February 16, 2015

There is a certain difficulty to modernism: Djuna Barnes and "Nightwood"



I think it started as a response to the impressionists. New technologies made the way stories could be told replicable by other media. Art had to move on.  I have liked a lot of modernism. I followed Joyce from the moocow to Stately, Plump through Yes. I tried to follow him all along the riverrun, but I failed multiple times. It was where he went from storytelling with a stylistic verve to just style – period. It didn’t work for me, but maybe since it has been years since my last effort I should try again.
All that is preface to build whatever ethos about what comes next: I did not like Nightwood.  It is short, and beautifully written, but the whole thing is written around the main character. She has no agency of her own and seems to exist as a character in the stories of other characters. And there’s the eternal student’s lament -- nothing happens. Even the Sapphic element, something of a angle for certain readers, feels downplayed. The lovers the main characters take on just happen to have multiple genders. Not hot at all. Maybe it was for the time, what do I know?
Basically, it was good enough that I wanted to keep reading to see if anything happened, but not good enough so that I wasn’t thumbing through the pages as I approached the end with anticipation of having finished the book. What I think it needs is one of those Cambridge Companion to Literature versions, where the text is just part of the whole and you have various academics writing around the text to help shape the context in which you read the book. There is introductory material, but it is too laudatory to really help the reader. At least it was for me. I’m just glad I’m not writing a paper on this book , because that would mean that I would have to flip right back to the start to see if I missed anything. It wasn’t good enough for that.