In which I review Nightwood, Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel about a lesbian love triangle set in the Bohemian milieu of pre-World War II Paris.
What it’s about: Paris, the 1920s. The novel opens with the birth of Felix Volkbein in 1880, the only child of an Italian Jewish father and a Viennese mother, who die on either side of Felix’s birth. Like his father, Felix is ashamed of his Jewish heritage and pretends to be of Christian and aristocratic descent. In 1920, Felix moves to Paris and falls in with a group of circus performers, through whom he meets the American Nora Flood, and Dr Matthew O’Connor, an Irishman from San Francisco who lives in poverty on the Left Bank and is known as a raconteur and street philosopher. One afternoon the Doctor is called to attend a sleeping woman, whose name is Robin Vote. Felix courts and quickly marries Robin, who becomes unhappy in the marriage and wanders alone at night through various cities. Robin gives birth to a son but shows little interest in motherhood, eventually leaving Felix and going to New York. While in America, she meets Nora at a circus show and they become lovers, returning to Paris and living together. Robin’s restlessness continues, and she takes to wandering drunk through the night streets, pursued by an anxious Nora. Robin begins an affair with Jenny Petherbridge, a four-time widow who covets the love of others. The three women, accompanied by the Doctor, take a carriage ride together, in which Jenny brutally attacks Nora. Robin leaves Nora and returns to New York, this time with Jenny. A distraught Nora visits the Doctor in the night, anguishing over the loss of Robin. The Doctor, who is dressed in a women’s nightgown and wearing rouge and a wig, talks at great length about the the night, the nature of love and Jenny’s poisonous nature, and predicts that Nora and Robin will be connected even after death. Felix, who has been travelling for many years with his young son Guido, returns to Paris and re-encounters the Doctor, who berates him for his interest in the past. Nora’s obsession with Robin continues: the Doctor also advises her to be careless about the past and spurn romantic love. The Doctor returns to his favourite cafe and rants to the waiting crowd who abuse and dismiss him. The final chapter backtracks to Robin and Jenny in America. Robin discovers a chapel on Nora’s family home and goes inside, finding Nora’s dog. Nora, who is also at home, runs to the chapel but collides with the door jamb. The dog bites Robin and they fall to the floor together.
Why it’s a classic: Djuna Barnes wrote Nightwood in the early 1930s after over a decade living in Paris, at that time the cultural and artistic centre of the emerging Modernist movement. Her first novel Ryder, an autobiographical collage based on her upbringing in a polygamous family, was briefly a New York Times bestseller, and gave her sufficient income to buy an apartment in the Rue Saint-Romain, where she lived with her lover Thelma Wood. Their difficult relationship, punctuated by Wood’s drunkenness and infidelities, became the model for Nora and Robin in Nightwood. Wood eventually left Barnes for heiress Henriette McCrea Metcalf, who is portrayed scathingly as Jenny Petherbridge.
Barnes dedicated Nightwood to her long-time patron and supporter Peggy Guggenheim, at whose home Barnes stayed when she was working on the manuscript. Nightwood was published by Faber & Faber, with no less than T. S. Eliot as her editor. In his Introduction, Eliot described Nightwood rather high-mindedly as “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.” Critics hailed it as a major work of fiction, but it didn’t sell well: its readers no doubt baffled by the book’s dense baroque language, strange and grotesque themes and (for the time) controversial lesbian sexuality.
Barnes didn’t produce another full-length work for nearly 30 years, spending the intervening period as a spectacularly successful alcoholic. Guggenheim supported her financially, paying for doctors and hospital visits after Barnes’ suicide attempts, but eventually lost patience and sent her back to America. Barnes settled in a small apartment in Greenwich Village where she became a recluse, sneering with contempt at the cult following that sprang up around her work. Her neighbours e e cummings was her neighbour, who checked in on her periodically by shouting “Are you still alive, Djuna?” out his window. Fans including Carson McCullers and Anaïs Nin worshipped at her doorstep and attempted to meet her, but were given short shrift. (When Nin named the heroine of her novel The Four-Chambered Heart Djuna in Barnes’ honour, Barnes was so annoyed that she crossed the road to avoid her). Somehow she survived into very old age, as alcoholics often tend to do, dying in 1982 just after her 90th birthday.
Since then, Nightwood has been hailed as a classic of Modernist literature, and also praised as a seminal work in LGBT fiction, for its frank and unapologetic depiction of lesbian relationships. Dylan Thomas described Nightwood as “one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman” (I’ve tried without success to discover what he thought the other two were), and made a now-famous audio recording of extracts from the novel. William S Burroughs, who never saw a car crash he didn’t like, hailed it as “one of the great books of the twentieth century“. The novelist and poet Siri Hustvedt recalls reading Nightwood as a young woman “with the aching intensity of a person possessed”. And this century’s great lesbian narcissist Jeanette Winterson (who wrote an Introduction for Faber’s 2007 re-edition) praises Nightwood almost as much she does her own books, describing it as like “drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass. You have taken in more than you know, and it will go on doing its work. From now on, a part of you is pearl-lined.”
Bouquet or Brickbat: After two years of working on the Dead White Males project, I’m very proud to give my first official Brickbat to Nightwood. Reader, I hated it. That’s not to say it isn’t worth reading or writing about, and for the reasons given above, it deserves its status as a classic, but if faced with re-reading Nightwood or drinking cyanide, I’ll empty the glass before you can say “pearl-lined“.
What’s most fascinating and baffling about Nightwood is how persistently it resists any kind of categorisation. The narrative is fractured and ultimately fairly unimportant. The characters are ciphers, sketched with baroque if insignificant details, picked up and dropped at random and (with the exception of the Doctor) never seen long enough to fully come into focus. The language, while often beautiful, is dense, bloated and labyrinthine. Sentences unravel on the page before disappearing again down endless rabbit-holes, and the tone shifts continually, hovering somewhere between Gothic melodrama, surrealist poetry and Existentialist slapstick comedy. For a very short book (just 153 pages) it’s an unusually demanding read, more akin to sinking waist-deep through a river of treacle than drinking wine from a pearl-lined glass.
“OK”, I thought, determined not to let Barnes get the better of me. “It’s a Modernist novel. Things like plot and character aren’t important. It’s the journey that matters, not the destination.” Alas, what destination there was failed to interest me or repay the great effort it took to read it. There’s a restlessness in the book which probably appealed to smacked-out surrealists like Burroughs, but left me wanting to scream. After an arch and enjoyably ripe description of Felix’s birth and parentage, the novel appears to be setting up a fin-de-siecle soap opera, with all the decadence and intrigue of Arthur Schnitzler and Oscar Wilde. But after two chapters, Felix is abandoned in favour of Nora, and we start more or less over again.
Nora is Nightwood‘s most recognisably human character, and for a brief moment we’re immersed in a noirish tale of unrequited love set among the grimy backstreets of Paris. Occasionally, Barnes throws us a bone and describes something that feels authentic and human about the pain of love: “Yet sometimes, going about the house, in passing each other, they would fall into an agonized embrace, looking into each other’s face, their two heads in their four hands, so strained together that the space that divided them seemed to be thrusting them apart.” The lesbian love story is admirably frank, without any of the shame-ridden pleas for tolerance in contemporary works like Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness. But we spend so little time in Nora’s and Robin’s company that there’s little to see and observe. In her rush to describe and fetishise suffering, Barnes gives us only the excruciating aftermath of a break-up, rather than the meat or even the skeleton of what was lost.
“Well fine, fine,” I muttered. “Plenty of great works of literature are about heartbreak and self-pity, especially by men.” But so it went on without let-up. The women are shuffled and rearranged like a pack of cards, reappearing and disappearing to very little effect, culminating in Nora and Jenny’s Dynasty bitch fight. Then we’re left with Nora complaining to the Doctor in the middle of the night and the book turns into a kind of Sadean confessional. I enjoy a loud-mouthed sexually ambiguous Irish-American unlicensed doctor in a nightdress as much as the next reader, and the Doctor, through sheer force of personality, almost manages to save the book, even while the stasis of his scenes (pages and pages of monologue without pause) threatens to sink it. While much of his talk sounds glorious – something the Dylan Thomas readings demonstrate nicely – very little of it makes sense.
Occasionally, as with Nora, something in the Doctor’s ramblings contain a pearl of something intelligible: “For the lover, it is the night into which his beloved goes that destroys his heart“. And after another 60 or so pages of Nora complaining about her destroyed heart, he comes as close as Nightwood ever does to declaring a manifesto: “creep by, softly, softly, and don’t learn anything, because it’s always learned of another person’s body“, he tells Nora. “Take action in your heart and be careful whom you love – for a lover who dies, no matter how forgotten, will take somewhat of you to the grave. Be humble like the dust, as God intended, and crawl, and finally you’ll crawl to the end of the gutter and not be missed and not much remembered.”
Was this, then, the great unifying moment found in the Modernist classics written by Barnes’ male contemporaries? An epiphany along the lines of Joyce’s Ulysses, or the reassurance of Proust’s Narrator in In Search of Lost Time, remembering things past via the redemptive power of art? No, dear Reader. No it wasn’t. Reassurance and coherence isn’t really Barnes’ thing. (She even takes a dig at Proust, mocking “the wise men” who “say that the remembrance of things past is all that we have for a future“). The Doctor becomes a kind of holy fool, continually undercutting his own authority – “Am I the golden-mouthed St John Chrysostom, the Greek who said it with the other cheek? No, I’m a fart in a gale of wind, a humble violet, under a cow pad” – and ultimately is mocked and ignored by his former audience. Nobody learns a thing about each other or themselves, and we end with the perversely happy spectacle of Nora running into a door while her former lover cowers on the floor after being bitten by a dog.
“Well fine, fine,” I muttered again. “Plenty of modernist classics have unreliable narrators and sometimes stupid people just stay stupid. William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor made a career with this type of material.” But Faulkner and O’Connor gave me something – some insight or hard-learned irony, a sense or rapture or pity, or even the cruel twist of the knife – that Barnes, like a perverse circus ringmaster, persistently withholds, making it impossible for me to warm to her or this gilded Fabergé egg of a book.
As Winterson writes, “Nightwood is itself. It is its own created world, exotic and strange“, which I certainly agree with. Even to its haters, Nightwood demands respect for being so thoroughly strange and unapologetically itself. Barnes clearly didn’t write to please anyone but herself and she gives herself (and her readers) up to the lurid obsessions of her crackpot characters. There’s a certain bizarre courage in the act of creating such a bizarre piece of writing – but that still doesn’t mean I have to like it.
At one point, the Doctor says to Nora: “Personally, if I could, I would instigate Meat-Axe Day, and out of the goodness of my heart I would whack your head off along with a couple of others. Every man should be allowed one day and a hatchet just to ease his heart.” Someone pass me a hatchet, pronto, should Barnes and her collection of circus freaks, obsessive Sapphists and insane hysterics ever darken my doors again.
Quotable Quote: “[T]hose who turn the day into night, the young, the drug addict, the profligate, the drunken and that most miserable, the lover who watches all night long in fear and anguish. These can never again live the life of the day. When one meets them at high noon they give off, as if it were a protective emanation, something dark and muted. The light does not become them any longer. They begin to have an unrecorded look. It is as if they were being tried by the continual blows of an unseen adversary. They acquire an “unwilling” set of features: they become old without reward, the widower bird sitting sighing at the turnstile of heaven.”