Wunderkammer: Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

Megan Mayhew Bergman
August 14, 2011
Comments 2

A wunderkammer is a curiosity cabinet; it means “wonder chamber” in German. In these posts, I’ll assemble trivia and a handful of oddities that evoke the spirit of a particular book or author.

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is a book that won’t leave me alone, or perhaps I won’t leave it alone. I’m on my third reading, and there is still much to plumb. Each iteration reveals new beauty. Barnes’ prose haunts and humbles me. Take, for example, this description of Robin, which T.S. Eliot notes in his introduction; she has “temples like those of young beasts cutting horns, as if they were sleeping eyes.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, Nightwood, published in 1936, chronicles Nora Flood’s obsession with Robin Vote, and Robin’s compulsive, almost somnabulatory infidelities and nightly adventures. Notable characters include the cross-dressing Dr. Matthew O’Connor and the faux Baron Felix Volkbein.

Nightwood is a smart, dark, and underappreciated novel, one that T.S. Eliot formally introduced as possessing “a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.” He initially posited that “only sensibilities trained on poetry” could “wholly appreciate it.”

In the spirit of Nightwood, here are links to some of Barnes’ work, as well as photographs, art, and ephemera:

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Djuna Barnes’ sketch of James Joyce, excerpts and illustrations from her Book of Repulsive Women, and early journalism (How it Feels to be Forcibly Fed).

Djuna's Sketch of James Joyce (public domain)

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Mon Legionnaire was originally written in 1936 (the year of Nightwood’s publication) by Marie Dubas. Sung by Edith Piaf, it echoes Nightwood’s theme of obsessive love.

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Photographs and illustrations from Natalie Barney’s salon, of which Djuna was an integral participant. And others, showing housekeeper Berthe and the interior of Barney’s salon.

Natalie Barney and "temple" (Gay Paris)

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The Smithsonian’s online collection of paintings from Barnes’ peer Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney’s lover. Brooks’ muted canvasses frequently depict women in the nude or in menswear ??? and like Djuna, much of her work was inspired by the women of Left Bank Paris.

Self-Portrait, Romaine Brooks (Smithsonian, 1923)

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By way of Maud Newton, a copy of T.S. Eliot’s letter to Geoffrey Faber regarding potential damages incurred for publishing the scandalous Nightwood.

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Robert McAlmon on Djuna Barnes, from his book with Kay Boyle, Being Geniuses Together:

““Djuna was a very haughty lady, quick on the uptake, and with a wise-cracking tongue that I was far too discreet to try and rival“Djuna is far too good-looking and fundamentally likable for anything but fond admiration, if not a great deal more, even when she is rather overdoing the grande dame manner and talking soul and ideals.”

McAlmon’s provocative opinion on Barnes and her character Dr. O’Connor:

““in writing she appears to believe she must inject her work metaphysics, mysticism, and her own strange version of a “literary” quality. In her Nightwood she has a well-known character floundering in the torments of soul-probing and fake philosophies, and he just shouldn’t.”

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Part of Djuna’s renowned appearance as a “grande dame” was due to her frequent appearances in a second-hand opera cape, given to her by Peggy Guggenheim.

In Nightwood, Djuna writes of Nora, the character thought to be somewhat autobiographical, as a “tall black-caped figure.” When Dr. O’Connor sees Nora passing underneath the lamps in search of Robin, he thinks: “There goes the dismantled ??? Love has fallen off her wall“Out looking for what she’s afraid to find ??? Robin.”

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Passport photo of sculptor Thelma Wood – Djuna Barnes’ lover and the alleged muse for Robin’s character. Their 8 year relationship was troubled and at times violent.

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Picture of Djuna Barnes in front of Patchin Place, a Greenwich Village apartment (#5) where she lived for forty years until her death in 1982 with a monthly rent of $49.50.

Djuna at Patchin Place (Ephemeral New York)

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“I am the most famous unknown of the century!” Djuna Barnes, in a letter to Natalie Barney, 1963.

2 thoughts on “Wunderkammer: Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood

  1. Having just re-read Nightwood, after some 20 years and being again drawn into the poetic dream-like nature of its narrative, I loved this assembly of quirky elements which seemed in their disparate and witty nature to reflect the spirit behind Barnes’s work.

  2. This looks like it was fun to assemble. The detail and variety of your findings is wonderful (wunder-ful?). I look forward to more posts!

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