Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is a strange, singular novel. I’m trying to prepare a seminar paper on it for Wednesday, and I’ve already had to read it twice; the first time I was convinced I hated it, but since I had already agreed to give the presentation, I read it again. And it is a deeply interesting little book.
Much of it is composed of anecdotes and sequences with little immediate relationship to one another; a mad, drunken Doctor spouts quotable Wildean nuggets like ‘“To pay homage to our past is the only gesture that also includes the future”’, whilst others, fraudulent aristocrats and hysterical ‘inverts’ (homosexuals) with a tremendous amount of leisure time and disposable income say things like ‘“The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy. I have been entangled in the shadow of a vast apprehension which is my son; he is the central point towards which life and death are spinning, the meeting of which my final design will be composed.”’ Which is rather beautiful, I think, but I’m sure we can agree that people don’t talk like that. And her descriptive style is gloriously overwrought. Look at this:
‘The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-world, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface. About her head there was an effulgence as of phosporous glowing about the circumference of a body of water — as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations — the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds — meet of child and desperado.’
People don’t look like that, you might say. But this is not just florid, it’s verging on nonsensical; how exactly is the scent of amber ‘an inner malady of the sea’? How does sleep relate to decay? I don’t understand ‘fishing her’. And surely any modern editor would strike out ‘ungainly luminous deteriorations’ for being, well — ungainly. All of this tells us virtually nothing about the character of the subject, but that is not what it’s for; and furthermore, I have little patience for the (non-)argument that ‘people don’t look/speak/act like that’ as a measure of merit in any book/film/play. I think Nightwood has something else, another quality.
T.S. Eliot puts his finger on it in his introduction to the novel when he says that ‘…most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official.’
Yes. It’s Barnes’ refusal to reduce the novel to a simple ‘record of noises’ that makes Nightwood a break from the realist tradition. In the words of John Barth (paraphrased from his essay on ‘the Literature of Exhaustion’ which I do not have to hand, originally w/r/t Borges) Barnes is all about ‘rebelling in an old-fashioned way’; she’s going back beyond the gothic to the metaphysical; to John Donne and the metaphysical poets, to the Elizabethan dramatists. Poe and Baudelaire are in there too, I suppose, but her style is so dense and kaleidoscopic that it’s hard to pinpoint particular influences. She was a friend of James Joyce, and deeply influenced by Ulysses and his Wake-in-progress, but her novel is experimental in a very different way. There are none of his elaborate portmanteaus or multi-lingual puns, and though Nightwood also reminds me of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier*, it’s less impressionistic; actually, the language is relatively straightforward with regards to spelling and grammar as well as chronology and plot. It’s just a bit mad in all other respects. There’s also the Nathanael West of Miss Lonelyhearts, and traces which point me towards the postmodern; particularly Kathy Acker and J.G. Ballard, though perhaps that’s just my tastes in pattern-recognition mode…
But the tendency towards a journalistic prose style in the novel is, I think, as true now as it was when Eliot described it in 1937. Perhaps even more so. When I was a student of creative writing, I was taught that that the Hemingway model of a pared-down, precise, minimal prose was the mark of a really great writer — certainly the idea of any revision to a draft which might add words rather than strike them out them was treated like a joke, a kind of failure of imagination. And I think that’s right, for the most part; I enjoy reading that kind of prose, and it’s how I try and write, but I quite often wish it weren’t; it’s so paranoid, so restrictive, and it rules out so many wonderful possibilities. It ought to be a minimum standard from which the writer can build upon. Myself, I’ll take Faulkner over Hemingway. Or Djuna Barnes, I suppose.
* — which if you haven’t read you really need to reconsider your priorities.