Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the "findings" in a tomb.  As in one will be charted the taken place of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as an indelible shadow, that which he loves.  In Nora's heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora's blood.

What is the great gay novel?  Forget the homoerotic and the homosocial, what is the great novel about gay lives as they're lived?  It's arresting to stop and think about how few there have been, especially considering how many of our greatest writers have been queer of some stripe or another.  Carson McCullers and Evelyn Waugh went at it obliquely, Virginia Woolf in the mode of legend; E. M. Forster went at it head on but felt as if he couldn't publish.  Even Oscar Wilde flaunted his queerness more in life than in fiction.

So it's worth pausing to observe just what a rare bird Djuna Barnes' Nightwood is: a novel about explicitly gay relationships from 1936, and lesbian ones at that, which seems even rarer.  It's the story of Robin Vote, for whose love many people nearly ruin themselves: Felix, the fraud aristocrat who marries Robin and has a son, Nora Flood, who introduces her to the love of women, and the horrendous Jenny Petherbridge, who steals Robin jealously from Nora.  These four are brought together by the figure of Matthew O'Connor, a flamboyant and philosophical doctor prone to go on long discursive jags.

Nightwood is, at the level of the sentence, one of the most difficult books I have ever read.  Do you know what it means to say that the "foetus of symmetry nourishes itself on cross purposes?"  If so, please let me know.  Perhaps you could explain this Homeric simile:

Such a person's every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its beast to its prey.

Sentences that begin in familiar ways go quickly south, or sideways.  Jeanette Winterson wrote the introduction for this edition, and it's easy to see Barnes' influence (for the worse, I'd say) on her work.  But the unexpectedness of Barnes' prose is equally likely to throw up an unforgettable phrase or sentence, as when she describes Robin's timeless clothing as making her look "newly ancient," or Matthew's assertion that humans "are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality."  Matthew advises Felix to treat the mind of his peculiar son with care, "like a bowl picked up in the dark."  I particularly loved the simple beauty of Barnes' description of Robin and Nora in love with "their two heads in their four hands."

The middle section of the book is a long conversation between Nora and Matthew, both equally distraught.  Nora because Robin is gone, and Matthew because he was born a man.  (As Nora storms into his room in the middle of the night, she catches him in a gown and wig.)  His confession about his own sense of misplaced identity resounds strongly with the current cultural recognition of transgender men and women, and strikingly captures the feeling of being born wrong:

Misericordia, am I not the girl to know of what I speak?  We go to our Houses by our nature--and our nature, no matter how it is, we all have to stand--as for me, so God has made me, my house is the pissing port.  Am I to blame if I've been summoned before and this my last and oddest call?  In the old days I was possibly a girl in Marseilles thumping the dock with a sailor, and perhaps it's that memory that haunts me.  The wise men say that the remembrance of things past is all that we have for a future, and am I to blame if I've turned up this time as I shouldn't have been, when it was a high soprano I wanted, and deep corn curls to my bum, with a womb as big as the king's kettle, and a bosom as high as the bowsprit of a fishing schooner?  And what do I get but a face on me like an old child's bottom--is that a happiness, do you think?

"God," Matthew tells Nora, "I never asked better than to boil some good man's potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months by the calendar."  Barnes' style is fittingly alien, coming from the world of the "invert," as Matthew calls himself and Nora, attuned to the improvisational and marginal nature of queer folks.  We have a language for these things now--sometimes a deadening language, I often think--but much of the pleasure and challenge of Nightwood is seeing Barnes invent such a language on the fly.

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