Excerpts of stories that help to shape (urban) landscape experience

Design of a Dutch Park, adapted from the book 'Nightwood' by Djuna Barnes. Paul Roncken 1996
Design of a Dutch Park, adapted from the book ‘Nightwood’ by Djuna Barnes. Paul Roncken 1996

Starting this new year, 2014, I intend to create posts that are different from what I wrote about in the past months. There are literary excerpts to be shared with you, containing diverse aspects of landscape experiences. Diverse landscapes create an equal diversity of experiences. The first excerpt is from a book I cherish deeply. I stumbled across this novel during my thesis work in landscape architecture; seeking a psychological novel that I could use as a muse to create a contemporary, psychologically relevant park. I did not know anything about the author and had never heard about this book. I just randomly picked it from a library shell, starting at ‘A’ and ending up with the first ten psychological novels that I came across. At the ‘B’ from Djuna Barnes, the comet struck deep into my susceptible soul.

‘Nightwood’ is a poetic novel that has a specific pace and depth of rhyme. It deals with wandering individuals in the metropolitan areas of importance in the 1930’s: New York, London, Paris, Berlin. In these selected scenes an urban landscape is described, effecting these individuals multifaceted. Like a river can carve its path into a rock, the new conditions of urban, lonely, libido high circumstances, carve themselves into these presented personalities. Three persons meet, a doctor, Felix and a young girl. They collide and hide their internal considerations, but not for the reader. The reader can sense all – thanks to the incredibly detailed writing – inside, outside, internal, external; carving a new sense of reality by experiences of specific but artificial truths and new obediences in accordance with the laws of everyday survival. Enjoy and carve out some landscape aesthetics by this excerpt.

from: ‘Nightwood’, Djuna Barnes, originally printed in 1936, second edition 1950, Faber and Faber Ltd, London.

p. 49-50
He walked, pathetic and alone, among the pasteboard booths of the Foire St. Germain when for a time its imitation castles squatted in the square. He was seen coming at a smart pace down the left side of the church to go into Mass; bathing in the holy water stoup as if he were its single and beholden bird, pushing aside weary French maids and local tradespeople with the impatience of a soul in physical stress.
Sometimes, late at night, before turning into the ‘Café de la Mairie de VI-e’, he would be observed staring up at the huge towers of the church which rose into the sky, unlovely but reassuring, running a thick warm finger around his throat, where, in spite of its custom, his hair surprised him, lifting along his back and creeping up over his collar. Standing small and insubordinate, he would watch the basins of the fountain loosing their skirts of water in a ragged and flowing hem, sometimes crying to a man’s departing shadow: ‘Aren’t you the beauty!’.
To the ‘Café de la Mairie de VI-e’, he brought Felix, who turned up in Paris some weeks after the encounter in Berlin. Felix thought to himself that undoubtedly the doctor was a great liar, but a valuable liar. His fabrications seemed to be the framework of a forgotten but imposing plan; some condition of life of which he was the sole surviving retainer. His manner was that of a servant of a defunct noble family, whose movements recall, though in a degraded form, those of a late master. Even the doctor’s favourite gesture – plucking hairs out of his nostrils – seemed the ‘vulgarization’ of what was once a thoughtful plucking of the beard.’

p. 55-59
On a bed, surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers, faintly over-sung by the notes of unseen birds, which seemed to have forgotten – left without the usual silencing cover, which, like cloaks on funeral urns, are cast over their cages at night by good housewives – half flung off the support of the cushions from which, in a moment of threatened consciousness she had turned her head, lay the young woman, heavy and dishevelled. Her legs, in white flannel trousers, were spread as in a dance, the thick lacquered pumps looking too lively for the arrested step. Her hands, long and beautiful, lay on either side of her face.
The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface. About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water – as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations – the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in the two worlds – meet of child and desperado.
Like a painting by the douanier Rousseau, she seemed to lie in a jungle trapped in a drawing room (in the apprehension of which the walls have made their escape), thrown in among the carnivorous flowers as their ration; the set, the property of an unseen dompteur, half lord, half promoter, over which one expects to hear the strains of an orchestra of wood-wind render a serenade which will popularize the wilderness.
Felix, out of delicacy, stepped behind the palms. The doctor with professional roughness, brought to a pitch by its eternal fear of meeting with the Law (he was not a licensed practitioner) said: ‘Slap her wrists, for Christ’s sake. Where in the hell is the water pitcher!’.
He found it, and with amiable heartiness flung a handful against her face.
A series of almost invisible shudders wrinkled her skin as the water dripped from her lashes, over her mouth and on to the bed. A spasm of waking moved upward from some deep shocked realm, and she opened her eyes. Instantly she tried to get to her feet. She said: ‘I was all right;’ and fell back into the pose of her annihilation.
Experiencing a double confusion, Felix now saw the doctor partially hidden by the screen beside the bed, make the movements common to the ‘dumbfounder’, or man of magic; the gestures of one who, in preparing the audience for miracle, must pretend that there is nothing to hide; the whole purpose that of making the back and elbows move in a series of ‘honesties’, while in reality the most flagrant part of the hoax is being prepared.
Felix saw that this was for the purpose of snatching a few drops from a perfume bottle picked up from the night table; of dusting his darkly bristled chin with a puff, and drawing a line of rouge across his lips, his upper lip compressed on his lower, in order to have it seem that their sudden embellishment was a visitation of nature; still thinking himself unobserved, as if the whole fabric of magic had begun to decompose, as if the mechanics of machination were indeed out of control and were simplifying themselves back to their origin; the doctor’s hand reached out and covered a loose hundred franc note lying on the table.

With a tension in his stomach, such as one suffers when watching an acrobat leaving the virtuosity of his safety in a mad unravelling whirl into probable death, Felix watched the hand descend, take up the note, and disappear into the limbo of the doctor’s pocket. He knew that he would continue to like the doctor, though he was aware that it would be in spite of a long series of convulsions of the spirit, analogues to the displacement in the fluids of oyster, that must cover its itch with a pearl; so he would have to cover the doctor. He knew at the same time that this stricture of acceptance (by which what we must love is made into what we can love) would eventually be a part of himself, though originally brought on by no will of his own.

Engrossed in the coils of this new disquiet, Felix turned about. The girl was sitting up. She recognised the doctor. She had seen him somewhere. But, as one may trade ten years at a certain shop and be unable to place the shopkeeper if he is met in the street of in the promenoir of a theatre, the shop being a portion of his identity, she struggled to place him now that he had moved out of his frame.

Café de la Mairie de VI-e’, said the doctor, taking a chance in order to have a hand in her awakening.