In 1920 the American writer and artist Djuna Barnes moved from New York to Paris where she met the love of her life, Thelma Wood. Their passionate eight-year love affair, fired by sex, drugs and violent emotion, came to an explosive end in 1929. Two years later, Barnes left Paris for England and moved into Peggy Guggenheim’s country manor, where she wrote out her devastation in a haunting novel of erotic obsession and torment, Nightwood, which Barnes called the soliloquy of ‘a soul talking to itself in the heart of the night’ and said was written in blood. The extraordinary baroque richness of her novel, about the unleashed passion of Nora Flood for the boyish woman Robin Vote, led the poet TS Eliot to compare it to Elizabethan drama: ‘What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.’
Nightwood, told in eight disjointed chapters, opens early in 1880 with the birth in Vienna of Felix Volkbein. Felix’s Jewish father Guido has attempted to ‘span the impossible gap’ between himself and his Christian wife, between his Jewish blood and that of his adopted land, Austria, by pretending to be from an old, noble Austrian family—’the saddest and most futile gesture of all had been his pretence of barony’. Felix—who assumes his father’s false title to become Baron Volkbein—is the first of the novel’s outcasts, nighttime creatures at odds with the world. At a decadent party in Berlin, Felix Volkbein meets Dr Matthew O’Connor, an Irishman who dominates the party with his depraved stories of young men—such as Nikka, who wore nothing at all ‘except an ill-concealed loin-cloth all abulge as if with a deep-sea catch, tattooed from head to heel with all the emeublement of depravity! Garlanded with rosebuds and the hackwork of the devil’—and the ‘savage and refined’ American woman Nora Flood, who is promoting a circus.
The doctor meets up with Felix in a Paris cafe, but their drinking session is abandoned when the doctor is called to assist a woman who has fainted in a nearby hotel. The two men discover a dishevelled form on a bed surrounded by exotic plants and flowers:
About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water—as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations—the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds—meet of child and desperado.
Barnes’s lover Thelma Wood was the original for this portrait of the fluid Robin Vote, with whom Nora Flood soon falls desperately in love. When Robin drifts away into the twilight, impossible to hold, and moves in with the rich American widow Jenny Petherbridge, Nora, in her unleashed grief, turns to the doctor for comfort. In the fifth fragment of the novel, the beautiful ‘Watchman, What of the Night?’, Nora asks the doctor to tell her everything about the night. The doctor, dressed in a woman’s nightgown and golden wig, responds by talking through Nora’s ravaged ravings, telling her stories of the night and those who haunt it—drug addicts, alcoholics, the debauched and ‘that most miserable, the lover who watches all night long in fear and anguish’.
In Nightwood Barnes probes intensely the darkness of illicit love, jealousy, death, agonised passion and perverse desire. Her vision is prescient in an era—the 1930s—that saw the rise of Nazism intent on eradicating deviance. Barnes’s extravagant metaphors and symbols, ferocious and daring, have all the ornate, sensual detail of Surrealist painting, which emerged in Paris in the 1920s and to which Barnes was exposed through her friendship with the Surrealists:
Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning into human. 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; an insupportable a 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.
Djuna Barnes was born into an eccentric household in 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson. Her father, a dilettante artist, lived with his wife, mistress, children and his mother, a journalist, who was responsible for Barnes’s early education. In 1912 Barnes’s mother took her children to New York, where Barnes went to art school, her first experience of formal education. She then worked as a journalist and artist to help support the family. In 1915 she published The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings in the decadent, depraved mood of Aubrey Beardsley. She soon left New York for Paris, where as a journalist she interviewed expatriate artists and writers. It was there in 1921 that she met and fell in love with the artist Thelma Wood and they set up house together, living a wild and drunken life. Their relationship ended in 1929 when Wood, who had frequent affairs with men and women, began a passionate affair with another woman.
In Paris Barnes was friends with James Joyce, Gertrude Stein and Ford Madox Ford, who published her stories in his Transatlantic Review. In 1928 her first novel, Ryder, was published. A semi-autobiographical book which she described as ‘a female Tom Jones‘, Ryder became a bestseller in the United States. Her second novel, Nightwood, was eventually recommended for publication by TS Eliot at the prestigious publishing house Faber & Faber, and was published in England in 1936. Barnes’s densely written novel influenced writers such as Truman Capote, Dylan Thomas and Anais Nin. In 1940 Barnes returned to New York City, moving to Greenwich Village, where she lived until she died in 1982, shortly before her 90th birthday.