I came to hear of Djuna Barnes when I started reading Anais Nin, who was influenced by her. I read a little about Barnes and liked what I read – she was an American in Paris in the 1920s, wrapped up in the Modernist scene. I read recommendations from TS Eliot. This was enough to sell her to me, and I purchased Nightwood. I knew nothing about it except that it was set in Europe in the 1920s. I went with Eliot’s recommendation and dived in.
From the start, it is odd. It is an odd book. That is the word I would choose to describe it if I was allowed only one. Do not misunderstand me, it is not a bad book – it is just odd. But then Modernism is odd. When first encountering it in AS English Literature, most people in my class just thought ‘What the heck is this?’ Barnes goes for the more surrealist approach (if there is such a thing) and quite literally seems to ‘paint’ her story across the pages with rambling speeches and memories from before the war, abstract descriptions of personalities and making everything more extravagant than is necessary.
First we hear about the birth of Felix. The opening paragraph is one long sentence describing this, detailing his mother’s heritage and strength, as well as the elaborate bed in which the child enters the world. She dies after she has named him and ‘thrust him from her’, and we are told his father died six months earlier. Felix grows up with an obsession with his dead father and shares his obsession with the past, with heritage and legend, with maintaining the family of Volkbein. Felix’s father more or less created his own ‘legend’ of aristocracy and nobility, and Felix does his best to keep this alive. He appears sporadically throughout the book, lamenting what has changed or ended, worrying about the future of his son, Guido (named for his grandfather – how fitting!), and his failing marriage.
He is married to one of the two central figures in the book, a girl named Robin. They meet through the other central figure, the doctor, and seem to get married simply because they get on well and Felix wants an heir. Soon after little Guido grows into a child, Robin vanishes and is never reunited with her little family. Then begins the saga, the drama, the love triangle that provides the rambling prose for the rest of this odd book.
Robin forms a relationship with Nora, and they create a sort of married life, living together in Paris. Robin, however, starts to spend all night, every night, out of the house, driving Nora to distraction. Obviously she is having it off with other girls, but to Nora it is so much more complicated than that. There are two sections in the book, during which one yearns for the simplicity of Eliot, that Nora sits with the doctor and drives herself round the bend dissecting her and Robin’s relationship and trying to explain how she cannot live without her. Meanwhile the doctor philosophises on just about everything and more than once proclaims himself to be a woman. In this odd book, he is the oddest thing of all. Only about halfway through do we begin to learn bits of his actual name, and only at the end do we know that he is in fact called Dr Matthew O’Connor. He is a medical man but acts more as a sort of agony uncle-therapist-philosopher type figure, listening to Felix and Nora as they prattle on about Robin, and taking the opportunity to ramble to a rapt audience.
There are some moments in Nightwood when Barnes seems to be making an actual point, but they are few and far between. There are quotable lines – such as ‘The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy’ and ‘Don’t you know your holding on is her only happiness and so her sole misery’ – and there are interesting speeches about the blurring of the genders, but the rest of this novel seems to be Barnes taking the opportunity to, well, ramble to a rapt audience.
Modernism was dominated by men and was sometimes quite clearly misogynistic, so it is a marvel that Barnes’ novel about a lesbian love triangle was praised so highly be male modernists (Eliot being the key one) and many others after. To me it seems that Nightwood is a novel of its time. She was adored by many female authors, including Nin, Carson McCullers and Bertha Harris, though she does not seem to have been very receptive to this praise. Though Nightwood was initially edited by Eliot to make it less controversial (in regards to sex and religion) Barnes takes advantage of being able to write anything she wants and does not adhere to any particular set of literary rules, not even really those of Modernism. However the book is certainly Modernist, as the prose is quite poetic and abstract, and of course it is set in the 1920s. It is a sort of rampant Modernism that employs every theme and device, spanning location and time, flitting between reality and memory; or imagination.
Nightwood is more interesting than it is enjoyable. There are moments when Barnes has gone on too long on one topic and the reader wishes to skip ahead a few pages; but there is some really wonderful writing in those pages, and a real beauty and sadness and tragic understanding of the world. To one familiar with Modernism and intrigued by Barnes as a character, this is well worth the effort.