I just read a novel, Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I cannot be too enthusiastic in praising this book. There is a powerful prose rhythm in Barnes’ writing. It is a compelling story, a telling, from one perspective, of a dysfunctional relationship. The facts from which the fiction derives is Barnes’ love affair with the artist Thelma Wood. The relationship was characterized by alcoholism, sexual infidelity, and abandonment. Wood would disappear for days at a time, only to return with no explanation for her absence. While Barnes was lesbian, Wood was bisexual,but with a preference for women.
That the characters are lesbian is what, I suppose, makes this a “lesbian” novel. But wait. If I can read this book, empathize with the plight and pain of Nora (Barnes’ character in the story), and identify with this recounting of human experience, just how “lesbian” is it? It isn’t written in lesbian secret code, if there is any such thing. That phenomenon of human experience makes it possible for people of varying backgrounds to understand and relate to each other, if they make the effort. I had a similar experience reading Samuel Steward’s Parisian Lives, an openly gay book about homosexual life in Paris in the thirties and forties. Again, here I am relating to these men, liking them, hoping they will find something akin to happiness.
If I qualify and select literature on the basis of descriptors, what a narrow world I would be living in. Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. If I didn’t care much for Catholics, not reading him would be my great loss. And so it goes for so many writers.