Language is key to queer classic
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