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'Nightwood,' A Hymn To The Dispossessed

by Siri Hustvedt
Aug 7, 2008

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The spring after I turned 24, I discovered Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, a slender, dense novel that I read with the aching intensity of a person possessed.

It wasn't about my world — I had grown up in a small town in Minnesota and then moved to New York City. Nightwood is set mostly in a Paris Barnes knew intimately in the 1920s, a city inhabited by ex-pats, drifters and poseurs. And yet, the story of passion and grief, of exile and loneliness, spoke directly to me, a young woman who, for some reason, had never felt she quite belonged anywhere.

I carried the book around with me, reread passages, pondered their meanings, and suffered with Nora Flood, whose liaison with the wild, amoral Robin Vote, becomes her abiding anguish. And I pored over the speeches delivered by my favorite character, the novel's bombastic but tender bard, Dr. Matthew O'Connor — a cross-dresser, petty thief, inveterate liar and tragic anti-hero.

One afternoon, that same spring, I found myself sitting next to an elderly woman on the subway. She looked down at the volume in my lap, and said, "Oh, Djuna Barnes. I know her. Would you like to write to her?" She gave me the author's address, and I sat down to write a page-long testament to the power of Nightwood.

A year and a half later, I received a reply: "Your letter," Barnes wrote, "has given me great difficulty."

That was all. A couple of months later, I read in the newspaper that the 90-year-old Barnes was dead. I realized that her letter to me must have been one of the last things she wrote.

Almost 30 years have passed since then, and I've always been a little afraid to return to Nightwood. What if the book was a folly of my youth? What if I found it overwrought and shallow, rather than rich and deep?

But when I read it again, I loved it, and again found myself amazed by its prose. In his introduction to the novel when it was first published in 1937, T.S. Eliot called Barnes' language "astonishing." He was right.

"Ho, nocturnal hag, whimpering on the thorn, rot in the grist, mildew on the corn," the doctor says to Nora during a lyrical tirade. A page later, his diction drops when he confesses that he was born in the wrong body: "I never asked better than to boil some good man's potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months."

But the wonder of Nightwood is not only stylistic. It lies in the range and depth of feeling the words convey. There is irony here and humor, too, but in the end, the novel is a hymn to the dispossessed, the misbegotten and those who love too much. At one time or another, I suspect that those adjectives describe most of us.

The letter I wrote to Djuna Barnes was the only letter I have ever written to an author I didn't know, and despite her cryptic reply, I am glad I sent it. It turns out that the aging, settled person I have become was just as overwhelmed and impressed by Nightwood as that young woman who rode the subway years ago, feeling a little lost in a big, new city.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

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