Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Modernism is easy. Most contemporary readers are spoon-fed chunks of Eliot, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway in their teens; by their 20s, they likely know Joyce, Woolf, Pound, and Stein, if only by reputation. In fact, most of the foundational modernist texts are attached to strict critical dogmas, and the knowledge that they have been pre-assigned values and interpretations by The People Who Know These Things does much to discourage or warp individual readers’ relationships with the works themselves. It has become nearly impossible to encounter a great book without critical intervention.

Fortunately, there is Nightwood. Djuna Barnes’ novel, published in 1936, has always inspired fervent admiration, and has sold steadily enough to stay in print (albeit at a fairly small press). However, it has managed to escape the disastrous good intentions of English teachers, and has never acquired a legend big or gassy enough to dull its impact. One has the sense that the reclusive, cranky Barnes would have appreciated this fact. This fall, Nightwood has been published in a new edition, prefaced by Jeanette Winterson and T.S. Eliot, which is slicker, prettier, and far more available than any of its previous incarnations. However, when new readers enter the book, there will be no looming, spectral Howard Bloom figure to tell them where and how to react to it (at least, not if one doesn’t count Eliot, who describes his own introduction as “impertinence,” or this column, which I doubt will transform the cultural landscape). More likely than not, they will come to it fresh.

The story of Nightwood is, on the surface, fairly simple. It centers on the disastrous partnership of Robin Vote and Nora Flood. Robin is an androgynous “somnambule,” a woman who compulsively pursues sexual and chemical excess, yet retains an otherworldly detachment from the people around her. Nora Flood is the bright, honest, idealistic woman who takes Robin in after she abandons her husband, Baron Felix, and their retarded child Guido. Nora and Robin share a brief, gleaming moment of perfectly matched love, which quickly deteriorates when Robin begins to wander the streets alone at night, and Nora begins to suspect her of having innumerable affairs. When Robin finally leaves Nora for another woman, Jenny Petherbridge — a character whose lines are drawn in pure poison — Nora’s clean, sharp sense of self begins to deteriorate, and she falls into late-night talking jags with her friend, the loquacious and elusive Doctor O’Connor, who lives divided between the man he is expected to be and the woman that he feels he truly is. (O’Connor’s pronouns remain male throughout the novel; nevertheless, he refers to himself as a woman on numerous occasions. His character, thought surreal or perverse at the time of Nightwood‘s original publication, prefigures much contemporary discourse on transgendered and “gender queer” identity.) The scenes between Nora and O’Connor are the heart of Nightwood — long, spiralling, spangled philosophical dialogues, speeches clotted with startling image and tricky metaphor, oblique, half-told truths that seem, at first, like a species of morbid surrealism, and that become more and more unsettling as the reader begins to detect their meaning.

Near the end of the novel, the Doctor reminisces about a time “when Catherine the Great sent for me to bleed her. She took to the leech with rowdy Saxon abandon, saying: ‘Let him drink; I’ve always wanted to be in two places at once!'” It is an odd speech, though not his oddest, and will be greeted by most readers with resounding confusion. And yet Nora voices the same thought, more simply, when she asks, “have you ever loved someone and it became yourself?” It is a question that nearly all the characters of Nightwood can answer in the affirmative. As the narrative progresses, identities break down, exposing a resounding emptiness. Everyone aches to be filled with someone else, and so Nora and Jenny and Robin and Felix and O’Connor circle and shift places, finding themselves none the happier for it.

Nightwood works by compression, like the best poetry — Winterson memorably characterizes it as a “nano-text.” At just over two hundred pages, it is dense and expansive enough to fuel four hundred theses. And yet, one can’t help but feel that it is best reserved for intimate, undocumented readings. Nightwood is a mystery, and a secret, and it is at its best in the dark.