightness, by its very non-resistance, were an almost insurmountable problem, making her body, though slight and compact, seem much heavier than that of women who stay upon the ground. In her face was the tense expression of an organism surviving in an alien element. She seemed to have a skin that was the pattern of her costume: a bodice of lozenges, red and yellow, low in the back and ruffled over and under the arms, faded with the reek of her three-a-day control, red tights, laced boots - one somehow felt they ran through her as the design runs through hard holiday candies, and the bulge in the groin where she took the bar, one foot caught in the flex of the calf, was as solid, specialized and as polished as oak. The stuff of the tights was no longer a covering, it was herself; the span of the tightly stitched crotch was so much her own flesh that she was as unsexed as a doll. The needle that had made one the property of the child made the other the property of no man.
"Tonight," Frau Mann said, turning to Felix, "we are going to be amused. Berlin is sometimes very nice at night, nicht wahr? And the Count is something that must be seen. The place is very handsome, red and blue, he's fond of blue, God knows why, and he is fond of impossible people, so we are invited -" The Baron moved his foot in. "He might even have the statues on."
"Statutes?" said Felix.
"The living statues," she said, "he simply adores them." Felix dropped his hat; it rolled and stopped.
"Is he German?" he said.
"Oh no, Italian, but it does not matter, he speaks anything, I think he comes to Germany to change money - he comes, he goes away, and everything goes on the same, except that people have something to talk about."
"What did you say his name was?"
"I didn't, but he calls himself Count Onatorio Altamonte, I'm sure it's quite ridiculous, he says he is related to every nation - that should please you. We will have dinner, we will have champagne." The way she said "dinner" and the way she said "champagne" gave meat and liquid their exact difference, as if by having surmounted two mediums, earth and air, her talent, running forward, achieved all others.
"Does one enjoy oneself?" he asked.
She leaned forward, she began removing the paint with the hurried technical felicity of an artist cleaning a palette. She looked at the Baron derisively. "Wir setzen an lieser Stelle uber den Fluss -" she said.
Standing about a table at the end of the immense room, looking as if they were deciding the fate of a nation, were grouped ten men, all in parliamentary attitudes, and one young woman. They were listening, at the moment of the entrance of Felix and the Duchess of Broadback, to a middle-aged "medical student" with shaggy eyebrows, a terrific widow's peak, over-large dark eyes, and a heavy way of standing that was also apologetic. The man was 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. He was taking the part of host, the Count not yet having made his appearance, and was telling of himself, for he considered himself the most amusing predicament.
"We may all be nature's noblemen," he was saying, and the mention of a nobleman made Felix feel happier the instant he caught the word, though what followed left him in some doubt, "but think of the stories that do not amount to much! That is, that are forgotten in spite of all man remembers (unless he remembers himself) merely because they befell him without distinction of office or title - that's what we call legend and it's the best a poor man may do with his fate; the other," he waved an arm, "we call history, the best the high and mighty can do with theirs. Legend is unexpurgated, but history, because of its actors, is deflowered - every nation with a sense of humour is a lost nation, and every woman with a sense of humour is a lost woman. The Jews are the only people who have enough sense to keep humour in the family; a Christian scatters it all over the world."
"Ja! das ist ganz richtig -" said the Duchess in a loud voice, but the interruption was quite useless. Once the doctor had his audience - and he got his audience by the simple device of pronouncing at the top of his voice (at such moments as irritable and possessive as a maddened woman's) some of the more boggish and biting of the shorter early Saxon verbs - nothing could stop him. He merely turned his large eyes upon her and having done so, noticed her and her attire for the first time, which, bringing suddenly to his mind something forgotten but comparable, sent him into a burst of laughter, exclaiming: "Well but God works in mysterious ways to bring things up in my mind! Now I am thinking of Nikka the nigger who used to fight the bear in the Cirque de Paris. There he was, crouching all over the arena without a stitch on, except an ill-concealed loin cloth all abulge as if with a deep sea catch, tattooed from head to heel with all the ameublement of depravity! Garlanded with rosebuds and hack-work of the devil, was he a sight to see! Though he couldn't have done a thing (and I know what I am talking about, in spite of all that has been said about the black boys) if you had stood him in a gig-mill for a week, though (it's said) at a stretch it spelled Desdemona. Well then, over his belly was an angel from Chartres, on each buttock, half public half private, a quotation from the book of magic, a confirmation of the Jansenist theory, I'm sorry to say and here to say it. Across his knees, I give you my word, `I' on one and on the other, `can,' put those together! Across his chest, beneath a beautiful caravel in full sail, two clasped hands, the wrist bones fretted with point lace. On each bosom, an arrow-speared heart, each with different initials but with equal drops of blood; and running into the arm-pit, all down one side, the word said by Prince Arthur Tudor, son of King Henry the Seventh, when on his bridal night he called for a goblet of water (or was it water?). 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 that he was brought up with a start, and that is all we will ever know of it, unless," said the doctor, striking his hand on his hip, "you are as good at guessing as Tiny M'Caffery."
"And the legs?" Felix asked uncomfortably.
"The legs," said Dr. O'Connor, "were devoted entirely to vine work, topped by the swart rambler rose copied from the coping of the Hamburg house of Rothschild. Over his dos, believe it or not and I shouldn't, 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 musm'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."
I had to read this for one of my college courses, and while it is an interesting story, and I personally like modernist novels, it gave me a headache. The story centers around the eccentric, and often maddening, Robin who is looking for something that even she is not even sure what it exactly is. Showing her different relationships with men and women, it is an interesting exploration of the human want and need for companionship, and what our true desires are. I personally despise this book with a passion, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad book. If you are a fan of modernist novels and GLBT themes, this would be an interesting book to check out.
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Posted March 18, 2014
It's a shame this book is part both feminist and 100 must read GLBT books. I found it overhype, difficult to grapes and boring.
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Posted January 20, 2009
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Posted January 21, 2009
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