This is a selection from Nightwood (1936), a novel by the artist and writer Djuna Barnes (1892–1982), with a preface written by T S Eliot. After trying to persuade other publishers, Barnes’s friend Emily Coleman eventually persuaded Eliot to take it for Faber and Faber, where he worked. The book is full of pain and loss; Coleman claimed that ‘There has been nothing written of such intense jealousy before’. The plot focusses on a transvestite gynaecologist called Matthew O’Connor, and Nora Flood, who is in love with the androgynous woman Robin Vote. Barnes began work on it after the breakdown of a relationship with the American artist Thelma Ellen Wood (1901–1970). According to the critic Clare L Taylor, it has ‘one of the most shattering endings in modern literature’.
What does Eliot say about the novel?
Eliot explains that he had read Nightwood in various forms – manuscript and print – before coming to this evaluation of it.
What I would leave the reader prepared to find is the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation, and a quality of horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy.
From Eliot, this is high praise indeed; he was a great admirer of this era of tragedy. In the essay ‘Four Elizabethan Dramatists’ (1924), he called it ‘the only distinct form of dramatic literature that England has produced’. Allusions to it appear throughout his work: the last English line in The Waste Land (1922) – ‘Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe’ – refer to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (1587?).
Yet it is the relationship between poetry and prose in Nightwood which preoccupies Eliot for the majority of this preface. ‘To say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry’, he explains,
does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it. Miss Barnes’s prose has the prose rhythm that is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse. This prose rhythm may be more or less complex or elaborate, according to the purposes of the writer; but whether simple or complex, it is what raises the matter to be communicated, to the first intensity.
In the section from the novel that we can see here, there is a graphic, completely unromanticised description of Robin giving birth to a child she does not want, ‘shuddering in double pains of birth and fury, cursing like a sailor’. This happens at the end of the second chapter; at the beginning of the third, there is a flavour of the book’s characteristic bohemianism:
The strangest ‘salon’ in America was Nora’s … It was the ‘paupers’ salon, for poets, radicals, beggars, artists, and people in love; for Catholics, Protestants, Brahmins, dabblers in black magic and medicine; all these could be seen sitting about her oak table before the huge fire …
Eliot thought Nightwood ‘one of those rare books in which cutting out a lot of stuff perfectly good in itself actually improved the whole’, and edited out sections of Barnes’s manuscript to arrive at the 1936 version we see here. A scholarly version without the cuts was published by Dalkey Press in 1995.