Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
Jenny leaning far over the table, Robin far back, her legs thrust under her, to balance the whole backward incline of the body and Jenny so far forward that she had to catch her small legs in the back rung of the chair, ankle out and toe in, not to pitch forward on the table – thus they presented the two halves of a movement that had, as in sculpture, the beauty and the absurdity of a desire that is in flower but that can have no burgeoning, unable to execute its destiny, a movement that can divulge neither caution nor daring, for the fundamental condition for completion was in neither of them; they were like Greek runners, with lifted feet but without the relief of the final command that would bring the foot down – eternally angry, eternally separated, in a cataleptic frozen gesture of abandon.
This is a book I read in my first cycle of graduate school and it is the kind of thing that excites people in MFA programs. I remembered little more than a blur of language and I had to read carefully to clarify the plot and characters. As we can see in the sentence above, there is real mastery of imagery and sentence structure, but the image is manipulated to tell us what the characters are not able to communicate rather than to actually communicate. It tells the story of Robin Vote, her marriage to Felix Volkbein, a fake Baron, and her relationships with Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge. The idea here is that Robin is irresistible – all three of these characters fall in love with her and when she abandons them spend the rest of their lives trying to deal with the trauma of having lost her.
On this reading, at least, Robin did not seem irresistible to me. Her personality consists entirely in the fact that these characters find her attractive and in her ability to destroy their lives. We learn little else about her and what we do learn is information, she lives on the page only as this vaguely threatening absence in the lives of others. She is written in the kind of abstraction modernist writers love and that I increasingly find meaningless. Of course, her primary power is clearly sexual – anyone who meets her seems to want to sleep with her and anyone who sleeps with her falls apart. The problem then becomes that it is 1937 and there is no sex or even sexuality here at all – for the most part the reader has to infer that these relationships are sexual. To be fair, TS Eliot, who championed the book and wrote the introduction, seems to have edited out the dirty parts and a new edition restores some of Barnes’s missing content. I chose to re-read the famous version of the book, though I am curious to see if any of my issues are affected by the restoration of the deleted portions.
For all its daring, Nightwood accepts some of the worst of its era’s images of lesbianism. Robin is referred to as an “invert,” a Freudian term for mis-organized sexuality. She is an astonishingly unfit mother – at one point she seems to contemplate dashing her child’s head to the ground, but instead abandons him. Her sexuality is seen as unnaturally powerful and destructive. Again, to look at the end of the sentence above, lesbians are seen as missing some vital part of their selves, leaving them “eternally angry, eternally separated, in a cataleptic frozen gesture of abandon.”
While she is the center of the novel, Jenny appears relatively little. The bulk of the novel focuses on Felix and Nora as they try to deal with having lost Robin – she is an absence for these characters and that absence is felt by the reader directly, since for so much of the novel she is an absence to us as well. In order to process and articulate their grief and longing, Felix and Nora spend a great deal of time with Dr. Matthew O’Conner – a transgender doctor-without-training who is the most prevalent character in the novel. He helps Felix and Robin deal with loss by talking – he is an unstoppable talker. He discusses sexuality with them (briefly), reports on Robin’s other relationships, explains the power of night at great length and generally talks for pages on end, in terms that are complex, flowery and not clearly on point. It is worth noting that he presents as different genders, is a fake doctor, and seems to withhold information when it suits him. There are a lot of fake people in this book.
In the end, Dr. O’Conner – who clearly has a drinking problem – talks himself into insanity: we last see him raving in a café about the pressure to keep talking. By that point, Felix has withdrawn from society to care for the mentally disabled son he had with Robin and Nora is trying to move on from some kind of nervous breakdown. Finally, we see Robin after she has left both Nora and Jenny: she wanders back onto Nora’s property, to a chapel, where she crawls around on the floor with a dog, the two of them barking at each other before they snuggle together to go to sleep. It is an exaggerated and strange ending, one that does not hold out hope for a healthy lesbianism to come.