As anybody familiar with the singular artistic vision of Djuna Barnes is aware, reading anything she wrote is like entering a type of parallel univers...moreAs 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."
To begin by stating the obvious: Quicksand is an aptly named book. And while its resonance with the experiences of the main character, Helga Crane, ar...moreTo begin by stating the obvious: Quicksand is an aptly named book. And while its resonance with the experiences of the main character, Helga Crane, are made clear by the novel’s ambiguous concluding chapter, I also found it a perfect summation of my experience as a reader as well. For Larsen’s exquisite prose is subtly deceptive: delicate, and yet so incisive and sharply observed, and just like Helga’s moment-to-moment indecision never seems to add up to much in and of itself, Larsen quietly strings together glittering chains of little observations—the cut of a “scandalous” evening gown, the texture of an antique embroidered handbag, a spontaneous gesture to slight an annoying suitor—that suddenly, unexpectedly transform into expanses of heavy and oppressive chainmail that become suffocating. There’s a certain stasis to the narrative of Quicksand, and I initially found myself struggling against it until I realized that it perfectly mirrors Helga’s mindset and perception of both herself and the world around her.
The narrative is initially posed as a kind of tale of self-discovery, a process which ends up spanning two continents and a surprising number of racial, gendered, sexual, and class-centered milieus. And what at first seems like self-sufficiency and even courageousness begins to molder bit by bit around the edges, and the haunting line “but it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s” begins to resurface constantly like an inevitable refrain accompanying each turn of events.
This resigned melancholy is probably why the novel never becomes sensationalistic, hysterical, moralistic, or even overtly angry, all qualities the material would seem to to easily lend itself to. Larsen’s focus seems elsewhere, which constantly leads Helga and her narrative into unexpected spaces, in both a literal and metaphoric sense. I appreciated, for instance, the depiction of the black expatriate experience in Europe, demonstrating how the escape from American racism held its own, often hidden price in the objectification of “exotic” blackness, and I couldn’t banish from my mind the specters of Josephine Baker, Paul Robson, and others while reading about Helga’s experiences in “progressive” Copenhagen. In the end Quicksand was a protracted, mournful lament instead of the harrowing shriek against racism or sexism (or any number of other social ills for that matter) that I had initially expected it would be; instead it turned out to be something more ambiguous, more difficult to pin down and get a handle on—and in the end I found myself all the more devastated because of it.
"No. She couldn't stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back."(less)
My original intentions was to confirm some esoterica regarding Djuna Barnes (Coleman was the main force behind the editing of Nightwood and convincing...moreMy 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.(less)