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May 22, 2011

Mini Reviews: English Journey and Nightwood

This reading alphabetically thing is working for me, forcing open books that have been languishing on the shelf for far too long. The only problem is that I got three new books on the weekend (plucked out of a box on the sidewalk), which does make me fear that the alphabet will never be got through. The other problem is whatever weirdness will ensue by me following Djuna Barnes with Erma Bombeck, two writers with nothing in common except the letter B. In fact, I think that Djuna Barnes might be the opposite of Erma Bombeck. We shall see…

Anyway, I read Beryl Bainbridge’s An English Journey: Or The Road to Milton Keynes last week, which I acquired for $1 at the UofT Bookstore sidewalk sale back when my life was as such that I’d push a stroller for miles in miles in aimless pursuit of a nap. I’d never read Beryl Bainbridge, but I like England, and I’d just read this review of  JB Priestly’s English Journey, a book commemorated by Bainbridge 50 years later in the television program recreating Priestly’s travels out of which her book was born. And I loved it, first because Bainbridge is a fabulous prose writer, with a marvelous dry wit. And because the contrast between her “modern” England of 1983 and today has made this book an historical document onto itself. Because of lines like a girl “with thighs shaped like cellos”, “It seemed there was neither time nor room for pedestrians. We were literally a dying breed”. How she describes her family: “Class conscious, [everyone was] either dead common or a cut above themselves. And “I’ve never worn a hat since my mother bought me on at the Bon Marche and I carried home potatoes in in when my carrier bag bust.” That this is a writer who can write, “I was in Coronation Street more than twenty-five years ago. I played one of Ken Barlow’s girlfriend’s before he married Valerie.” Which I appreciate, and I don’t even know Valerie.

***

I don’t know that there is a book that has sat longer on my shelf than Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, which a friend of mine gave to me in 1997. According to a note on the inside cover, I’d read it in 2001, but I couldn’t remember having done so, and no wonder, really. With apologies to T.S. Eliot, I think I‘m just an ordinary reader. I’m not going to say that this is a bad book, but only that I was almost wholly unable to penetrate its goodness. Almost wholly, because there were certain parts of the book where I felt things had really got going, but then Dr. Matthew O’Connor would open his mouth and start talking again. (In his intro, T.S. thought the Doctor was the best part. This is one of the reasons I suspect T.S. and I are not meant to be kindred souls.)

Apparently, Barnes is quite Joycean, which might be part of the problem. Eliot wrote that the novel would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry”, and I get that, in particular because of how much Nightwood reminded me of “The Wasteland”. But even “The Wasteland” rendered as 170 pages of prose would be too much. In Nightwood, if I just let the words fall the way I do whilst reading a poem like “The Wasteland”, I would find myself having drifted entirely away. So then I read more carefully, get to the bottom of every line, which is also unsatisfying because the prose makes no sense at all except in a very general sense, sounds pretty, washes over, but then, oops! There I’ve gone away again. You see? For me, there was no joy in the exercise. And I don’t think it’s every a very good thing when one of the best bits of a novel is its brevity.

3 thoughts on “Mini Reviews: English Journey and Nightwood”

  1. Ragdoll says:

    This book has been on my shelves too, for well over a decade, maybe longer. I have packed it and moved it through three apartments, a number of bad relationships and my entire marriage. Maybe, after your thoughts, I will let it sit even longer…

  2. Ragdoll says:

    Nightwood, I should clarify

  3. E. M. Keeler says:

    I hated the Dr. too!

    I actually think he’s designed to be hated, there are so many references to him being anonymous by virtue of his complete lack of authority, his idiocy.

    But there were so many amazing lines in this work, always hinting at what love could be, what a novel could be…

    I can totally see why it might remind you of The Wasteland. I myself read it as a sort of modernist/futurist mashup, where the characters are always sleepless and in motion like desiring machines…

    Then again, who’s to say?

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