Introducing Guido Volkbein (briefly)

Nightwood  introduces us first to Hedvig Volkbein then to her husband, Guido. While Guido follows Hedvig, he is the character who leads us into the novel’s themes (“Guido” =  “I lead,” “I guide”). Guido is Jewish and “of Italian descent”; his ancestry will be detailed in a separate post.

Some readers suggest that the first chapter’s emphasis on the Volkbeins (as well as its discussion of Judaism/ Christianity) is Barnes’s attempt to obscure gay and lesbian content (Abraham 199). [1]  However, evidence suggests that Barnes developed Nightwood from a proposed work of historical fiction about a Viennese “Court Jew.” In late 1930, Barnes applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship in order “To visit Austria, Vienna, to make a study of pre-war conditions, intrigues, and relations then existing between the Jews and the Court, tracing the interweaving between the two, for a book in progress whose chief figure is an Austrian Jew” (qtd. in Trubowitz 311, Plumb vii-viii).

Side note:  Although Guido has married an Austrian woman, in 1880, the time of the novel’s opening, Viennese law forbade marriages between Jews and Christians: “for a mixed couple to marry, one of the partners had to convert either to the religion of the other or to the neutral category, Konfessionslos, ‘without religious affiliation’” (Rozenblit 128).


[1] Jane Marcus, for example, asserts that “the ‘political unconscious’ of Nightwood is located in its supposedly irrelevant first chapter, meant to disguise its existence as a lesbian novel” (229).

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