As anybody familiar with the singular artistic vision of Djuna Barnes is aware, reading anything she wrote is like entering a type of parallel universAs anybody familiar with the singular artistic vision of Djuna Barnes is aware, reading anything she wrote is like entering a type of parallel universe—one that resembles our own in many ways, but also one that is no longer able to repress and erase what is odd or sad or grotesque, particularly in regards to the human condition. As an astute commentator much smarter than me has noted, reading Barnes is to enter a textual space "in which the normative becomes, for once in history, the excluded, the taboo, and the unmentionable."*
Barnes was a prolific artist and her written work encompasses journalism, interviews, novels, plays, poetry, criticism, and a copious amount of wittily irascible letters exchanged with just about all of the great cultural luminaries of the 20th century (unfortunately a collection has yet to emerge, so for now one can catch glimpses of them in the countless biographies and commentaries detailing the modernist era). She was also, of course, a short story writer, and this was my first encounter with her short-form fiction work. Once one is familiar with Barnes's baroque style and bleak worldview it is difficult to not immediately recognize her writing, and so on the one hand these stories easily fit in with all of the other modes she wrote in. But I also found them different in a crucial way as well, for if her novels and longer fiction feel like a meander through a shape-shifting dream world, the short stories operate in a quite different manner. For within these little slips of short stories, many no more than several pages long, she is somehow able to contract and compress entire cosmos of feeling, affect, experiences, and histories (of both a personal and cultural nature).
Not that this ever seems the case at the beginning of each story. Barnes's technique is to introduce several eccentric characters, establish a setting and then embroider these elements in a delicate meshwork of commentary and observations that are unexpected and incisive and beautiful in turn, if not all at the same time. Often they hardly seem like "stories" at all, but rather character sketches, all evocative description and not much else. But that impression is deceptive, for almost like clockwork in the closing lines something inevitably happens—a snippet of dialogue perhaps, or a turn of phrase—and suddenly everything comes together in a brief flash of insight. It's not exactly that everything seems to "fall into place," or it is like a puzzle with an "aha!" conclusion, or even that an epiphany occurs on the part of either character or reader, but everything still comes together in the very last moment, and suddenly makes some kind of sense.
But "sense" isn't even the right word, as it's something more ambiguous and indescribable than that. But whatever it is it's extremely potent: there were several times upon reaching the end of a story that I had to set the book down for a few minutes, blown away by an unexpected wave of emotion that just coursed through me. How? I likely wouldn't have been able to tell you. Why? Glancing back through the stories now, I can't exactly tell anymore. And yet somehow, fleetingly, in the moment of reading these stories they would somehow reveal an emotional coherence, and often to devastating effect. It didn't take long for me to become fully convinced that Barnes is one of the great short story writers, even if she is rarely anthologized, and I'd be surprised if she's ever included as a "how-to" example in a guide to writing a "good" short story. Because by any standards these stories shouldn't work. But somehow they do, and the results are unlike just about anything else I've ever encountered or had the great pleasure to read.
"'You see,' she continued, 'some people drink poison, some take the knife, others drown. I take you."
My original intentions was to confirm some esoterica regarding Djuna Barnes (Coleman was the main force behind the editing of Nightwood and convincingMy original intentions was to confirm some esoterica regarding Djuna Barnes (Coleman was the main force behind the editing of Nightwood and convincing T.S. Eliot to eventually publish it), but the sections I did read were so engaging that I plan to revisit for a more extensive read....more
If I'm honest, to say that I "read" this is more than a bit of an overstatement. I fully intended to read more, but after reading several short sectioIf I'm honest, to say that I "read" this is more than a bit of an overstatement. I fully intended to read more, but after reading several short sections it struck me as pretty flimsy stuff—perhaps it'll serve as a good introduction to many of these people and places, but for anybody at all familiar with them already it feels like little more than a tedious rehashing of information already readily available. Decided my time was better spent elsewhere and immediately abandoned ship. ...more
Only read the two fascinating essays focusing on Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, but would like to return at some point to read the chapters on Woolf, MetroOnly read the two fascinating essays focusing on Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, but would like to return at some point to read the chapters on Woolf, Metropolis, Sunset Blvd., etc. ...more
In his dissection of sexual expression and literary modernism Boone embraces the unstable, polymorphous quality of queer sexuality, and he takes on aIn his dissection of sexual expression and literary modernism Boone embraces the unstable, polymorphous quality of queer sexuality, and he takes on a dizzying array of texts for close analysis, from Brontë to Freud to Woolf to the Harlem Renaissance to Faulkner to Lessing and many others in between. Unfortunately I haven't had a chance to read beyond the sections devoted to Djuna Barnes and Tyler and Ford's The Young and the Evil, my two textual preoccupations this last year, but I will certainly be going back to read his take on the other works, which I'm assuming will exhibit just as much nuance and insight. But perhaps most helpful was the opening chapter establishing a theoretical framework in which to account for this diverse range of texts, which is one of the finest examples of queer theory I've yet come across. He even managed to make the psychoanalytic elements of his argument palatable for me, which, believe me, is no easy feat. ...more
Collecting a series of diverse essays around a vacation house is a lovely and evocative idea, no? In this particular case it's one of the homes PeggyCollecting a series of diverse essays around a vacation house is a lovely and evocative idea, no? In this particular case it's one of the homes Peggy Guggenheim owned which a number of friends used as a summer refuge on their hostess's dime, including Djuna Barnes, Emily Coleman and Antonia White, each who get several essays here. Unfortunately I only had the time to look at the essays focusing on Barnes and the origins of Nightwood, but would be interested to go back at some point and read more. ...more
Even after more than eight decades critics and scholars still squabble over what exactly Djuna Barnes was trying to accomplish with her Ladies Almanack. Is it an affectionate satire? A bitter denunciation? A parodic exercise in self-loathing?
Maybe it's all of these things, perhaps "none of the above" gets a bit closer to the truth, but this tension touches upon exactly the thing that most compels me most about Barnes's text—it somehow encompasses nearly all interpretations but stakes itself definitively to none of them. Which makes it a superlative example of one of my current academic interests: the conveyance of queer content through "queered" form. As Barnes herself readily admitted, her Almanack was meant for "the private domaine" [sic], meant to be "distributed to a very special audience" (the reason why she never bothered to copyright the text, a decision she later regretted), if only because its subject matter—the romantic foibles of the various members of the lesbian-centered coterie Natalie Barney assembled in Paris—was enough to bring an author to public trail, as vividly displayed in the The Well of Loneliness which was published in the same year as Ladies Almanack, and whose author, Radclyffe Hall, who along with her longtime partner makes an appearance within Barnes's pages.
In regards to Barnes's obscure, archaic utilization of language and form in the Almanack, Susan Snaider Lanser writes that for Barnes it was "better to shroud [the overtly lesbian content] in obscurity, generating a prose whose meanings dissolve beneath a torrent of difficult words and sentences," which is exactly the thing that most readers find off-putting about the work. This isn't merely an example of willful high modernist obfuscation, and its style just can't be solely marked up as a method for eluding censorship either: it's something between, I'd argue, an attempt to avoid shoehorning queer topics and desires into traditional novelistic forms (The Well of Loneliness again, which is practically unreadable today), but instead attempts to articulate a new means of expression altogether. Barnes accomplishes this by cherry-picking elements from a variety of sources both historical and modernist, which makes it a kind of anomaly (much like her much more well-known Nightwood) within high modernist literature, of which she was one of the most prominent figures. As such, Ladies Almanack is at once both outdated and undateable, as playfully and deliberately enigmatic today as it must have been in 1928.
And hell, it's just a lot of fun.
"'The Night-Life of Love,' said Saint Musset, 'burns I think me in the slightly muted Crevices of all Women who have been a little sprung with continual playing of the Spring Song, though I may be mistaken, for be it known, I have not yet made certain on this point.'"
After a second reading was compelled to include the missing fifth star. Maybe someday I'll be able to write something that would do this magnificent,After a second reading was compelled to include the missing fifth star. Maybe someday I'll be able to write something that would do this magnificent, enigmatic text justice.
So I'm not used to this kind of reaction with a book--finished it this morning, and I might very well start it all over again. Immediately. This never happens to me.
And this despite not knowing what the hell was going on half (most?) of the time, but by the end I became intoxicated by the sheer absurdity that made me laugh stupidly despite being in public, the unexpected submersions into harrowing despair, the (to blatantly steal Ned Rorem's characterization) "gorgeous claustrophobia" the novel evokes. I've never come across anything quite like this before.
Was initially intrigued by Susan Sontag's comment in her journal that her and her friends were essentially characters out of this novel; I wonder now how much of her own romantic sufferings were modeled off of Norah Flood's...
"'How do you stand it, then?' she demanded. 'How do you live at all if this wisdom of yours is not only the truth, but the price?'"