By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
There is a long list of books that most people will never get through if they aren't asked to read them for a class. These are books that are oftentimes puzzling, oftentimes baroque, frequently oblique. They ask far more of a reader than the typical piece of prose that one picks up for fun or to satisfy some itch of curiosity.
The early twentieth century produced a great many works of this magnitude. Chief among them is James Joyce's Ulysses. One problem with Ulysses, however, is that it's virtually impossible to read. An equally problematic aspect of Joyce's masterwork is that it casts such a long shadow that many other novels of genius from the same era get forgotten. Unfortunately, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, which was first published in England in 1936 (and the US a year later), is one such book.
Nightwood has not enjoyed a wide readership now or ever. It has achieved some degree
in academic disciplines that deal primarily with gender, sexuality and queer
theory because it is one of the first major works in American literature to
feature several characters who are openly lesbians, as well as multiple
passages that suggest that Barnes was extremely ahead of her time with regards
to understanding the plasticity of gender. However, it remains a book that is
known instead of a book that is read.
Its estrangement from the bestseller list is not because it is a queer book. It is, instead, because of its difficulty. The language is dense. Furthermore, those who open the book expecting to find a novel that presages the terminology found in a modern gender studies course will be sorely disappointed. The same can be said of those who believe that the book will portray love between women as safe or tranquil. It is not safe. It is not tranquil. In fact, it is quite dark. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the introduction to the book, “The miseries that people suffer through their particular abnormalities of temperament are visible on the surface: the deeper design is that of the human misery and bondage which is universal.” It is a work of art that is dense, demanding and far more taxing than a philosophical text or typical novel, as it explores the chaotic stratum that is situated between and yet utterly distinct from the two.
Though the book is under two-hundred pages in length, it is difficult to distill it down to either a single theme or a single story arc. Still, I think it best to give an abridged overview of the plot and the five main characters in the novel before proceeding.
The first primary character the reader is introduced to is Felix Volkbein, a man of Jewish heritage who presents himself as a baron of some pedigree. He befriends Doctor Matthew O'Connor, a loquacious drunk well acquainted with the night (this world, the night, is a kind of club that admits everything society finds perverse). Their first meeting is in Berlin. They meet once again in Paris some months later, but their conversation is interrupted when someone calls upon the doctor to come to the aid of Robin Vote, a vague acquaintance of the doctor, who is passed out drunk in her room. The Baron accompanies the doctor and feels for the young woman “something unusual.” A brief courtship follows, which is quickly followed by marriage. The two have a sickly child named Guido. The marriage quickly crumbles, Robin begins to venture out into the night, she eventually ventures all the way to America, and there she begins a relationship with Nora Flood. Robin and Nora return to Paris as a couple. For Nora, their love is something epic, romantic and beautiful. While sober, Robin seems to be equally engaged in the relationship, but she eventually begins to venture into the night yet again, much as she had with the Baron. Nora, abused and tormented by her lover's nightly neglect, spends this time sleeplessly awaiting Robin's return. For a long time, Robin does return. This changes when she meets Jenny Petheridge, a violent woman whose jealousy is only outmatched by her pettiness. Robin leaves Nora for Jenny; she and Jenny leave for America. Nora spends a lot of her time with the doctor. She laments her lost love in a manner reminiscent of the Offspring's “Self Esteem” (“The more you suffer / the more it shows you really care/ Right?”), while the doctor counters with sophomoric advice and general observations about creatures of the night. Nora then also leaves for America.
What's of interest here is that the physical details of Robin's relationships, first with Nora, and then with Jenny, are muted. These relationships are discreetly carnal, but not provocative. They just are. The real sources of provocation raised by Barnes concern the emotional dynamics within abusive relationships, addiction and the bleak, modernist criticism of Western society (its pretenses, its inability to speak of or so much acknowledge what lay beneath) in the aftermath of the First World War. Barnes even seems to offer some degree of criticism directed at the libertines who both sought to undermine and stood in stark contrast to the rigidity of the ancien régime. She has too fine a literary sensibility to gum up her novel with allegorically pure characters who are overly confident in their positions, and seems far more interested in evoking sympathy for those who are damned, frail or lost. This includes the doctor, who hides behind a wall of eccentric monologues, but at one point cracks while far too drunk at the bar, and says, “I talk too much because I have been made so miserable by what you keep hushed.”
There was no shortage of miserable people during the period, not only in Nightwood, but in the actual world at the time the novel takes place. The world of Henry James and Franz Joseph I had been destroyed, and those who sought to resurrect it, who wanted to reify this past, were trying to attach something of the profound to what was nothing more than obsolete ornamentation. Exemplifying the vacuity of nobility and decorum in an age that was over two decades removed from the ostentation of the fin de siècle are the characters of the Baron and his son by Robin, Guido. Both are anachronisms that would seem more at home in the pages of Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities if it were not for the fact that their esteemed lineage is actually a complete fabrication.
Adverse to such pretense is the night, which, it seems, carries its own baggage. This is not only because of the repression of the day. The night is the realm of the doctor and Robin, not only before she marries the Baron, but also after the birth of Guido and when she leaves him—for Nora, for Jenny, for a sad Parisian whore, for the bottle. It offers liberation, but, for Robin, such liberation is unenviable. It ultimately lays destitute those who try to love her. Only the doctor is immune to her charms, largely because he is, like her, a Dionysian—a person of the night.
The nighttime to which Barnes refers is the space where androgyny and anonymity and ambiguity and the most epiphanic and ferocious convulsions of prose can dwell, but also the real setting of much of the novel: The seedy bars and discrete alleyways of 1920s Paris. “The face is what anglers catch in the daylight,” says the doctor, who at times speaks in a drunken language that is crazed, bombastic and occasionally somber, yet can be as opaquely sagacious as that of the Pythia who spoke in the ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi, “but the sea is the night!”
Do not be fooled by the doctor, though; this is not a book celebrating the night. It is, to refer back to T.S. Eliot, a study in human misery.
Though oftentimes bleak and difficult to fully understand, Barnes' prose is possessed by a ferocity that has rarely been equaled. Even though some passages may be difficult to comprehend, the writing is, in a way, durable. This is not just in terms of its relation to time and how readers across generations will approach the book; I speak also of its meaning, which is like the melody in a symphony. Though it can sometimes become a bit obscured by the accompanying music, and sometimes you can feel yourself getting lost, it remains discernible. The meaning endures beneath the frenetic language atop it.
There is a bit of irony in this. Somehow the meaning behind her language remains palpable, even though the era in which Barnes was writing was, like our own, a time when the structures that had provided meaning to society were suddenly torn away, and many were left feeling as though they were no longer standing on solid ground.