My primary impression of Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood is of reading an author whose mind naturally operates about five levels above my own, and to whom I can pull myself up occasionally, with great effort.
T.S. Eliot’s introduction to the novel praises Barnes’s characterization. “I cannot think of any character in the book who has not gone on living in my mind,” he writes. No doubt this is true. But the price of access to Barnes’s characters is a sustained intelligence for fine abstractions. Eliot, I guess, could keep it up for the whole novel. I couldn’t. Yet I could frequently recognize what I was missing through my own inattention. Barnes’s medium is symbolic abstraction; her brush is the width of a single hair; and she expects her readers to be able to remember how each stroke fits together.
For example, here are two paragraphs describing Nora Flood, one of Barnes’s more straightforward characters:
By temperament Nora was an early Christian; she believed the word. There is a gap in ‘world pain’ through which the singular falls continuously and forever; a body falling in observable space, deprived of the privacy of disappearance; as if privacy, moving relentlessly away, by the very sustaining power of its withdrawal kept the body eternally moving downward, but in one place, and perpetually before the eye. Such a singular was Nora. There was some derangement in her equilibrium that kept her immune from her own descent.
Nora had the face of all people who love the people—a face that would be evil when she found out that to love without criticism is to be betrayed. Nora robbed herself for every one; incapable of giving herself warning, she was continually turning about to find herself diminished. Wandering people the world over found her profitable in that she could be sold for a price forever, for she carried her betrayal money in her own pocket. (79-80)
Reading these paragraphs once or twice over, I felt like I’d only learned some obscure emotional information about Nora: she’s devoted and earnest, and gives herself too completely to the things she loves. Since Nightwood is a novel, once or twice was roughly the amount of time I could devote to each paragraph without losing the thread of the plot.
Spending more time with these paragraphs, however—really examining Barnes’s abstractions—tells me much more. To take just the first paragraph: Nora is the kind of egoist whose self-image depends so wholly on her fidelity to her ideals that she can neither see nor understand how that attitude might harm her. The lengthy metaphor (“a body falling in observable space”), paired with its opening depiction of Nora as a Puritan, suggests that her sense of self feels so concentrated and secure (“singular”) that she can’t recognize when it’s fracturing (either because her ideals have failed or because she can no longer live up to them). She lacks the “privacy of disappearance” because she can’t imagine the kind of shame that would damage her self-image enough to inspire her to hide; and because of this, she sees no gaps between her self-image and her public image. So when things go wrong, instead of breaking down and fleeing to the safety of private grief, she simply falls—in public, still unbroken and very confused, since she’s the only one who doesn’t realize she’s falling (“immune from her own descent”).
That’s an incredible amount of detailed character information to convey in one dense, abstract metaphor. And it’s not just empty poeticism. Barnes bears out her portrait of Nora here through the rest of the book, which follows Nora as she doggedly chases the memory of her ex-lover Robin. Robin, in many ways Nora’s antitype, is a dark, intelligent critique of the Manic Pixie Dream girl a century before the term was invented: everyone in the novel loves her, yet no one understands her, herself included; and her intoxicating brush with their lives makes everyone heartsick and miserable. Nora, the stubborn idealist, seeks Robin with the hopeless obsession of a grail quest (and I think we’re intended to draw that parallel explicitly, not only because the grail quest was the Modernists’ jam, but because Nightwood is called Nightwood and ends with Nora running through a forest at night and bursting into a chapel, where Robin stands before an altar). To return to the metaphor in the earlier paragraph I was examining: after Robin leaves, Nora falls, and spends the rest of the book falling. Her character evolution entails recognizing that she can’t (or won’t) stop her descent—the topic of a chapter-long conversation with Dr. Matthew O’Connor, the novel’s grouchy chorus figure. As he* tells Nora: “Robin is not in your life, you are in her dream, you’ll never get out of it” (207).
To sum: Barnes’s characterization is profound, nuanced, and terrifyingly consistent. But recognizing it requires either being as smart as Barnes herself, or giving Nightwood the kind of attention that I find exhausting to apply even to shorter poems. Eliot, apparently, had to read this book several times to appreciate its brilliance. I think I agree with him. And I think it would be worth it.
*I call Matthew “he” because Barnes does, but Matthew also describes herself frequently as a woman in a man’s body—a woman who is very lonely, and really sick of doing all of the other characters’ emotional labor.