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Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) is an excellent example of the “writer’s writer,” admired by such personages as T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and William S. Burroughs while basically ignored by the general reading public. With the recent interest in marginalized women writers she has come back into print and her 1936 novel Nightwood seems well on its way to taking its deserved place in the modernist canon.

The plot of this novel is nebulous and ill-defined. The chapters are not numbered, only evocatively titled, indicative more of individual prose poems or musical themes than an actual linear progression from A to B. The prose is decadent, vacillating between Djuna’s glacial, sensuous yet bitterly austere descriptive passages and the scatterbrained, vulgar ramblings of the astonishingly perceptive Doctor Matthew O’Connor. There is a liberal dosage of foreign language, mostly phrases in French or German that Djuna did not bother to translate. I always find that a bit aggravating but until the annotated version comes out I shall simply take it as a gentle prod to actually learn another language… sometime. 

The slender cast consists, besides the doctor, of the forlorn Baron Felix Volkbein, Nora – a woman devouring herself in the wake of her lover’s departure  – and Jenny, who lives off what she steals from others. The focus of these individuals is on Robin Vote, “la somnambule,” the inhuman centerpiece of this little story, often missing from the action of the narrative yet preying on everyone’s minds. Seen almost exclusively through the lenses of other people, Robin remains an elusive figure, a woman with a strain of the primitive in her, compared throughout to various beasts, the eye of the storm rather than the main character.

That last office is filled nominally by O’Connor, a unique adaptation of the madman with the medical degree that is to be found in so many places (see Grimesby Roylott, Fu Manchu, Jekyll and Benway, for starters). However, Matthew O’Connor is not psychotic in the pulp sense of the word; rather, he seems possessed of a ravenous egotism, incapable of being interrupted, drowning out all other voices, yet for all that a strangely powerless individual. Talk as he will, no one really listens; Nora comes to him for advice but does not heed it; a doctor but not a licensed practitioner and a man absolutely convinced he should have been born a woman. Unlike the rest of the cast, left on the stage as near-catatonic mannequins after intricate introductory character sketches, O’Connor is allowed to fill in for himself and the struggle to understand his coarse, nonsensical monologues is rewarded by the occasional lucid illumination, such as during his talks with Nora:

“It was more than a boy like me (who am the last woman left in this world, though I am the bearded lady) could bear, and I went into a lather of misery watching them, and thinking of you, and how in the end you’ll all be locked together, like the poor beasts that get their antlers mixed and are found dead that way, their heads fattened with a knowledge of each other they never wanted, having had to contemplate each other, head-on and eye to eye, until death; well, that will be you and Jenny and Robin.”

So O’Connor, who seems to know ahead of time what events are coming into play and makes liberal comment upon the other characters amid a slew of non-sequiturs about life in general, seems nothing less than the philosopher of the piece, the man with the answers and, ironically, the only character who spends any time thinking about other people. The holy fool gone horribly awry.

The novel comes across as a freakshow, a carnival, a free-for-all, a circus and it’s not surprising that such performers have crept into the narrative by page 11: Early in life Felix had insinuated himself into the pageantry of the circus and the theatre. In some way they linked his emotions to the higher and unattainable pageantry of kings and queens…. He moved with a humble hysteria among the decaying brocades and laces of the Carnavalet; he loved that old and documented splendour with something of the love of the lion for its tamer – that sweat-tarnished spangled enigma that, in bringing the beast to heel, had somehow turned toward him a face like his own, but which though curious and weak, had yet picked the precise fury from his brain. However, they do not linger, as each segment forms a shift in the precise nature of the drama. So chapter two forsakes Germany for France and the circus dressing-rooms for hotels, museums and the respectable society Robin briefly confines herself to, and so on and so forth.

In the end this novel would still be no more than a curiosity, a bizarre artifact from the 30s, were it not for the final two acts: Go Down, Matthew, in which earlier imagery is rewoven into the text and the mad doctor reveals all – or at least, all that’s important about him, his hitherto baffling place in the narrative and his garrulousness; and The Possessed, a bizarre scene on the face of it but which is really just Robin, in silence, doing what O’Connor, with words, has already done. In trying to bridge from their displacements to their proper forms they weep at the imperfection of the attempt. Without these two acts, Nightwood is just a beautifully crafted, heartless trifle. With them it transforms into a novel fully deserving its resuscitation and the status of a “lost classic.”

Nightwood has, doubtless, a limited scope – not one of the characters has a sunny disposition – but this in no way limits the book’s merit. One very important point, however, is to accept the book’s artifice. The story skips calmly from Nora’s original meeting with Robin (in the circus, watched over by lions) to the time when Nora begins to grow obsessed while Robin pulls away. Ask ‘but how did that happen?’ and the illusion will crumble. This is not a “psychological” novel in the realist sense of the term. It might be best to keep in mind E.M. Forster’s definition of the “prophetic” writer when approaching Nightwood. That done, there’s a whole world within the pages, centered on the complacency of decay and the derangement that can constitute love.

Recommended with that reservation.