Lan­guage is key to queer clas­sic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ron­nie Scott

he sleeper is the pro­pri­etor of an un­known land,” says Dr Matt hew- Mighty- grain- of- s al t - Dante-O’Con­nor in one of the great free­wheel­ing mono­logues that over­run the mid­dle pages of Djuna Barnes’s 1936 novel Night­wood. “He goes about an­other busi­ness in the dark — and we, his part­ners, who go to the opera, who lis­ten to gos­sip of cafe friends, who walk along the boule­vards, or sew a quiet seam, can­not af­ford an inch of it.”

The doc­tor — who is not re­ally a doc­tor but more of a ca­sual dab­bler in de­liv­er­ies, abor­tions and ro­man­tic ther­a­pies, with a side­line in dress­ing in women’s cloth­ing — is con­sol­ing Nora, the least for­tu­nate spoke in the love tri­an­gle that struc­tures Barnes’s novel. Her lover, Robin Vote, is ad­dicted to af­fairs, which she con­ducts in the Paris of the night. Given the noc­tur­nal na­ture of th­ese af­fairs, the doc­tor ad­vises, “Sleep de­mands of us a guilty im­mu­nity.”

Jeanette Win­ter­son, in her in­tro­duc­tion to this new Faber Mod­ern Clas­sics edi­tion, has ad­vice of her own for prospec­tive read­ers. “Night­wood is de­mand­ing,” she states at the out­set. “You can slide into it, be­cause it has a nar­cotic qual­ity, but you can’t slide over it.”

This is true. Night­wood was pub­lished at a denser read­erly time, and part of its bona fides con­cern its sig­nif­i­cance as an over­looked modernist text. But, then, this edi­tion comes ar­moured in a chain mail of sig­nif­i­cance. There’s that long Win­ter­son en­dorse­ment, a pref­ace by TS Eliot and a back­handed com­pli­ment from Dy­lan Thomas, who called it “one of three ma­jor prose works by a woman”.

When read­ers hear about Night­wood, they may do so be­cause it’s a clas­sic of queer lit­er­a­ture, since the sex­u­al­ity of most of its char­ac­ters is some­where be­tween very gay and quite a bit fluid.

The book it­self is quite fluid — fluid and foggy, some­times bleak, some­times ripe and over­heated. Like all mod­ernism, the book is ob­sessed by the past, and like all ob­ses­sives it re­gards the sub­ject of its ob­ses­sion with a mix of de­spair and fas­ci­na­tion. The plot be­gins with Baron Felix Volk­bein — who is not re­ally a baron — trou­bled by 1920s Paris, where the ideals of 19th-cen­tury Europe are fall­ing apart.

For this rea­son, Felix mar­ries Robin Vote, in­tro­duced as an “in­fected car­rier of the past”. But more than this, Robin is the ac­ci­den­tal note in the world of the novel, a nar­ra­tive force and a Night­wood By Djuna Barnes Pref­ace by Jeanette Win­ter­son Faber, 192pp, $12.99 be­guil­ing trick­ster. She seems “enor­mous and po­larised, all catas­tro­phes [run] to­ward her”, and so do the char­ac­ters, who in­vari­ably fall in love with her and are quickly dis­carded.

Not least of th­ese is Nora, who hosts a pau­per’s sa­lon in Amer­ica com­prised of “po­ets, rad­i­cals, beg­gars, artists, and peo­ple in love”, un­til she doesn’t, even­tu­ally buy­ing an apart­ment in Paris that Robin picks out. Robin has left Felix for Nora. But no sooner has this hap­pened than Robin is se­duced by Jenny Pether­bridge, a mid­dle-aged woman whose four hus­bands have all, un­luck­ily, died.

Pether­bridge is the best-de­scribed char­ac­ter in a book singing with good ones: “She fre­quently talked about some­thing be­ing the ‘death of her’, and cer­tainly any­thing could have been had she been the first to suf­fer it ... had she been forced to in­vent a vo­cab­u­lary for her­self, it would have been a vo­cab­u­lary of two words, ‘ ah’ and ‘oh’.” Later, when Nora goes to

Night­wood, the doc­tor for coun­sel, in the book’s most mem­o­rable scene, the doc­tor de­scribes Jenny Pether­bridge: “She has the strength of an in­com­plete ac­ci­dent — one is al­ways wait­ing for the rest of it.”

So the char­ac­ters of Jenny, Robin, Nora, the fake baron and the fake doc­tor pro­ceed to col­lide in the night of this book in ways that feel both pur­pose­ful and ran­dom. They’re driven to­gether by the ran­dom­ness of de­sire, the realer ran­dom­ness of co­in­ci­dence and the deep strains of fate and char­ac­ter flaw. Robin and Nora’s story may or may not be a tragedy. It comes to an am­bigu­ous end.

As one of its orig­i­nal pub­lish­ers writes to an­other, in a let­ter re­pro­duced in this edi­tion, “the con­flict is one of souls, not bod­ies”. Never mind that he’s try­ing to work out whether the les­bian­ism will get past the cen­sors. Night­wood has a psy­cho­log­i­cal tex­ture so thick it could be framed as a form of world-build­ing.

“Night­wood is it­self,” Win­ter­son writes, by way of ex­pla­na­tion. It’s not a self that in­vites the reader’s at­ten­tion so much as de­mands it. For most of us, the way in is the lan­guage, which is rich, swoon­ing and hal­lu­cino­genic. As the doc­tor tells Nora, when she ar­rives at his door: “Have you thought of the night? … I can see you have not! You should, for the night has been go­ing on for a long time.”

De­tail from the cover of

left; au­thor Djuna Barnes, be­low

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