by Djuna Barnes
Nightwood is the sound of hearts breaking, written on the page, spread out for all to see, five lives, five people eviscerated and eviscerating each other. These people fucking kill me, they are so sad and so full of nonsense and so determined to live in their own personal little boxes, striving for epiphanies that they barely even understand, trying to be a certain idea of What a Person Is. Is that what I'm like? Maybe that's what everyone is like. Barnes lays out these characters' lives like beads on a string, one after the other. "Baron" Felix, that whole fake heritage made by his father that he now lives out as if it were real. I can't help but identify a little bit with the Baron, his bullshit, his need to please, to be calm and careful as a way to prop himself up. His stiffness. Not really sure how Barnes feels about him - she spends a lot of time with him, such an elaborate backstory, so that's something (although I hate all the derogatory Jew crap, 'Jews are like this, Jews always think this way' - bogus, and the only thing that is boring in Nightwood). She creates this hollow man and then she fills him up with life and sadness and a rigid sort of sweetness towards his son, I see myself in him, and other people I know, my dad especially. Barnes seems more interested in the Robin-Nora-Jenny triangle. Makes sense; I'm more interested in them too. Robin Vote. That name! Is it supposed to mean something? She is like something out of a Duras novel, a hollow vessel, an intellectual kind of id, a sick need to define herself by rejecting those who want her, rejecting those who want to define her. I see a lot of myself in Robin, that fucked up need to keep people at a distance, no real connection means no proprietary relationship, let's just be friends, friends are easy, I love my friends. Except Robin has no real love in her, just a blind, mindless need... for what? Something. When we first meet her she is passed out, insensible; Barnes describes her as "La Somnambule", a sleepwalker in life - except sleepwalkers don't destroy. She is more like an exterminating angel, a sleepy one. In the end, confronting a dog, she is transformed into a kind of dog herself. I think that's unfair to dogs. My sympathies are mainly with Nora Flood, a tough dyke of the old school, a listener, a person people gravitate towards, to tell their stories, to be listened to and so given a kind of identity by that listening, being made human by being seen as human by another human. I see a lot of myself in Nora. There is a remoteness to her, different than the alien quality of Robin's hollow vessel, more like a stillness, a need to stay still and understand and truly see the world around her. And then when she's hurt, when she is filled with longing and damage and pain, it is so debilitating and yet filled with such sad fury, a painful howling fury, I've felt that, it just takes over and you don't want to feel anything but pain, your mind is just blank with it, all bright and dark hues of hot angry red. Poor Nora. Why does her life become defined by her pursuit of Robin? That's not even a life. But it is a better life than Jenny Petheridge's life, the third part of this strange, sorrowful triangle. Triangle? Why do I keep saying that? If you include Baron Felix, it is more of a square. But he barely counts in their lives, his poor sad son becomes his life, a son who is all need and reaching towards some kind of meaning, something to define him. I felt such empathy for that son, like I was that son. I am that son. But back to Jenny. Djuna Barnes must have based Jenny on someone she hates. There is so much detail about her craziness. And a lot of it is so funny, a terrible kind of funny, laughing at someone who is a rich basket case, at a person who is basically a straw man - woman - for the author's hate. She is all gruesome softness and blind stabby moments, crying hysterics and desperate neediness, such intensity and so little affect, defining herself by creating these fake worlds to live in, this dramatic love affair with an empty vessel, not caring who she hurts - shoving, scratching her emotions right into, onto a person's face, literally. And those who love her die - her history of dead husbands, leaving her better off and with more of nothing. I can't help but identify with Jenny, with her weakness, her desperate yearning. I remember when my heart was broken, except I was the one who did the breaking, broke two hearts, another person's heart isn't enough, let's break mine too, like Jenny with her insensible angry intrusive neediness, her boring self-abnegating self-flagellations, I hate all that. How can a person like Jenny compete with a person like Nora, how can Robin chose possession over true understanding? Well, that happens all the time I suppose. And Robin doesn't really even choose her, she chooses herself, again and again. I get Robin, I see her in the mirror; she's coming and going from and to nowhere.
And then the renegade doctor, the berserk socialite, Dr. Matthew O'Connor, railing against form and tradition, gentle and strong and angry and petty, a drunkard, a man who loves life, a transvestite living in his little squalid apartment, a man full of warmth and kindness and vitriol, a man who secretly defines himself by helping others, spitting out monologues about life and death and appearance and sanctity and desire. He delivered Nora Flood into the world and is her sounding-board, his long rants are not just violent flows of sound and fury and pathos, they are not merely self-absorbed, they are trying to speak to her by speaking of himself, he is trying to break through to her by breaking himself down in front of her, shaking her back to life, away from insensibility and morbid obsession, until the rant turns on the ranter and he in turn is broken down, seeing himself and the world around him for what he and it truly is, is becoming, is falling back into. His delirious rants are like the novel itself, discretely separated into chapters, separated by character and incident, and yet the parts are flowing into each other, the language flows into reality and out of it, the narrative folds up into itself until it becomes unrecognizable as a narrative, like a flower all mashed up so that the pulp is barely recognizable as the original flower, just little parts here and there, you pull a piece out and it is still a flower but what connection does it have to the original thing? It turns in on itself, it becomes something different and it stays essentially the same. I see a lot of myself in Matthew O'Connor, him most of all, most of all, I Am Matthew O'Connor, I live and breathe him, I read about these breaking hearts and they are all my heart too, all of it, none of it, it all comes together, it's all the same, each separate one of them, right?
...Is this a mobius strip, of sorts?:
looking back on this a few weeks later, i see that i neglected key things that i usually like to put in my reviews.
the writing itself: beautiful! hypnotic. excessive. idiosyncratic. modernist (duh). drily amusing. rich with off-kilter nuance. flows like a bad dream.
the characterization: despite the experimental nature of the novel and a regular use of caricature, these are some amazingly three-dimensional characters. i got to understand them on a really human level, and not just as quirky conceits on a page.
the narrative: broken, unstable, constantly challenging - and often very annoying as well. annoying like sand in an oyster's shell! Nightwood: a pearl.