Nightwood Book Cover, Djuna Barnes, E.M. Keeler

Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is the story of a well loved woman: Robin Vote. In her name and character, Robin embodies certain freedoms. She is a pure line of flight, a painfully democratic animal that brings exquisite suffering to people just as she gives them pleasure.

Nora Flood, and Jenny, and Felix, the ignoble and decidedly ungentile Baron, all try their best to wrap her up in their civilized arms, but this woman who looks like a boy is wild, and willfully innocent. Robin is not a woman so much as a child, a bird, a doll, and a dog. Everywhere she escapes into images, into animals. Her children are fragile faced dolls and sensitive imbeciles. She denies the future in all things, and has no memories.

The story is told back to Nora by a madman, an illegitimate doctor, Mathew, a lost soul with a loud mouth who haunts the streets of Paris’ least reputable arrondissement. His cloaked and hunched body becomes the instrument of a Queer story, and yet he is reliable precisely because his narration is not official; he can only tell Nora and Felix what they need to hear. He is pure and pompous and yet he shifts the grounds of this story with such swift subtlety that you can just hold onto the thread of meaning even as the tapestry undoes and re-weaves itself.

This was a very complicated read, and I need to go back to it. More than once. T.S. Eliot went back into it again and again, and marveled at the dynamic power of this prose, of this story. I can only give you my very first thoughts, which are unstable and fragile.

Reading this hurt me, damaged me in some way. It was beautiful but never pretty, like a dying bird or a slab of meat. I couldn’t afford to read this the way it needs to be read. I need to go over each line with eyes like a scalpel, to parse out the beauty of every sinew of the beating muscle. There are treasures buried here, and though I saw the glinting gold I couldn’t bear to dig beneath the scarred surface. But I will. Next time.

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