JUDY KRAVIS

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Monday, 3 February 2020

For the past week I have been climbing about in Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, a spiky, slippery and defiant text so dense with difficult statements you dread the appearance of the next one. For example: 'She has the strength of an incomplete accident — one is always waiting for the rest of it, the last impurity that will make her whole; she was born at the point of death, but, unfortunately, she will not age into youth.'

This is the third lesbian novel I have read recently, and by far the most recalcitrant. Still, it has the rare honour of being considered a masterpiece by both TS Eliot and William Burroughs. Less a masterpiece than an oddity, I think, a darkly raging slim book, well-suited to night reading though not likely to bring on sleep.

Characters do not arrive quietly. Especially Jenny Petheridge, who disrupts a relationship. She comes equipped with walls and peaks of description that have an opposite effect: she vanishes behind the detail, which was maybe the (subconscious) intent.
She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be steaming off the vapours of someone else about to die; still she gave off an odour to the mind (for there are purely mental smells that have no reality) of a woman about to be accouchée. Her body suffered from its fare, laughter and crumbs, abuse and indulgence. But put out a hand to touch her, and her head moved perceptibly with the broken arc of two instincts, recoil and advance, so that the head rocked timidly and aggressively at the same moment, giving her a slightly shuddering and expectant rhythm.
The style of both Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes is so lush and overwrought that it's tempting to think that they needed excesses of language to hold the transgression of their stories. What you cannot say you must say louder, with more words, more structures, more contradiction, paradox and perversity. Djuna Barnes' writing makes me want to clean it up, to whack it down to fewer words. But then, perhaps, Djuna Barnes would be gone. She would be Patricia Highsmith.

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