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Damaged Hearts

1936 (Faber & Faber)

I first heard about Nightwood decades before I finally sat down to read it. One of my teachers in high school always spoke of Djuna Barnes with high estimation, comparing her slim novella to other (longer) examples of exceptional modern literature published towards the early part of the 20th century. Books like Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, and The Sun Also Rises seemed determined to expand the possibilities of narrative prose itself, with so many writers and artists of this time radically experimenting with structure, form, and perspective within the form of the novel akin to the ways their peers were innovating within music, theater, and visual art. The horrible death and destruction of the first World War forced everyone to see things anew, and to question what they saw; small wonder that artists, too, eagerly sought new languages or perspectives of communicating their art in whatever form.

Barnes endured a complicated home life growing up in upstate New York. She slept in the same bed as her grandmother, an early Suffragist, and some scholarship suggests that she committed incest with the young Djuna. Also in the household was not only her mother and father, but also his mistress (whom he promptly married after her parents divorced). Rumors circulated around the time that either he or another (male) neighbor of her fathers might have raped Barnes during her youth. Yet the author of Nightwood never confirmed these rumors, and it is a fact that she continued a regular correspondence with her father all the way up to his death in the 1930s. Perhaps like her contemporary Anais Nin, Barnes´ complicated and unusual personal life became some of the primary material of her creative writing, as Nightwood certainly includes a wide range of characters with damaged hearts, engaged in various sorts of unusual or complicated relationships.

When she moved to Greenwich Village as a young adult in the early part of the twentieth century, Barnes worked as an illustrator and journalist, as well as became a member of the Provincetown Players. The experimental theater group, whose other members included Eugene O´Neill, Sophie Treadwell, Susan Glaspell, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, produced some of her plays, and the Players is credited today with galvanizing a new, more modern approach to dramatic storytelling and expressionistic approaches to performance--an alternative to the commercial priorities of Broadway.

Also during this period of intellectual freedom in the Village, Barnes also enjoyed sexual freedom with both men and women. While Nightwood is frequently cited as a lesbian novel from the first half of the century, one could make at least a strong of a case for it being a story of bisexuality and gender-fluidity. Robin Vote, one of the book´s central characters, marries and has a child with Felix, but then falls in love with first Norah Flood and then later, Jenny Petherbridge. Dr. Matthew O´Connor, one of Nightwood´s more flamboyant characters who offers a number of stream-of-conscious monologues within the book, is described as wearing wigs and women´s clothing at one point, and refers to himself in both masculine and feminine pronouns as the story progresses. Just as Barnes refused to identify herself as one who only loved women, Nightwood seems to articulate a fictional universe where sexuality and gender are fluid, contradictory, and often painfully confusing.

A writing assignment to interview other expatriate writers took Barnes to Paris in 1921, and she remained in the French capital until 1930. The center of modernism in art and literature at that time, one can see the impact of this milieu upon her own develpment as a writer, particularly the impact of James Joyce, who became a close friend. Through he and other members of the "lost generation", Barnes also got to know the poet T.S. Eliot (who helped to edit Nightwood, and championed it with an introductory essay) as well as Peggy Guggenheim, a benefactor who would support Barnes for the next half a century.

Written between 1932-33 before its publication three years later, the handful of characters populating Nightwood are based on Barnes (aka Norah) and others during her time in Paris a decade before. But even this is misleading, as the slim novel is much more about the stylistic brilliance of its prose than any kind of narrative "events". In this regard, it bears comparisons to Joyce´s gargantuan Ulysses, whose ordinary events all occur within a single day in Dublin, but is often hailed as the greatest novel ever written due to the enormous experimentation and virtuosity of its form. Similarly, Nightwood may feel elusive in content for some readers, and very little happens; but one key to enjoying the book is to shift the focus on the form more than its content. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" or "Nude Descending a Staircase" both exemplify modernism not for their subject matter (in fact, in both cases, their subjects are almost defiantly ordinary), but how the uniqueness of their form forces us to perceive in a new way. Similarly here with Barnes´ beautiful book. She clearly possesses a mastery of language, and her sentences are alternate between the sinous and the sinister, while always remaining sensual. To enhance one´s appreciation for the book, read passages of Nightwood aloud. And preferably to a lover, at night. While its ultimate meaning might remain elusive or as impenetrable as the night, Djuna Barnes is well worth reading and experiencing. The waters here run deep, and will transport readers into unusual and rewarding realms.

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