I was quite charmed for about the first hundred pages or so–and then I realized there was about 150 pages still to go. By the last fifty pages or so II was quite charmed for about the first hundred pages or so–and then I realized there was about 150 pages still to go. By the last fifty pages or so I was finding it something of a chore to finish, even if I always found the content itself of interest. Which means, unfortunately, that Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris is a case of constantly-diminishing returns.
In my critical writing I always try my best to take the object of analysis at hand on its own terms, attempting to come to terms with what it is, rather than what I want it to be. But in this particular case I can’t seem to get away from complaining about what it seems this book could and should have been: a sparkling and witty little rumination on issues of expatriation and experiencing a particular historic moment through the people who inhabit it. Certainly, all of these elements are present in Inside a Pearl, but as it turns out the most interesting moments of the book are not the familiar (and intriguing but not-so-familiar) names on endless parade, but White’s personal observations on the complicated cultural relationship between France and America.
An author of White’s stature who is specifically acclaimed as a master of autobiographical or autobiographically-inflected fictional forms should instinctually know that “and then I met, and then I went” is an untenable narrative structure to hang nearly 250 pages upon. Even the most fascinating of lives–and White’s certainly falls under that category–can’t possibly sustain the reader’s interest when rendered in such a ponderous way. In the end Inside a Pearl is endlessly readable and from moment-to-moment often quite fascinating, but somehow it always feels like a dutiful record instead of an account that captures what it is to vitally alive.
[NOTE: In an effort to maintain control over my writing in light of some dubious policy implementations, I am no longer posting full reviews on Goodreads on topics connected to my scholarly interests. If you're interested in reading the full review, you can find it here on my blog, Queer Modernisms. My apologies for the annoying inconvenience.] ...more
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."
A diverting, nicely observed little read. Levy takes on this quality that sometimes comes off as a bit faux-naïf, as I got the impression that her obsA diverting, nicely observed little read. Levy takes on this quality that sometimes comes off as a bit faux-naïf, as I got the impression that her observations cover, just barely, a layer of subtle wit and more than a bit of satire (take the deliciously veiled b*tch-slap of a closing line: "I never get the chance to read [Stein] my story and left Paris eventually enriched only by the knowledge that Gertrude Stein was now great in France"). Throughout Portraits she constantly downplays her intelligence and abilities to comprehend and appreciate modernist art--a role it is implied the extended Stein family kept her in--but the art collection she amassed and several texts she wrote belie a bit more to the situation than she lets on here.
The title is a bit misleading, as most of the incidents involves those who fall into the "their circle" part of the title--Alice B. Toklas (whose trip to Europe was funded by Levy), Swedish sculptor David Edstrom, and most particularly Sarah Stein, Gertrude's formidable sister-in-law and staunch Matisse supporter, make the most frequent appearances. There's also Levy's take on the rowdy Montmartre dinner that Stein made famous in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and even an odd little chapter that seems to center around an attempted lesbian pickup from which Levy demurs (another case of feigned naiveté?).
Nothing is exactly revelatory, but that's just it--as the short introduction states, for years this previously unpublished manuscript has been mined endlessly by scholars and historians for firsthand information on this storied period. As such, it's nice that Levy has been given the opportunity to finally speak for herself. ...more
Excellent, and unjustly forgotten. With its crystalline prose rendering gleefully raunchy queer hijinks during a storied moment in history, think of sExcellent, and unjustly forgotten. With its crystalline prose rendering gleefully raunchy queer hijinks during a storied moment in history, think of something akin to A Moveable Feast penned by Jean Genet, even if that doesn't at all get to the wonderful singularity of Steward's fictionalized memoir. ...more
I jumped ship when Joyce took over the entire narrative—I can only take so much Jimmy (and his whole involvement here is just so damn depressing). OthI jumped ship when Joyce took over the entire narrative—I can only take so much Jimmy (and his whole involvement here is just so damn depressing). Otherwise a fascinating account of a fascinating person. ...more