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Djuna Barnes: Nightwood

There is not really much of a plot to this book; indeed, plot is not really the point of the book or why it continues to be the cult novel that it is. Such as it is, the story is about Robin Vote, a mysterious young woman in 1920s Paris. She marries Felix Volkbein, a faux baron, and they have a son. She leaves Volkbein for Nora Flood, an American journalist and then goes off to America with Jenny Petherbridge. Nora, who is heart-broken, has an affair with the psychoanalyst, Matthew O’Connor but they break up. Felix reappears and Robin meets up with Nora again but they do not reconcile. In short, the plot can be summed up as the effect that one woman – Robin Vote – has on a disparate group of people in 1920s Paris.

The strength of the book, however, is not in the plot. In his introduction to the book, T S Eliot said it would appeal primarily to readers of poetry and only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it and it is easy to see what he meant. The title itself implies a certain dreamlike nature. The second chapter is entitled La Somnambule and the third Night Watch. The whole book does have that dreamlike character. Robin herself is never clearly drawn but is almost like a wraith who passes through people’s lives. There is no linear structure but rather each chapter, apart from the first, stands out of time. Images, symbols, the feelings of the main characters are what drives this novel and what makes it one of the key modernist works.

It would be Barnes’ last work of any significance, even though she would live for another forty-five years. It has been claimed that the novel is autobiographical – Barnes herself is the Nora character and Robin is based on the sculptor Thelma Wood, with whom Barnes had an affair. There is no doubt that the book remains an important contribution to twentieth century literature and is still very much worth reading today.

Publishing history

First published 1936 by Faber & Faber