In 1936, Barnes published her ground-breaking novel, Nightwood, to widespread acclaim. In his introduction, T S Eliot remarked that the prose was akin to poetry; it’s true to say this dense, intensely visual, sensual and image-laden novel is often so poetic it’s almost dizzying.
Barnes wrote Nightwood in part as an exploration of the breakdown of her relationship with the artist Thelma Woods. But the novel is so much more than that – it’s a treatise on the nature of night, a reflection on the rise of fascism in Europe, and an exemplary piece of modernist writing that is too often ignored in a still male-dominated canon.
So who was Djuna Barnes and what did she do before and after Nightwood?
Born in 1892 in New York State, Barnes’s childhood was more horrible than fiction could have imagined. Her father was an abusive husband who moved his mistress into the family home when Barnes was just five-years-old. After she was raped when she was a teenager, Barnes was forcibly ‘married’ to her father’s mistress’ brother. She escaped this frightening and violent situation and moved to New York. Later on she would tackle the issues of rape and her desperate childhood in her troubling and difficult works, Ryder and The Antiphon.
Once in New York, Barnes threw herself into the bohemian scene of Greenwich village and started working as a journalist. She pioneered new techniques in first-person investigative journalism – putting herself in the situations she would write about, volunteering to be force fed when reporting on the suffrage movement, and to be rescued from a sky scraper by a fireman.
During this period Barnes was writing poetry and short stories, publishing The Book of Repulsive Women in 1915. But it was when she moved to Paris in 1921 that her creative writing career really took off. Working in the heart of the European modernist scene, and a close friend of James Joyce, she started writing experimental short stories, collected in Spillway.
As well as the modernist circle, Barnes was a popular member of the lesbian community that had gathered on the Left Bank. Writers of the time all remark on Barnes’ elegance and beauty. Gertrude Stein, after meeting Barnes, was said to have commented on her ‘lovely legs’.
After a brief affair with salon hostess Natalie Barney (a rite of passage for almost every lesbian woman moving to the area) she wrote and illustrated The Ladies Almanack – a comedy record of the gay bed-hopping that centred around a character called Dame Evangeline Musset, AKA Natalie Barney, who privately published the work.
1921 was also the year Barnes embarked on her relationship with Thelma Wood. They were passionately in love, Barnes later using Nightwood to describe the pair as being ‘haunted by one another’. But Wood’s drinking and infidelity tore the couple apart. After they split, Barnes spiralled into an alcohol-fuelled depression. It was Natalie Barney who intervened, rescuing Barnes from her hotel and nursing her back to health.
Barnes poured the desperation and heartache of her shattered relationship into Nightwood which viscerally explores the love and horror of their affair, before moving into stunning explorations into the nature of love and lust, night and day, ambition and snobbery and violence. The longest section of this extraordinary novel involves a conversation between Nora, the main protagonist, and the gay, cross-dressing Dr. Matthew O’Connor. Asking him about ‘the night’ when her lover Robin left her, Dr. O’Connor launches into an impassioned speech about the ‘night’, as well as about men, women, his own sense of displacement in a man’s body, the meaning of lust, and, finally Thelma’s night. ‘Can’t you rest now?’ he asks Nora, who, still despairing for Robin, can’t let her longing, love and anger go.
In one of my favourite parts of the novel, Nora tells the Doctor that after Robin left, she went to the bars that she had visited and danced with the women Robin had danced with. In these women, she hoped to find her lover again. But all she found were women who Robin had left. She can’t rest, no matter what Dr. O’Connor says.
Nightwood was critically acclaimed, but its success didn’t bring Barnes happiness. She carried on drinking and was so ill with alcoholism that when her friend Peggy Guggenheim got her out of France before war broke out, no one believed she would survive the journey back to the States. She did – she survived a lot longer in fact, right up until 1982.
Barnes is one of the most exciting, innovative and daring writers of the modernist period. She also inspired incredible loyalty and friendship in the women around her – from Natalie Barney and Alice Toklas, to Janet Flanner and Peggy Guggenheim. I’ll leave the last word to Flanner, who, as with most things, says it best: I was devoted to Djuna and she was very fond of me in her own, superior way.