Blog | Literature

Djuna Barnes: Nightwood

. 2 min read

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is one of the few books I’ve read more than once. At times it feels like an elongated poem. For, as T.S Eliot remarks in his introduction, the language in Nightwood is of an astonishing beauty. The sentences seem to flow over the pages, at once 'heftig bewegt', then 'utterly tranquil' or 'quietly flowing' as Anton Webern annotated his Five Movements for String Quartet and his Six Bagatelles for String Quartet.

Nightwood is all about confusion, doubt, uncertainty, the unknowable, the impossibility of communication and the need to communicate. It is set in 1920s Paris. The central characters are Nora Flood, a typical American in Paris, attracted by a romantic idea of Old Europe, doctor Matthew O’Connor, an Irish doctor who isn't a doctor, Robin Vote with whom Nora had an affair and Felix Volkbein, Robin's former husband and father to her child. Chance has brought them all together and has woven their lives into an intricate network. This is why Nightwood works as a metaphor of life. We like to think of our lives as meaningful and of ourselves as being in the driving seat, but in reality life is driven by chance and chance meetings.

Robin, whose name could be a man's name, is the most enigmatic character of the whole novel. She is a sphynx, mysterious, elusive and beautiful. She eludes all those who want to know and possess her, which only makes them desire her more. Her identity is her lack of identity. She seems to be constantly on the run, from others, but most of all from herself. After her marriage to Felix Volkbein she had an affair with Nora Flood, whom she leaves to go back to America with another woman, Jenny, but she too will lose her mind because she is unable to possess Robin.

We only get to know the characters through their thoughts and feelings, their effects on each other’s lives and through their conversations, in which they comment on others, but thereby also reveal their own thoughts and feelings. Matthew O'Connor talks end on end. Whereas others hide in silence, he hides in a flood of words. He prides himself in that he only tells lies. This is the famous paradox of the liar. It casts doubt on everything he says and everything we come to know about others through his words.

Indeed, the whole book is shrouded in doubt and uncertainty, about oneself and others, about one's feelings and (sexual) identity (Doctor Matthew is a transvestite, Robin was first married to Felix Volkbein before going off with a woman), about the present and the future and the whole of the past. It brims with rhetorical questions and other questions that are unanswerable because they are too subjective for anyone else to answer but oneself. "Have you ever loved someone and it became yourself?" Nora asks Matthew at some point. What kind of a question is that and how is anyone supposed to answer?

This uncertainty is typical of the modern novel. It is one reason why Nightwood stands as one of the classics of modern (or modernist) fiction alongside Mrs Dalloway, Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time.

Nightwood is full of memorable metaphors. "Only the impossible lasts forever; with time it is made accessible". "Life is not to be told, call it as loud as you like, it will not tell itself." "Your body has a life of its own that you like to think is yours".

So, if you are a dancer and like this novel, don't hesitate to contact me.