Nightwood is a wild, strange, mad piece of writing. It is Djuna Barnes’s story about expatriate Paris, but it’s not the moveable feast of the Fitzgeralds and the Hemingways. Instead, this is a Paris of false nobility, hungry widows, transvestites, lesbians, disabled children, and circus performers. This is a Paris in which being left out of the mainstream — being a Jew, for instance, being gay, being poor — has an effect on your character. It might make you a little odd, like the transvestite doctor Matthew O’Connor, whose long, satiric, self-pitying monologues form the mass of dialogue of the novel; or it might tip you off balance altogether, like Robin Vote, whose animal-like characteristics grow stronger through the novel until she winds up groveling on the floor with the beasts. As O’Connor says, “A strong sense of identity makes a man feel he can do no wrong; too little accomplishes the same.”
The central story of Nightwood, as the other imagery whirls around like a Chagall painting, is the broken romance between Robin Vote and Nora Flood. Robin starts out married to the false baron Felix Volkbein, and then, after the birth of her child, decides she can no longer live with him. Instantly upon her departure, she falls in love with Nora. Their ecstatic love doesn’t last long, and Robin turns to brief flings with strangers. It’s during this tense, jealous time that Robin meets Jenny Petherbridge, a widow whose only happiness comes from stealing joy from others; devastatingly, Jenny succeeds in taking Robin from Nora.
But I’m making this book sound more straightforward than it is. Almost the entire first quarter of the book is taken up with the genealogy of Felix Volkbein and with Dr. O’Connor’s monologues. We meet Nora and Robin so briefly that they are nearly anonymous. The romance of the two women lasts less than a page before the agonized separation begins — an electrifying chapter about jealousy that I’ve rarely seen equalled. Then comes another long chapter of O’Connor’s disquisitions about night life, in all its multifarious senses:
“Our bones ache only while the flesh is on them. Stretch it as thin as the temple flesh of an ailing woman and still it serves to ache the bone and to move the bone about; and in like manner the night is a skin pulled over the head of day that the day may be in a torment. We will find no comfort until the night melts away; until the fury of the night rots out its fire.”
“Then,” Nora said, “it means I’ll never understand her — I’ll always be miserable — just like this.”
Djuna Barnes referred to Nightwood as “my life with Thelma” — the artist Thelma Wood, Barnes’s lover and the model for Robin Vote. It’s a book that’s full of anger and pain, but also flashes of almost vicious comedy (O’Connor remarks, “You can lay a thousand bricks and not be called a bricklayer, but lay one boy and you’re a bugger!”) It has moments of jagged tenderness, and a running undercurrent of symbols: animals, museums, and the people in society who have been cast aside. While I didn’t really know what to make of much of it, and ought probably to conduct a discussion panel entitled Is Modernism For Me?, I wound up engaged by it and glad I’d read it.