UNTIL JUST a few years ago, she quite often could be seen on the streets of Greenwich Village. "Look!" I remember a friend poking me and (on the street) whispering: "It's Djuna Barnes." The sight of that ancient lady brought us to a hush as effectively as would that of a condor perched on a traffic light. I recall the set of the jaw and the slow but unstoppable rhythm of the cane. I seem to recall a belted raincoat; I know I remember an army fatigue cap visoring her old, old eyes. It was the author of Nightwood, the last of the great American modernists, on her fierce, silent way home.

Andrew Field recounts that in her middle eighties, Barnes was accosted by a mugger in the courtyard of Patchin Place, where she had her tiny apartment. "He wanted her purse . . . and groceries. She wasn't going to give them. They circled around and around in the courtyard and he finally drew away in sheer surprise at the jagged ferocity of the old woman's voice, the savagery in her eyes." That's her all right: The very woman I remember seeing pass by.

It also is a fair description of Field's method. Motivated not by greed but love, he too accosts the ferocious jagged old modernist and circles her, at bay, annotating the glints of savagery in her eyes. Luckily, he does not withdraw empty-handed. Djuna is not a perfect biography, and it isn't perfect criticism either, but it is a timely and exciting book that can be read with profit by anyone interested in the grand literary epochs of the teens in the Village, the '20s in Paris, or in the strange and impossible genius who wrote Nightwood.

The centerpiece of Barnes' spare, self-muted career, Nightwood is what is called a "cult novel." This means it is a work kept in print by the passion of its readers rather than by a position in the liberal arts curriculum of English departments, which is how American books ordinarily achieve the status of classics and universal fame. The novel appeared in 1937, fervently introduced by T. S. Eliot, who later kept just two autographed pictures in his office: one of Groucho Marx, the other of Djuna Barnes. One imagines the portraits side by side.

Cult novel or no, Nightwood is a recognized masterpiece of modernism. Eliot spoke of its "quality of horror and doom, very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy." During the 1930s, fiction found two preeminently original and powerful American pupils of the high modernism of James Joyce. One was a wonderfully talented young southerner named Faulkner. The other was Djuna Barnes. And apart from Faulkner's great novels of the period, I can think of no American work that more interestingly assimilates the Joycean revolution. Nightwood is also known, for better or worse, as the classiest lesbian novel ever written. It is notable too for the high, impassioned almost unscalable artifice of its language and its dominant mood, which is a sustained, tumultuous and always despairing fury.

Andrew Field confirms what every reader must suspect, that artifice or no, Nightwood is an autobiographical work. He has tracked down (though he does not always identify by name) real-life models for more or less all the novel's characters. Now the exact nature of Nightwood's story is the subject of some critical debate. The decisive study (Field doesn't much like it; I'm the one who thinks it decisive) is Joseph Frank's classic essay "Spatial Form in Modern Literature," in which the novel's shape is described not as a standard sequence of events in time, but as a turbulent construct of scenes and passions and obsessions assembled from images of Parisian back streets and the rhetoric of outrage, an architecture composed less from time passing than from a more static verbal space. One possible analogy might be to an operatic stage, as a space used not merely for storytelling, but an arena from whose depths and dark recesses lurking characters in capes sweep forward to expand on their passions and losses as in an aria.

Still, however operatic and immobile, Nightwood does of course have a story. It is about grief. An American woman named Nora (Djuna Barnes herself) has been jilted by her great love, an irresistible, ferocious, alcoholic, faithless boy-girl named Robin Vote. Field demonstrates that the real Robin Vote was indeed the great love of Barnes' life, a not untalented, though minor artist named Thelma Wood, whose principal claim to fame was to be a femme fatale on the Scene of 60 winters ago. Berenice Abbott's portrait of Thelma shows a freckled, simple young woman with a classic, boyish, American- girl beauty. She could be any rather horsey girl from Bennington, musing on the sadness of It All.

But Thelma, it seems, got around. For example, she was the partner on the one occasion that Edna St. Vincent Millay gave Sapphism a try. In life, as in Nightwood, she led Barnes-Nora a frantic chase: always loving, always leaving. In the novel, Robin bluntly drops Nora for another woman and leaves Nora an abandoned victim, pure and simple. In life, as usual, things were not so pure and simple. In any case, the real Barnes dealt with her losses by writing the novel, while her character, no writer, takes her grief instead to the squalid room of Dr. Matthew O'Connor--alcoholic, (Nightwood is very much about alcohol), specialist in degradation, transvestite, and philosopher--in whose high, half-relevant, incensed, compassionate blarney Barnes discovered the center of her work and her genius.

Remember that Barnes was writing under Joyce's spell. This extraordinary character is her WASP-y correlative of Joyce's Irish flair. Bewildered, enthralled, Nora gapes as O'Connor delivers high night-long tirades, his combinations of prophecy and invocation and invective and prayer, his baroque squalid flights, his denunciations of hope.

Here is a prime example of his, and Nightwood's, vision:

" 'For Christ's sweet sake!' he said, and his voice was a whisper. 'Now that you have all heard what you wanted to hear, can't you let me loose now, let me go? I've not only lived my life for nothing, but I've told it for nothing -- abominable among filthy people--I know, its all over, and nobody knows it but me--drunk as a fiddler's bitch --lasted too long--' He tried to get to his feet, gave it up. 'Now,' he said, 'the end--mark my words--now nothing, but wrath and weeping!' "

Field has dug up the real Matthew O'Connor, too. He was a compassionate but impossible confabulator and medical fourflusher hanging around Paris named Dan Mahoney. (Was he a real doctor? Who knows. He did perform an abortion on Djuna Barnes, however.) He was engaging but angry --as angry as Djuna Barnes; a tough, ugly, effeminate homosexual quite capable of decking whatever hapless barfly dared mock his limp wrist. And he was a talker. What is called a great talker. In the novel, he is transformed into the spirit of despairing eloquence, the alternative to Nora's despairing silence. And those, in turns, are the alternatives of Barnes' vision.

Field tells his story reasonably well, though his cyclical structure makes him repetitious and his idiosyncratic urgent style is often murky. He is sometimes impossibly evasive, especially on matters sexual. What, for example, is the real story of Barnes' break-up with Thelma? Field hints at complexities he does not name. More important, it seems--I repeat, seems--that Barnes claimed to have had some kind of incestuous contact as a child with her hated father, and apparently father incest was a theme edited out of Nightwood's original manuscript by T. S. Eliot. Field addresses this subject with truly maddening coquetry, and leaves his reader more bewildered than ever. His scholarship, meanwhile, is sometimes slapdash. Ezra Pound, for example, was born in Idaho, not Iowa, and was never a true middle westerner. On page 16 Field is under the disheartening impression that Barnes coined the phrase "silence, exile and cunning," when of course it is the most often cited single clause of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Since Joyce was Barnes' prime mentor, such a blunder cannot reassure.

Still, Djuna is filled with fascinating information and, though I often differ with it, its view of Barnes is sometimes profound. Just as the silent Nora was bound to the torrential Dr. O'Connor, the artistic life of Djuna Barnes alternated in anguish between eloquence and silence. It is heartbreaking to read of her last years, struggling year after year, decade after decade, to work, her apartment strewn with scraps of paper containing . . . scribbles. In fact, silence was merely enforcing its long-won victory over her talent. All that has survived these years to reach print is a little book of 25 rhyming quatrains called Creatures in an Alphabet. It is jingly with a bleak sophisticated charm. Somewhat sullen, many days The Walrus is a cow that neighs. Tusked, ungainly, and windblown, It sits on ice, and alone. When she died last summer at the age of 90, Djuna Barnes was the last of the great American modernists to go. She remains one of the most undervalued. This is perhaps partly because of her subject: It is easier to talk to sophomores about Benjy Compson's idiocy than the passions of Robin Vote and Nora. Then there is only one book. In Smoke and Other Early Stories Douglas Messerli has culled a fascinating volume of Barnes' early work; nonetheless that book or the much better known Ryder and Ladies Almanack notwithstanding, without Nightwood, Barnes would have no current reputation.

But above all, there is what Nightwood says, what it does. For all its power, this is the bleakest modernism of all, a modernism like a wailing wall. For everything this sometimes indescribably beautiful language gives, it also refuses . . . everything. This is the furious modernism to which the common life is wholly lost; the modernism of nobody left to turn to; the modernism of struggling to make it to dawn in some small room. Rage is a cruel muse. CAPTION: Picture, Djuna Barnes, Copyright (c) Berenice Abbott.