Djuna Barnes’ pivotal work, Nightwood, has drawn attention not only because of its literary importance in the Gay & Lesbian canon, but also because of the (rare) introduction by T.S. Eliot. After reading it, I see that Eliot was right when he wrote it was “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it,” especially those trained the sort of modernist Waste-Landish poetry that Eliot wrote (which I am not). I would have to apply textual analysis before it could be unpacked into a fluid read for me.
The book has been called carnivalesque, Baroque, and Elizabethan, all words I wish I had been the first to attach to the work, because they are so fitting. The prose is highly ornamented, soundly structured like little golden bricks, made up of monologues and maxims (“Death is intimacy walking backward”), encoded along Joycean lines but without Joyce’s lyrical intensity.
The novel’s setting is chiefly in Europe of the 1920s, in the salons, cafés, and streets of late night Paris and Vienna. Barnes employs a farcical troop of characters which Eliot suggests several readings to improve them: Baron Felix Volkbein, a Jew with a false title and aristocratic aspirations; his longed-for holy-fool son, Guido; Dr. Matthew O’Connor, a queer, cross-dressing Irish quack; Robin Vote (Felix’s wife), a boyish woman with her two female lovers (Nora and Jenny) who ruin themselves over her.
Though Robin is the character which the other characters destroy themselves against, Dr Matthew O’Connor is the axis around which the events, characters, and monologues wheel. He observes Robin, he listens to Felix, and he allows Nora to pour out her anguish over Robin to him. But this is not without its consequences, as his emptiness turns him to drink and madness. The book itself begins as an ornamental piece and descends into savagery; there are traces of it in the slap Robin gives Felix, or when Jenny hits and scratches and draws Robin’s blood, earning Robin’s curiosity and pleased submission.
The poet Dylan Thomas called it one of the three best books ever written by a woman, and despite my initial reaction to the offensiveness of that statement (and I would argue, inaccuracy), I won’t deny that Nightwood doesn’t display what I would call “typical” female writing – attention to emotional staging, dialogue, and lyrical writing (though there are many female authors who contradict this generality – A.M. Holmes for one, I’ve heard). Barnes’ characters talk at each other, they don’t converse well. There is an almost Biblical hollowness to words and phrases like “Sleep the slain white bull” and “temples like those of young beasts cutting horns, as if they were sleeping eyes.”
I can tell this is a jewel of a book – all light, intensity, hardness. But I don’t like it. Yet. It deserves several re-readings. It has passages that suddenly gripped me - like when Nora sees the doctor in his nightgown, heavily painted, she thinks
"Is not the gown the natural raiment of extremity? What nation, what religion, what ghost, what dream, has not worn it - infants, angels, priests, the dead; why should not the doctor, in the grave dilemma of his alchemy, wear his dress?"
I'll try it again in a bit, and I'm sure it will be improved by intimacy.