My first semester of gradschool I took a class a newly arrived Brit taught called American Literary Nationalism, which looked at books from Washington Irving to Paul Bowles to show how the U.S. leaned on Europe in building its literary heritage. It was a good class. The paper I wrote on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court failed to find a thesis, and I got an A-.
One of the books we read was Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I don’t remember anything we discussed. I didn’t remember anything of the book, but I held onto it through three different moves knowing it had some magic to it and that I didn’t want it not in my library. Then a few weeks ago when I was going through my bookshelves I saw it and tilted it down so’s to sit on its long, unbound edge?a sign that here’s a book I haven’t read yet.
So I reread/read it (mostly in bed before sleep; not wise). Nothing of the book was recognizable. I couldn’t begin to tell you what the novel is about, or whether I liked it. It’s about a woman named Robin Vote, an American in Europe, and the women and men whose lives revolve around her. It’s about talking and self-regard. I liked it well enough. Sentences were gorgeous at times and distracted at other times. Characters were both rich and inexplicable. Here’s the one section?the first good long look we get at Robin?I marked up again after having marked it up a first time:
He walked a little short of her. Her movements were slightly headlong and sideways; slow, clumsy, and yet graceful, the ample gait of the night-watch. She wore no hat, and her pale head, with its short hair growing flat on he forehead made still narrower by the hanging curls almost on a level with the finely arched eyebrows, gave her the look of cherubs in Renaissance theatres; the eyeballs showing slightly rounded in profile, the temples low and square. She was gracious and yet fading, like an old statue in a garden, that symbolizes the weather through which it has endured, and is not so much the work of man as the work of wind and rain and the herd of the seasons, and though formed in man’s image is a figure of doom. Because of this, Felix found her presence painful, and yet a happiness. Thinking of her, visualizing her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty without its details. When she smiled the smile was only in the mouth and a little bitter: the face of an incurable yet to be stricken with its malady.
The first time I read it, I underlined all the instances of yet. The second time, I bracketed the whole paragraph. I find it stunning. The ? amazes me with its movement and detail. I also find it heartening, in that here, amid this display of unimpeachable talent, I can see Barnes making a character out of language the way a painter creates form through brushstrokes.
I could be wrong, but I see a compositional strategy there I’m hoping to absorb. I’m writing a novel, you see. It’s going slowly.