Friday, July 28, 1995

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

A review of the restored version of Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes (edited by Cheryl J. Plumb)
Published July 28th, 1995, in The Minnesota Daily’s Nightly Magazine

Classic Novel Nightwood Improved in Restored Version

Edited by Cheryl J. Plumb
Dalkey Archive, $23.95

Djuna Barnes’ classic 1936 novel Nightwood has influenced everyone from Thomas Pynchon to Jeanette Winterson, but among the general public it remains largely unread. Why? Because like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, it’s nearly impossible to read. For those who have made their way through it, it’s a life-changing experience, and for Cheryl J. Plumb, editor of this restored version, it was the foundation of an entire academic career.

Begun in 1927, Nightwood went through numerous versions until 1934, when Barnes submitted the finished book to editor T.S. Eliot. Eliot loved it but found much of it “unsuitable” for publication, and he proceeded to hack away considerable chunks of the text. After two years of editing, Barnes finally agreed to some of the cuts. The finished product has become a classic, but Barnes’ reluctance to the changes sparked debate over the artistic integrity of the published version.

Now, after years of studying the original texts, Barnes scholar Cheryl J. Plumb has restored Nightwood to its pristine version. In addition, Plumb has included twenty pages of annotation explaining Barnes’ literary and historical reference, as well as documented all the changes made in her own restoration. Plumb has also compiled seventy-five pages of original typed and handwritten drafts to illuminate Barnes’ creative process.

A work of art of the highest order, Nightwood is as groundbreaking in its content as it is in its style. It’s possibly the first lesbian novel to be published in America, and like Zora Neale Hurston’s centralization of African Americans, Barnes deals with homosexuals as normal people rather than as anomalies.

Of course Barnes doesn’t ignore the problems of homosexual life, but her treatment of them makes them seem universal, as immediate to the outsider as to the insider. This commanding presence gives her the freedom not only to write from a very central point of view, but also to disregard all existing notions of normality or centrality.

At the heart of all this is a love story. In telling Nora and Robin’s tale, Barnes re-examines love in a way that makes the reader think of it as a completely new idea. Her treatment of desire, memory, alienation, and fear all give love a new but frighteningly familiar face.

Nora’s obsession with the transient Robin reflects Barnes’ own battle to understand her past. Throughout Nightwood we see our own misgivings about the nature of love played out in this ill-fated relationship, and Barnes never lets the reader fall back on illusory notions of idealized romance.

Barnes never succumbs to misanthropy and cynicism, either. Her character are warped and often pathetic, but Barnes actually does care about them. They exhibit a rare humanity that lifts them above their awful crises (although it doesn’t necessarily save them), and even at their most grotesque, we recognize them as our own.

I have to admit that this is the first time I’ve been able to get the whole way through this novel, so be warned. It’s not easy, but the rewards for your effort are innumerable. If you’re willing to relinquish a large chunk of time (and sanity), this short book just might change the way you read novels.

—David Wiley

1 comment:

  1. Note: This review was originally longer and much more clear. I wasn't present when it was edited, and this final version seems (and seemed) almost unreadably choppy to me. When I first read it in print, I decided to quit writing book reviews rather than have my sentences and paragraphs end up so brutally mangled. A wise friend advised me to stick with it. Moral: Don't give up because of other people's incompetence. Also: Remember to keep your original files after something goes to print. This is all I have left of what I originally wrote.