The first feature readers notice about Nightwood is its language. American writer Ernest Hemingway revolutionized the English language by eliminating what he thought were its inessential elements, meaning most adjectives and adverbs, shortening and simplifying his sentences in the process. To the reader familiar with Hemingway’s work and with that of the writers he influenced, Nightwood is a rich feast— perhaps too rich. Like Hemingway, Barnes began her writing career as a journalist, but her journalistic voice was ironic and was often colored by the subject matter she chose. Two other influences are apparent: the example of Irish writer James Joyce, whose experimental novel Ulysses (1922) Barnes admired; and the work of the Elizabethan writers, whose language was notably rich and vigorous.

Barnes generally maintains an ironic distance from her characters, using a mouthpiece, Matthew O’Connor, to comment more directly on them and their actions. Matthew’s monologues threaten to swamp the text of Nightwood, disarranging its generally chronological order and illustrating the manner in which language can both establish and destabilize categories. An American of Irish origin who lives in Europe, a man who dresses in women’s clothes but is attracted to his own sex, a doctor who is not a doctor—Matthew is a perfect spokesman for the topsy-turvy world around him.

Although the content of Nightwood may seem almost fantastic, in one sense it is an accurate portrayal of life among a particular group of people at a particular time and in...

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