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by Bamber Gascoigne

Djuna Chappell Barnes (1892-1982)


Avant-garde American writer, illustrator, playwright, and a well-known figure in the literary scenes of Paris and London before World War II. Djuna Barnes' experimental work is characterized by malevolent characters, dark humour, and decadent flavor. Her most famous novel, Nightwood (1936), a stream-of-consciousness narrative, has become a cult classic. It was rejected by American publishers, but finally accepted by Faber & Faber after T.S. Eliot's recommendations.

"Barnes knew most intimately many lesbians, such as the subjects of her in-joke satire, Ladies Almanack, including Natalie Barney, Janet Flanner, and Dolly Wilde, who had absolutely no relationship to the women she described in Nightwood... Barnes also knew enough to agree with Natalie Barney that Proust's treatment of flighty lesbians who follow gay male patterns of cruising and sexual contacts in Remembrance of Things Past was "improbable." Yet Barnes's treatment in her own novel was not much different. It attests to the power of literary images over lesbian writers that, even after criticizing Proust's lies, Barnes called on her knowledge of lesbians in literature rather than in life in order to write her own novel." (Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present by Lillian Faderman, 1985, p. 365)

Djuna Barnes was born in Cornwall-on-Hudson. Her wealthy and free-spirited father, Henry Budington ("Wald") Barnes, was an unsuccessful painter, who ran a farm on Long Island. Elizabeth (Chappel) Barnes, Djuna's mother, was an English violinist. Djuna was raised by her mother and her suffragist grandmother, Zadel. She and the four other children of the family were taught outside the school system. According to Andrew Field's biography, she could have suffered some psychosexual abuse at home. In her works, her vision of love contains an element of incest. On the other hand, this atmosphere of understated perversity was typical for fin-de-siècle novels. At the age of eighteen, Barnes was "married" in an informal ceremony to the fifty-two-year old Perce Faulkner, the brother of Wald Barnes' mistress Fanny Faulkner.

In 1911 Barnes entered at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; she also studied briefly at the Art Students League. After her parents divorced, she began to work as a journalist and freelance illustrator. Barnes lived a bohemian life in Greenwich Village and wrote for several New York newspapers, among them the Brooklyn Eagle. A collection of her interviews with sporting and artistic celebrities – such as Diamond Jim Brady, Florenz Ziegfeld, Frank Harris, and D.W. Griffiths – was published posthumously as Interviews. Once she went to the Bronx zoo to have a conversation with a chimpanzee. Barnes was not afraid to take physical challenges. Her famous first person article 'How It Feels To Be Forcibly Fed,' published in New York World Magazine (September 6, 1914), was connected to the treatment of hunger-striking British suffragettes.

As a poet, Barnes made her debut in 1915 with The Book of Repulsive Women, a collection of poetry and drawings. Three of her one-act plays were produced in the 1919-20 at the Provincetown Playhouse in the Village, where she worked with Eugene O'Neill. Her marriage to the editor Courtenay Lemon lasted only briefly.

In New York City Patchin Place was Barnes' home at various times. Barnes left for Paris in 1920 and spent the next twenty years abroad. She first took a room at 2 rue Perronet, and after returning from Berlin in 1922, she lived at Boulevard Saint-Germain on the Left Bank. By the middle twenties, she had made enough money from her writing to be able to buy an apartment on the rue Saint-Romain. Also the English poet Mina Loy lived in the building late in the decade.

Barnes interviewed expatriate writers and artists for several magazines and became acquainted with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. James Joyce's experiments with language fascinated Barnes and she declared that after Ulysses, it was fruitless for anyone else to try to write. Peggy Guggenheim, her patron, was one of Nightwood's dedicatees.

It is not gentleness but mad despair
That sets us kissing mouths, O Khalidine,
Your mouth and mine, and one sweet mouth unseen
We call our soul...

(from 'Six Songs of Khalidine', in A Book, 1923)

Barnes' second collection of poems and drawings, A Book, came out in 1923. In the early 1920s, Barnes started to drink heavily. She had a couple nervous breakdowns and was hospitalized several times in New York. Barnes lived with the Missouri sculptor and silverpoint artist Thelma Wood; they parted in December 1931. "I am not lesbian. I only love Thelma," she once said to Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938). (A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919-1939, Vol. I & II, 2006, p. 186) Morrell was a well-known patron of the arts and friend of such writers as T.S. Eliot, Siegfried Sassoon and Virginia Woolf.

In 1928 Barnes published anonymously the Ladies Almanack, an erotic pastiche of lesbian life. It was arranged by month and was illustrated with the author's own drawings. Barnes used the style of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries added with neologism and Joycean wordplays. The lesbian "saint" of the story, Dame Evangeline Musset, was allegedly modeled on the notorious Natalie Barney, who had a literary salon in Paris. "... she had been developed in the Womb of her most gentle Mother to be a Boy, when therefore, she came forth an Inch or so less than this, she paid no Heed to the Error, but donning a Vest of a superb Blister and Tooling, a Belcher for tippet and a pair of hip-boots with a scarlet channel (for it was a most wet wading) she took her Whip in her hand, calling her Pups about her, and so set out upon the Road of Destiny..." Barnes' friend Robert Mc Almon had the book printed in Paris. Ladies Almanack was banned by the US customs.

Ryder (1928), a family chronicle, is more or less autobiographical. The satirical novel, which denounced patriarchal language and authority, imitated the style of Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Bible. "Let thy lips choose no prayer that is not on the lips of thy congregation, for though it is not given to all men to pray alike, nor blame alike, it is not shown thee to know the difference in these matters. Therefore when thou dost ask for the mercy of God, do thou ask it as thy neighbour seems to ask it. And when thou art pitiful, be pitiful like thy sister and thy brother."

Nightwood, Barnes' second novel and her masterpiece, was about the doomed homosexual and heterosexual loves of five damned characters. Barnes spent more than six years writing this work, during which time the manuscript was turned down by a half a dozen major U.S. publishing houses, before being accepted by Faber & Faber in London and in the United States by Harcourt Brace. In the background of the story was the author's nine-year love affair with Thelma Wood on the left bank artists' colony of Montparnasse.

There is not much plot in Nightwood. A central character is Dr.  Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O'Connor, a transvestite and raconteur, who is not a licenced practitioner and who takes the role of poetic guide to the underworld. Barnes dedicated the book to Peggy Guggenheim and John Ferrar Holms. T.S. Eliot wrote in his introduction to the U.S. edition of 1937 that to "say that Nightwood will appeal primarily to readers of poetry does not mean that it is not a novel, but that it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it. Miss Barnes's prose has the prose rhythm that is prose style, and the musical pattern which is not that of verse." He also said that  the book is not a psychopatic study. (The Dynamics of Criticism in T.S. Eliot by Mohammad Hanief, 2000, p. 141) Dylan Thomas hailed Barnes' modernist masterpiece as "one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman."

Nightwood is set in Paris of the inter-war period but it starts from the year 1880 when Hedvig Volkbein – a Viennese woman – gives birth to a child, Felix, and dies. His father, Guido Volkbein, a Jew of Italian descent, had died earlier. Felix calls himself Baron Volkbein, and marries Robin Vote, a young American girl. Nora Flood, the heroine and victim of the tale, goes through her anguished lesbian relationship with Robin. She wanders into Nora's life and out again, and her absence becomes "an aputation that Nora could not renounce." Robin is a shadowy figure – "I never did have a really clear idea of her at any time," says Felix. Her destiny is to destroy those who come close to her. "A man is another person – a woman is yourself," Nora observes, "caught as you turn in panic; on her mouth you kiss your own. If she is taken you cry that you have been robbed of yourself." O'Connor, Nora's spiritual adviser and a transvestite doctor, collects confessions of the people around him and states: "Pray to the good God; she will keep you. Personally I call her 'she' because of the way she made me; it somehow balances the mistake." The narrative ends with an encounter between Nora's dog and Robin, they cry together for their loss of Nora. "A man is whole only when he takes into account his shadow as well as himself," Barnes wrote, reflecting C.G. Jung's ideas.

After Nightwood Barnes produced only one major work, a surrealist verse play, The Antiphon (1958), written in a highly artificial style. Again the subject was incestuous family relationships; the father, Titus Higby Hobbs, who claims to be an instrument of God, has raped his daughter, Miranda. Also her brothers have violated her. "Slap her rump, and stand her on four feet! / That's her best position!" says one of the brothers. At the end Miranda is killed by Augusta, her mother, who shouts: "You are to blame, to blame, you are to blame –". T.S. Eliot, Barnes' editor at Faber and Faber, recommended changes to be made in the text. The play was staged in 1962 in Stockholm, translated by Karl Ragnar Gierow and the Swedish U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, who died in an airplane crash in 1961.

In 1931 Barnes went to England, where she spent much time as the guest of Peggy Guggenheim. At the outbreak of World War II Barnes returned to Greenwich Village. In 1943 some of her works was exhibited at Art of This Century opened by Peggy Guggenheim. The reviewer in TIME was surprised to find that the woman who wrote Nightwood could paint with similar distinction. (Grotesque Bodies and the ‘Other’: Repulsive Attraction in the Work of Djuna Barnes by Amie Caddy, 2018, p. 11) In 1961 Barnes was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. "Growing old is just a matter of throwing life away back; so you finally forgive even those that you have not begun to forget." (from Nightwood) Barnes lived out of the spotlight in her apartment on 5 Patchin Place, until her death on June 18 (?), 1982.

In spite of being a central author of "Sapphic modernism" and feminists' interest in Barnes' work in the 1970s and 1980s, she is still called the unknown legend of American literature. "She sees too much, she knows too much, it is intolerable," said Anaïs Nin of her. (Written Lives by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, 2006, p. 117) Jane Bowles had a cold stance towards Barnes, but Carson McCullers, before gaining fame as a writer, used to hang around her door, begging to be let in. "Whoever is ringing this bell, please go the hell away!" Barnes cried from the other side. (Republic of Dreams: Greenwich Village: The American Bohemia, 1910-1960 by Ross Wetzsteon, 2002, p. 432)

For further reading: Ghost Words and Invisible Giants: H.D., Djuna Barnes, and the Language of Suffering by Lheisa Dustin (2021); Dandyism: Forming Fiction from Modernism to the Present by Len Gutkin (2020); Shattered Objects: Djuna Barnes's Modernism, edited by Elizabeth Pender and Cathryn Setz; afterword by Peter Nicholls (2019); Grotesque Bodies and the ‘Other’: Repulsive Attraction in the Work of Djuna Barnes by Amie Caddy (2018); Nomadic Modernisms and Diasporic Journeys of Djuna Barnes and Jane Bowles: Two Very Serious Ladies by Pavlina Radia (2016); Djuna Barnes' Consuming Fictions by Diane Warren (2008); Modernist Articulations: a Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein by  Alex Goody (2007); Written Lives by Javier Marías (2006); Lesbian and Bisexual Fiction Writers, ed. by Harold Bloom (1997); Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes by Phillip Herring (1995); Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes, ed. by Mary Lynn Broe (1991); Women's Writing in Exile, ed. by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram (1989); Fancy's Craft by C.J. Plumb (1986); The Formidable Miss Barnes by Andrew Field (1983); The Art of Djuna Barnes by L.F. Kannenstine (1977); Djuna Barnes by James Scott (1976); Djuna Barnes: A Bibliography by Douglas Messerli (1975); A Festschrift for Djuna Barnes by A. Gildzen (1972)

Selected works:

  • The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings, 1915
  • Three from the Earth, 1919 (play)
  • Kurzy from the Sea, 1920 (play)
  • An Irish Triangle, 1921 (play)
  • She Tells Her Daughter, 1923 (play)
  • A Book, 1923 (expanded as A Night Among the Horses, 1929, revised as Spillway, 1962)
  • Ladies Almanack showing their Sings and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion, 1928
  • Ryder, 1928 (with illustrations by the author)
  • A Night Among the Horses, 1929
  • Nightwood, 1936 (with an introduction by T. S. Elliot)
    - Yömetsä (suom. Lauri Perkki, 1987)
    - Nattens skogar (till svenska av Th. Warburton, 1956)
  • The Antiphon, 1958 (play)
  • Spillway, 1962
  • Selected Works, 1962
  • Vagaries Malicieux: Two Stories, 1974
  • Greenwich Village As It Is, 1978
  • Creatures in an Alphabet, 1982
  • Smoke and Other Early Stories, 1982 (edited by Douglas Messerli)
  • I Could Never Be Lonely without a Husband: Interviews by Djuna Barnes, 1987 (edited by Alyce Barry)
  • Djuna Barnes's New York, 1989
  • At the Roots of the Stars: The Short Plays, 1995 (edited by Douglas Messerli)
  • Poe's Mother: Selected Drawings, 1996 (edited, and with an introduction by Douglas Messerli)
  • Collected Stories of Djuna Barnes, 1996 (edited with an introduction by Phillip Herring)
  • The Book of Repulsive Women and Oher Poems, 2003 (edited with an introduction by Rebecca Loncraine
  • Collected Poems: With Notes Toward the Memoirs, 2005 (selected and edited by Phillip Herring and Osias Stutman)
  • Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth: The Early Works of Djuna Barnes, 2016 (edited and with an introduction by Katharine Maller)

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