Fourth reading, and it remains just as much a mystery as ever. Marianne Moore said that "reading Djuna Barnes is like reading a foreign language, whicFourth reading, and it remains just as much a mystery as ever. Marianne Moore said that "reading Djuna Barnes is like reading a foreign language, which you understand," and while I don't disagree I find that any sensation of "comprehension" simply feels like entering another locked room to puzzle out of. A labyrinth with no exit, and I wouldn't have it any other way. [Apr 2017]
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. [Mar 2014]
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?'" [Apr 2009]...more
Cornell is an artist and individual who I cycle back to constantly, with chance crossings—an online image, an article, a citation—sending me down theCornell is an artist and individual who I cycle back to constantly, with chance crossings—an online image, an article, a citation—sending me down the rabbit hole of research jags. I find not only his unique art work fascinating, but his creative process and idiosyncratic approach to life endlessly generative and inspiring.
He's been on my mind the last few days, and this morning I pulled this copy back off my shelf, realizing after looking at the time stamp that I've now had it out from the library for nearly six years (I'll return it...someday). I dip in and out of this compendium fairly constantly and for a variety of reasons; sometimes as a stimulant and model for my own personal journal-keeping, sometimes to cross-reference his impressive network of friends and correspondents for my academic research, and other times just, to baldly appropriate a Vashti Bunyan lyric, "walk around in [the] mind" of one of the 20th century's most intriguing individuals.
Through his singular sensibility, the quotidian becomes exalted.
"So far uneventful but rest of day picked up that kind of richness in which a revelling in detail becomes such a feast of experience--" [Jan 24, 1947]...more
Warner’s prose sparkles and snaps like a gin and tonic in an elegant cut glass tumbler, her humor the slice of lime contributing the essential dash ofWarner’s prose sparkles and snaps like a gin and tonic in an elegant cut glass tumbler, her humor the slice of lime contributing the essential dash of sharp acidity. Warner proves to be a most devious hostess, however: seemingly invited to a pleasantly amusing afternoon garden party, it is only as the sun begins to set that it slowly begins to dawn—this is actually a Witch’s Sabbath! What a marvelously devious sleight of hand.
And perhaps more than ever 2017 is the time for stories about waking up from the drowsiness of lives cocooned by social expectations and respectability politics and be pointed toward modes of being that are idiosyncratically imagined and intentionally pursued. Part 1 is all charming, "quintessentially" English eccentricities—a broad assortment of kooky extended family members, whimsical family heirlooms hoarded in drawing rooms, teatime and other daily rituals, and the like; this is the life of one Laura Willowes, quietly sloughed into a life of genteel spinsterhood, and cloistered in the tiny spare room in a brother’s family home in London. She slowly transforms into docile “Aunt Lolly” after being christened as such by a baby niece—her identity is so nondescript that even she doesn’t quite register her very name is no longer her own.
This all changes when an otherwise inauspicious guide book makes its way into Laura’s possession. Suddenly Part 2 sets off in an unforeseen direction as Laura announces she will be moving to the isolated rural village that is the subject of her new book. Her family attempts all means at their disposal—including emotional blackmail and financial threats—to undermine her resolve; she nevertheless persists and promptly lets a room of her own, ready to begin a new life distinctly, if somewhat tentatively, her own.
If this was the story of Lolly Willowes, it would still be of note as a showcase for Warner’s remarkable facility with language and sinuous approach to syntax; it's additionally exceptional as an early feminist fable making a persuasive and poignant case for female agency (Warner’s novel predates Woolf’s landmark A Room of One's Own by several years). But the author envisions much, much more for her text and hurtles headlong into the utterly startling Part 3. While I suspect most readers will know, as I did, the general trajectory of the narrative, I think the less known the better so will leave it at that. What a lovely defense of demanding and then enacting a life lived fully and deliciously and—take the term in whatever sense you prefer—queerly too.
“Laura had brought her sensitive conscience into the country with her, just as she had brought her umbrella, though so far she had not remembered to use either.”
A novel in desperate need of further exploration and consideration both by myself and others. Written by Diana Frederics (a pseudonym, but that’s a wA novel in desperate need of further exploration and consideration both by myself and others. Written by Diana Frederics (a pseudonym, but that’s a whole separate, utterly fascinating story in and of itself)!) and published in 1939 by the Citadel Press, just a glance through the chapter names listed in the table of contents announces its disarmingly forthright approach towards its so-called “strange” content: “Am I A Lesbian?,” “‘I Am A Lesbian!’,” “Leslie and I Become Lovers,” etc. Throughout The Well of Loneliness Radclyffe Hall embroiders her representation of lesbian desires and lives with–and ultimately deadening—metaphors and other explicit literary devices; Diana resolutely opts for the opposite tack. Consider:
“With this acknowledgment of my homosexuality I discovered myself; now I had something to go on. It was like being born all over again, and the relief I felt astonished me. I had, so to speak, nothing left to be worried about. My fears were all confirmed… I was determined to respect myself for what I was, lesbianism be damned.”
Well yes, not exactly a final pronouncement that jibes easily within our contemporary rhetoric of relentless pro-queer self affirmation, but I will attest that after reading so many books from this period –and let’s be frank, from all eras—where this same realization is accompanied by utter despair followed by a quick, inevitably sad downward spiral, the clear-eyed, no-nonsense attitude displayed by Diana’s eponymous subject had nothing less than a lightening effect on me.
With a rather spare, declarative style, it doesn’t take that long for Diana to pragmatically grasp evaluate the facts of her life and then set forth to make the best of things. And while there are inevitable complications along the way, she does manage to do pretty darn well for herself, and the fact that the concluding chapter of the novel is titled “Fulfillment” says quite lot. If this perspective came as a bit of a happy shock for me in 2014, I can only imagine its effect on a similarly sympathetic reader in 1939.
The few scholarly considerations I’ve been able to find regarding Diana, most particularly Julie Abraham’s introduction to a 1995 reprinting by the NYU Press, take a surprisingly critical stance toward the novel, tending to focus on what the novel is not as opposed to the many things it is. But for my part, Diana was surely one of the great revelations of my reading year.
By the time I felt like I was finally getting a handle on this bitter, black-hearted little novel, it was all over. As I quickly discovered, to make tBy the time I felt like I was finally getting a handle on this bitter, black-hearted little novel, it was all over. As I quickly discovered, to make the acquaintance of these titular two ladies is to be initiated into a state of perpetual disorientation; I was not, I’ll frankly admit, adequately prepared, even if Bowles’s novel frequently brought to mind the work of her contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Flannery O'Connor, two favorites of mine.
All three authors have an uncanny ability to distill unsettling visions of the world into terrifying portraits of individuals who, by simply defying the “natural” order of things, unleash an aura of chaos and existential anarchy around everything they do. Yet turmoil is often the source of humor, and I’d say the work of all three is funny—albeit in bleak, dark ways. But where Barnes and O’Connor employ violence (both emotional and physical) and grotesquerie to elicit the kind of laugh that transforms into a horrified gasp before it manages to escape the throat, Bowles’s approach is more akin to screwball comedy, a comedy of manners where the main players have decided to redefine what “manners” entail, upending the world around them (ie “until recently [Miss Goering] had never followed too dangerously far in action any course which she had decided upon as being the morally correct one”). That said, these forms of comedies depend on a sense of order and decorum reestablishing itself by the resolution, typically with a romantic pairing reinstating the “unruly” female safely back into the social order. Not so with Two Serious Ladies: it’s instead a whirligig of despair whose last words offer no sense of solace. Instead it feels like a temporary stopgap in an inevitably continuing story destined for misery and destruction.
But also, in the meantime, a sense of escape, even freedom.
I can’t say I actually much enjoyed the process of reading this novel, but I nonetheless sense that it will be joining the small cadre of texts I find myself returning to on occasion, almost inexplicably, trying to scratch some kind of deep itch it has created. To try and discover some answers to the unnerving existential questions it poses—even if I never really expect to ever actually find them.
"She thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare."
[My full review can be found on my blog Queer Modernisms. Apologies for the inconvenience, but as posting a review on Goodreads is to "expressly grant" full license to the content, it's my small attempt at maintaining some control over my writing.] ...more
In the introduction of this collection of Ford's poems, an Edward B. Germain makes a grand pronouncement: "when he began publishing in 1929, Ford wasIn the introduction of this collection of Ford's poems, an Edward B. Germain makes a grand pronouncement: "when he began publishing in 1929, Ford was unique: America's surrealist poet. In retrospect, he is seminal." And yet he doesn't seem to have much a reputation these days (though, really, none of the American surrealists--with the possible exception of Joseph Cornell--managed to establish legacies on the level of their European counterparts), which is a shame, because he can be striking poet. Beginning as a self-made and self-conscious prodigy of sorts--he founded an important literary magazine after dropping out of high school--and a member of the European ex-pat community in the 30's and 40's, this collection spans Ford's entire body of poetry up to the early 1970's. It's a bit uneven (several late long poems dedicated to Edith Sitwell in particular are ponderous bores), and Ford works with rhyming much more than most of his contemporaries, but each poem holds at least a dazzling turn of phrase or two. At the very least. It's a shame more of his work isn't more widely available.
"What kind of poem would I like to write? One in which the images are new and yet fill one with pleasure, like a face that's strange but which we recognize with joy mixed with nostalgia."
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.'"
"Although experimental in ways that seem typically Modernist, this fictional work bears little resemblance, by opposition rather than imitation, to Jo"Although experimental in ways that seem typically Modernist, this fictional work bears little resemblance, by opposition rather than imitation, to Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." -Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank...more