Updated October 27, 2019


Reading the seventh and eighth volumes of T.S. Eliot’s letters — a brilliantly edited monumental correspondence that’s an important source of 20th century literary history — one comes across the interesting story of how an obscure work of literature by an unknown writer is pushed to the attention of a publisher who, succumbing to the pressure to believe that the work before him is a work of genius, launches it and, in order to prove himself right, promotes it vigorously to ensure its success, until the work acquires the reputation of being a masterpiece that then remains unquestioningly entrenched in literary history for several decades. We’ve all heard of it: Nightwood by Djuna Barnes.

It was in the 1930s — that turbulent time by when James Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s own The Waste Land had established the ascendancy of experimental literature over traditional formal modes while, at the same time, censorship demanded obeisance to the lingering Victorian squeamish sensibility — that the American Barnes took Nightwood to Europe after it had been rejected by New York publishers and showed it to Emily Holmes Coleman, a poet from California living in Italy. Having separated from her American husband, Coleman had acquired a reputation as a prominent socialite, which included an affair with Dylan Thomas, and promoted herself as a literary genius. Reading Nightwood with its curiously suggestive sexual subject matter written in prose which could only be called ‘original’, Coleman imagined she saw a fellow-genius in Barnes, became her intimate friend, and immediately began to campaign for her success. Eliot was then a director at Faber and Faber, which his editorial influence had made the leading English-language literary publisher.

The story of how Coleman approached Eliot in October 1935 and succeeded in persuading him to launch Nightwood as a great work is quite a riveting drama in itself. She first showed some extracts from the novel to Edwin Muir, a friend of Eliot’s, and got him to send them to Eliot to arouse his curiosity. Next, she wrote Eliot a long letter, much of which describes Nightwood as having no organic structure, no philosophical viewpoint, no sense of dramatic action, with poorly created characters. That was clever of her. Had she spoken nothing but praise for the book, Eliot would have dismissed the recommendation as one more that claimed his attention.

But Coleman’s description of Nightwood is so virulently negative that one reading her letter becomes convinced that there must be something else, mysterious and special, about the book, making the letter’s recipient more desirous to read it than if she had simply praised every element in it. That is precisely the effect Coleman had on Eliot. And Eliot, whose first response on reading the extracts sent him by Muir was that Barnes’s style struck him “as incredibly tortured and tedious”, agreed to read the whole manuscript and to meet with Coleman in his office. She got him exactly where she wanted him, went to his office in London and, as Eliot himself stated to Barnes 10 years later, “practically forced the book down my throat.”

Eliot read and reread the Nightwood manuscript, his mind now psychologically conditioned to see as original what had earlier seemed tortured and tedious. He showed the book to his fellow-directors Geoffrey Faber and Frank Morley. Faber was not at all impressed, but Morley allowed himself to agree with Eliot, and so the novel was published.

Having committed his firm to invest in the novel, Eliot felt moved to ensure its success. The story of the book’s progress, that begins in the seventh volume of his correspondence, continues in the eighth, where Eliot’s allusions to the novel in several of his letters seem intended to prove himself to have been correct. He even went to the extent of writing an Introduction to the novel, claiming a very high distinction for its style, stating that it was “so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it.” He expected new readers to find in it “the great achievement of a style, the beauty of phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterisation...” Clearly, he did not want anyone to think what he had himself first thought, that it was tortured and tedious.

But note that remark, “only sensibilities trained on poetry”, with its hint that if you don’t appreciate this novel, then, sorry, but you are a dumbass. And notice, too, that he gives no particular example of that beautiful phrasing and brilliant wit, but merely excites the reader’s anticipation to discover such pleasures. Thus mentally conditioned, we eagerly proceed to read the novel.

The very first long sentence indeed catches one’s attention by filling up the 10 lines of the opening paragraph stating — not showing in any imaginative way, but merely stating — a rush of facts about a 45-year-old woman named Hedvig Volkbein giving birth to a son. Some of the phrases in the sentence, as when we’re told that she is a woman of “military beauty” and the canopied bed is of “a rich spectacular crimson”, alert one to the notion that here’s a writer trying too hard to appear impressive, like many of us did as teenagers at school and thought the way to do so was to overload our prose with adjectives that gave the sentence a grand sound, without thinking what on earth “military” beauty or “spectacular” crimson look like.

In the second paragraph we’re told that Hedvig dies after giving birth to the son whom she names Felix, and that the father, “Guido Volkbein, a Jew of Italian descent”, had died six months earlier. He had been so obsessed with suppressing his Jewish ancestry that he had presented himself as a baron of an ancient aristocratic lineage, including having two life-sized portraits of his parents hung conspicuously in his mansion to suggest that ancestry, though the sitters for the portraits had been two actors (an idea that seems borrowed from Henry James’s short story, ‘The Real Thing’).

Barnes next presents Felix 30 years later, saying that “the step of the wandering Jew is in every son”, and remarks that “the Jew seems to be everywhere from nowhere.” Now, Barnes wrote that in the 1930s when such remarks were considered quite kosher, but their anti-Semitic echo aside, the absurdity of such statements is indicative of a shallow mind and not one with “the brilliance of wit.” And these are not just passing remarks, for a few paragraphs later Barnes goes on at length saying more on the subject as if she uttered impressive wisdom when, for a good half a page, beginning with “A race that has fled its generations...”, we read more absurd generalisations, such as, “A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s.” That Eliot — who got Barnes to delete several passages when revising the novel before publishing it — allowed such writing to remain is troubling; not only are the ideas expressed offensive, the writing is plain bad.

Next, on the question of characterisation, Barnes gives information through generalised telling, not unlike a journalist summarising the main points, so that the reader has to make up a composite picture of the character. Felix mixes with a group of circus performers who go by fake aristocratic titles but, before showing any interesting action that could convey some profound intelligence about him, Barnes spells out why he haunts the crowd of entertainers with this explanation: “That he haunted them as persistently as he did was evidence of something in his nature that was turning Christian.” What? That he was drawn to a world of make-believe characters meant that he was becoming Christian? He might as well have been turning Buddhist! Barnes can say what she likes, but what such a sentence conveys is the stupidity of her reasoning.

A new character, Dr Matthew O’Connor, is introduced and Barnes presents him as a very talkative person “whose interest in gynaecology had driven him half around the world.” In his rambling talk, he mentions how, once during a war, he found himself in a cellar where a Breton woman had taken a cow with her. Describing the scene, O’Connor says, “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...” From where? It’s a long sentence and most readers — who very probably have never heard of Lahore — will simply assume it’s one of those remarks that add sophistication to a sentence and they need not bother about its specific reference, but to a Punjabi such as me that’s an example of what down-to-earth Texans call B.S. — politely translated as plain nonsense.

There’s another 100 pages to the novel. The action revolves around two new female characters, Robin and Nora, and much of the narrative is reported information stated by the author, for example, “By temperament Nora was an early Christian; she believed the word”, or “One missed in her a sense of humour” — and is studded with portentous remarks — for example, “Those who love everything are despised by everything...”, or “Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the ‘findings’ in a tomb.” One could quote pages of such deep-sounding language, which is just empty talk.

Dr O’Connor’s voice dominates much of the rest of the novel. After Nora goes to consult him, his answers take over the narrative, and much of his talk is understood by some readers as profound metaphysical analysis for which one is expected to express one’s admiration for his creator. But again, I point to the actual words on the page where we hear the doctor say, for example, “Time is a great conference planning our end, and youth is only the past putting a leg forward” — a facile remark that sounds philosophical, but is merely portentous.

No doubt, certainly back in the ’30s, Barnes’s subject matter needed to be handled with great care. It required courage and a very careful manipulation of style for a novelist to write about lesbianism and transgender sex in an age which considered such natural deviation as an evil perversity to be punished by the law (as is still the case in some countries). So, of course, one admires Barnes’s courage and Eliot’s willingness to support her. But it therefore does not follow that the work resulting from that courageous collaboration is to be talked about as a masterpiece, for in literature it’s always the composition of the language that creates the masterpiece, not merely what it’s about.

And we should not mistake pompous verbosity for metaphysical depth. I find it shockingly surprising that Eliot — who, as a poet and a scholar of philosophy surely knew better — did not see the worthlessness of so many of O’Connor’s remarks as “None of us suffers as much as we should, or loves as much as we say”, or “Only the impossible lasts forever”, which stand out sickeningly with their emptiness and give Barnes’s prose a juvenile’s idea of seriousness.

Eliot was a close friend of Virginia Woolf at that time, by when she had already published her major novels. Anyone with literary intelligence had only to look at a few pages of To the Lighthouse or The Waves to see how good prose was shaped and get a glimpse of the formal structure of great works of art. And after that to look at Barnes and to find her prose even acceptable?

Ezra Pound, another friend with whom Eliot kept in close touch, read Barnes’s novel and commented on it in his letter of Jan 12, 1937, to Eliot. Pound never minced words and, as we see in his essays and letters, his literary evaluation was always correct and remains so to this day. In his letter to Eliot, Pound wrote his comment on Nightwood as a limerick about a lady named Djuna, and instantly said all that needed to be said about her, that her “Blubbery prose/ Had no fingers or toes.” Pound’s literary perception, always sharp and precise, never erred.

The columnist is a poet, novelist, literary critic and Professor emeritus at the University of Texas. His works include the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 27th, 2019