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)
After finishing The Pilgrim Hawk I couldn't help but feel as if this sparkling novel(la) was structured like an iceberg, its crystalline prose and the...moreAfter finishing The Pilgrim Hawk I couldn't help but feel as if this sparkling novel(la) was structured like an iceberg, its crystalline prose and the sharp lines of its prosody creating shimmery effects somewhat akin to a diamond refracting sunlight.
It's all very impressive--or at least impressive enough--in and of itself. But an icebergs placidly floating across a tranquil bodies of water masks a larger reality: only about 1/10 of the iceberg is ever actually visible. The mass and bulk lurks far beneath the water line, unglimpsed, unseen, and nearly impossible to get a full handle on. Of course, one doesn't have to grasp or even be aware of the entirety of an iceberg to be awed by it; but the fact remains that what is rendered visible is buttressed by what remains necessarily out of view.
So yes, my thoughts on The Pilgrim Hawk are essentially a Formalist's nightmare, dependent on knowledge and information found outside the text itself. But my reading of the novel represents one of those situations where my knowledge about the author completely shaped and shaded my thoughts when experiencing the actual text for the first time. And it led me to believe that The Pilgrim Hawk is a text containing hidden, incalculable depths.
Though I've read quite a bit on Wescott's life--something I'll return to shortly--after reading Hawk I finally read some direct analysis of the novel that I had been putting off, namely, Michael Cunningham's introduction to the NYRB edition, and Susan Sontag's late essay "Where the Stress Falls," a reflection on Wescott's novel which transforms into a more broad analysis of first-person narration in 20th century literature. I was rather startled to discover that both of these writers, both who are gay, neglect to mention the fact that Wescott himself was a gay man, not even throwing it out as a possibility that might affect interpretation of the novel and its possible meaning(s). Which, okay, I can understand, especially since both writers in question are themselves often described as being ambivalent about their sexuality within public spheres. But Wescott, whose life spanned a large chunk of the 20th century, was not as circumspect, which is a major reason why he looms large in the gay canon despite leaving behind a relatively scant oeuvre ("he has a certain syrup but it does not pour," remarked friend Gertrude Stein in the infamous The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas). I could write biographical information endlessly, but most pertinent is the fact that in 1919 Wescott met Monroe Wheeler--a book publisher who later became a major figure in establishing the MOMA--and the two men remained partners until Wescott's death in 1987. And while it's not hard to predict that this remarkable fact was left out of both men's New York Times obituaries, everything I have read attests to the fact their relationship was a well-known fact and they were "out" as romantic partners as much as the times allowed (which, it must be admitted, was the rarified and relatively accommodating transatlantic expatriate/New York City arts and culture world).
I drudge up these interesting but perhaps superfluous-seeming biographical details because I think it holds an important bearing on the volucrine symbol of the title. For indeed, the manner in which the titular hawk, a falcon named Lucy, is handled throughout the narrative seems to lay at the heart of most critiques (truth be told, that was my initial reaction too). Generally regarded as a heavy-handed symbol for a marriage of a particularly stifling and restrictive sort, when considered on that level it does come across as a perplexingly flatfooted flaw marring what otherwise comes across as a text of incredible linguistic and observational agility. But as I began thinking about the possible reasons why a gay man would take on this particular topic and what it might look from that particular perspective I found that what had initially seemed straightforward started becoming more and more elusive. A few scattered ideas that crossed my mind:
-Wescott was writing at a time when it was still a widely practiced social convention for not-straight men to enter into marriages, and a number of men in Wescott's circle did exactly that (Lincoln Kirstein, Carl Van Vechten, W. Somerset Maugham, Chick Austin, and Jared French, are several off the top of my head). From this angle, what had originally seemed like rather nondescript expository dialogue suddenly seemed pregnant with potential meaning. Consider: "some such hopeless attempt to escape, crazy fit of freedom, comes over all domesticated falcons at fairly regular intervals, [Madeleine Cullen] explained, especially in their first year or two… they never get over being wild" (26). Or this odd digression (allow me to quote it in full):
"Falcons, she informed us, do not breed in captivity… little by little the perfectly wild creature surrenders, individually, in the awful difficulty of hunger. But surrender is all, domestication is all; they never feel at home. You can carry male and female side by side on the same cadge year in and year out; nothing happens. They will cease to fight but they stay solitary. Scorn for each other for giving in, or self-scorn, seems to break their hearts. They never build a nest or lay an egg. Not one chick or eyas is ever reared in bondage. There is no real acceptance or inheritance of the state of surrender" (27-8).
Or what about Madeleine's later remark that "Lucy gives up her freedom and stays with me because it's a better life, more food and more fun" (49)? The idea of giving up and accepting "captivity" combined with the phrase "because it's a better life" sends shivers down my spine.
-Larry Cullen despises the falcon not only because she is the main object of his wife's attention and affection, but it also becomes clear that Lucy's presence literally prevents him from making direct physical contact with his wife. One of the most well-known facts about Wescott's life is the long-term ménage à trois relationship Wescott and Wheeler entered into with George Platt Lynes, who would go on to become a celebrated photographer. From the sections of Wescott's published journals that I have read, it is clear that Wheeler benefitted most from this arrangement, and that the beautiful, young, and effeminate Platt Lynes overwhelmingly preferred Wheeler as a sexual partner, which often left Wescott feeling excluded and dejected. Despite using the narrator as his very literal stand-in, I suspect the character of Larry was fully informed by Westcott's personal experiences as well.
-But why then, make Lucy a female hawk? It seems much more straightforward within the context of the story and all of its interpretations for the hawk to be a tercel (the term for a male hawk, as Madeline explains at one point). As is, it's a female presence at the root of the distance in the Cullen's relationship… and of course I'm going to follow up on the possible implications of that fact. Indeed, throughout The Falcon Hawk Madeleine Cullen continuously reveals unexpected dimensions: far from the frail-seeming woman tottering on "the highest heels" (6) that literally needs to be helped across the cobblestone driveway, we come to find out that in reality she is a healthy, lusty, vivacious, and incredibly driven woman who rides a horse magnificently, etc, etc. And isn't the idea of a "lady falconer" itself a rather bizarre one, an unexpected juxtaposition of traditional images of masculinity and femininity? All I'm saying is that symbolically there might be something to the fact that Madeline's affections are centered on a falcon than a tercel; could Lucy's captivity subtly mirror a possible type of imprisonment Madeline herself secretly experiences?
Even the title itself, it occurred to me after the fact, contains its own puzzling obscurities. Aside perhaps from wanting to avoid being confused with a certain, celebrated Dashiell Hammett novel, why a "Pilgrim Hawk" and not "Pilgrim Falcon?" By opting for a generalized term for his title, Wescott neutralizes gender particularity, opening up even more possibilities for interpretation.
I could go on and on along similar lines, but this has already started crossing that unwieldy space between "review" and "unanticipated term paper," and so I'll bring this to a close. Basically, the point I'm trying to make is that when taking into consideration Wescott's personal life--and make no mistake, Alwyn Tower is a stand-in for Wescott, a "character" that reappears throughout much of his work--and most particularly, his sexuality, we go a long way in starting to fathom the hidden 9/10s of the iceberg. And as a direct result, what at first glance comes of as a pretty but thin facade is effectively shattered, and whole chasms of possible meaning are suddenly, unexpectedly revealed. (less)
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 obs...moreA 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. (less)
Excellent, and unjustly forgotten. With its crystalline prose rendering gleefully raunchy queer hijinks during a storied moment in history, think of s...moreExcellent, 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. (less)
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). Oth...moreI 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. (less)
At first it just seems like simply a gossipy good time, but it also functions as a fascinating mise en abyme (the author speaking about herself throug...moreAt first it just seems like simply a gossipy good time, but it also functions as a fascinating mise en abyme (the author speaking about herself through the voice of her partner, etc).
It's a thoroughly delightful portal through which to slip into 1920's Paris. I'd wager that Hemingway's A Moveable Feast is generally preferred, but I'm definitely Team Stein. (less)