This 1936 novel is so bloody annoying it has not one but two introductions by TS Eliot, which should have been all the warning I needed.
Apparently it is “a remarkable poetic novel about the life of Americans and Europeans in Paris in the 1920s”…”a great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation…” Eliot claimed he felt it “an impertinence to introduce” such a book, one that would “appeal primarily to readers of poetry”.
I found it largely incomprehensible, not in the ego-blasting way of something like Finnegan’s Wake, more something that had been cobbled together from a bunch of scattergun phrases and bon mots whispered aside, which if you say them quickly and assertively enough, will fool some into thinking it profound. True there are occasionally passages of a rare and lucid beauty such as during Nora’s search for her wayward lover Robin – she decides to habituate the places and take on the ‘defilements’ that Robin has wallowed in, in order to be able to ‘find’ her:
“In the narrow streets of Naples, ivies and flowers were growing over broken-down walls. Under enormous staircases, rising open to the streets, beggars lay sleeping beside images of St Gennaro; girls going into churches to pray were calling out to boys in the squares. In open doorways night-lights were burning all day before gaudy prints of the Virgin. In one room that lay open to the alley, before a bed covered with a cheap heavy satin comforter, in the semi-darkness, a young girl sat on a chair, leaning over its back, one arm across it, the other hanging at her side, as if half of her slept; and half of her suffered. When she saw me she laughed, as children often do…”
Or when, having enlightened us as to the meaning of “a tuppenny-upright“, Nora enters a church where, “All the candles were burning steadily for the troubles that people had entrusted to them, and I was almost alone, only in a far corner an old peasant woman saying her beads.”
But mostly, these purple patches stand out because they stand alone; I could open the novel randomly at any one of its 140 pages, and find something unintelligible:
“I put my hand on the poor bitch of a cow and her hide was running water under my hand, like water tumbling down from Lahore, jerking against my hand as if she wanted to go, standing still in one spot; and I thought, there are directions and speeds that no one has calculated, for believe it or not that cow has gone somewhere very fast that we didn’t know of, and yet was still standing there.” (21)
“Their very lack of identity makes them ourselves. For by a street number, by a house, by a name, we cease to accuse ourselves. Sleep demands of us a guilty immunity.” (79)
“His sanity is an unknown room: a known room is always smaller than an unknown…He feeds on odd remnants that we have not priced; he eats a sleep that is not our sleep. There is more in sickness than the name of that sickness.” (108)
All of which is a shame, because it is hailed as one of the first and also one of the great, novels to openly portray homosexual love between women and so must be given its dues as groundbreaking.
Let’s finish by returning to the twice-sown flatulence of Eliot’s prefaces: when he said it is a novel for readers of poetry he meant, not that “… Miss Barnes’s style is ‘poetic prose’. But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really ‘written’. They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of the novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose that is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official. A prose that is altogether alive demands something that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give…(Nightwood) is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.”
Thus, in Eliot’s eyes, I do not appreciate it because I am not trained in poetry, something I feely admit, but it seems to me more likely that it is simply difficult to enjoy a book that is this obtuse, so wrapped up in being ‘wonderful’ and ‘literary’ that it forgets to have a door marked entrance: even The Labyrinth had a way in.