I came across Nightwood cited as one of ‘the world’s most difficult books’ in this Guardian blog post (for a full list click through, I’m not entirely convinced – surely substitute Ulysses for Finnegan’s Wake? – but that’s another blog post…) and in a particularly defiant mood I ordered myself a copy. I finally got round to tackling it this week; I was, I don’t mind admitting, more than a little apprehensive but my nerves proved as ill-founded as this novel proved extraordinary.
Published in 1936 Nightwood revolves around the lives of five characters thrust together in the rushing decadence of 1920s Paris. Some American, some European this collection of outsiders take a hold of you as you read, you find yourself drawn to them with a sort of compulsion that works like a rhythm through the prose.
Iin her 2007 Introduction, Jeanette Winterson identifies the beginnings of “the modern diaspora” in the strange sadness of the self-proclaimed Baron Felix Volkbein; the chaos of Robin Vote, propelled by alcohol and unhappiness into the arms of strangers; the desperate passion of Nora Flood compelled to follow her; the happiness magpie that is Jenny Petheridge, only able to appropriate the feelings of others and the grotesque wisdom of the transvestite’doctor’ Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante-O’Connor. The combine to create a miasmic instability within their world.
Identity is fluid and shifting here. The language of the novel is charged with the permeability of gender, sexuality, religion and class; indeed it is well-known as one of the first and most powerful literary portrayals of homosexual relationships. This tag though, I feel is reductive when in fact, as Winterson points out the novel’s “power makes a nonsense of any categorization, especially gender and sexuality”.
Barnes presents us with characters groping into the shadows for self-knowledge, seeking to understand themselves as much as they seek to grasp those they love. Reality is refracted through feeling to be revealed in all its raw, bleeding intensity; multi-faceted and complex it glares up at you from the page. These characters are indeed “missing and whole”.
Aspects of this novel remind me of the more sordid underworld that F. Scott-Fitzgerald hints at in the roaring twenties of The Great Gatsby’s New York. Both novels operate with the spectre of the First World War hovering in memory and image and both are poetic in their prose. Indeed, T.S. Eliot in his Preface to Nightwood identifies a “prose rhythm… and the musical pattern which is not that of verse,” going on to assert that it, “is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.”
I absolutely see what Eliot means here, there is a sort of rhythmic rise and fall to the language that leaves an impression of intense feeling perhaps best exemplified in ‘the doctor’s’ extraordinary, long sermonic speeches in which he acknowledges, “I have a narrative, but you will be put to it to find it”. It is a difficult text. The prose is dense, beautiful and painful all at once. The ‘doctor’s’ statement that “Nora will leave that girl some day; but though those two are buried at opposite ends of the earth, one dog will find them both” burns with vivid beauty and vivid pain.
Djuna Barnes herself is as fascinating a character as any one of her creations. She died a recluse in 1982 having returned to Greenwich Village. Nightwood famously includes elements that are clearly autobiographical. She herself spent time in Paris in her twenties and just as we may identify Nora Flood with Barnes so the character of Robin Vote offers parallels with her lover the American sculptor Thelma Wood. Again, though, any preoccupation with distinguishing between the real and the imagined feels reductive; to explain or to categorise the depth and reach of emotion in Nightwood is to deny its power.
I am certainly going to seek out more Djuna Barnes and you may find the poems offered here a useful starting point. Other works include:
In the meantime, T.S. Eliot (who incidentally edited Nightwood, softening some of the language and sexuality of the text mindful of censors…) suggests that one reading is not sufficient to grasp the full meaning of Nightwood; in light of this, I think I’m going to read it again and see what happens a second time round. I suspect it will feel ever more pertinent and ever more painful in its fervent, unashamed embrace of the complexity in which it renders human feeling, connection and loss.