Though she wrote only one major book, Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood was one of the most influential novels of the modernist period and of the twentieth century; it has remained in print since its publication in 1936 and is more widely read today than it was at the time of its publication. Barnes was a central figure in the American expatriate community in Paris in the 1920s, but in her later years she separated herself from other writers and became something of a recluse. She refused to allow much of her work to be reprinted; as a result, she has never enjoyed the reputation her literary work deserves.
Before she left New York for Paris, Barnes was a regular contributor to popular magazines such as Smart Set and Vanity Fair. Her first major publication, a chapbook entitled The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings, was published in 1915. She also had some success as a playwright in 1919 when Eugene O’Neill and the Provincetown Players produced three of her one-act plays. These plays, and a collection of Barnes’s poems, short prose pieces, and drawings were later published as A Book. Though these early books received little public attention, other writers began to notice Barnes’s work.
In the early 1920s, Barnes moved to Paris where she joined a group of literary and artistic women on the Left Bank, which included, among others, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner, and Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier. Some critics claim that Barnes’s novel, Nightwood, is largely autobiographical and that the novel’s characters are based on Barnes and her Paris circle.
Nightwood does, in fact, recount the story a woman in 1920s Paris, Robin Vote, and her various love affairs. Robin first marries Felix Volkbein, but she soon falls in love with a woman named Nora Flood—the character many believe is based on Barnes. Later, Robin leaves Nora for another woman. The novel is often praised for its musical and imagistic prose, and its structural complexity. Nightwood is emotionally complex as well, at once comic and painful, powerful and horrific. Some contemporary critics misunderstood the novel, but other praised its fluidity and its resistance of fictional realism. “In her novel,” one reviewer wrote of Nightwood, “poetry is the bloodstream of the universal organism, a poetry that derives its coherence from the meeting of kindred spirits.”1 “Her work,” Barnes’s friend Sylvia Beach wrote, “with its strangeness and its melancholy note—which contrasted with her delightful smile—did not resemble that of any other writer of her time.”2
After the publication of Nightwood, Barnes virtually stopped writing. She left Paris and returned to New York where she lived in seclusion in a Greenwich Village apartment. The entire literary output of the last forty years of her life was a handful of poems and a short play. It wasn’t until after her death that some of her early works were reprinted.