Friday, June 12, 2009

Djuna Barnes

...So, when all of you flock to your fancy,
The God that is always the same,
My God shall halt and be human
And his judgment shall halt and be lame
Yea, the devil came down your pass,
Blown in on the strength of the breeze,
And because your Gods were duplicates
He shattered you on his knees.
I'll work my clay as I find it,
All hushed as it lies in the sod,
And he shall be built for better or worse
In the way of a Personal God.

— from "The Personal God," a poem in The Book of Repulsive Women, by Djuna Barnes, born on this day in 1892. Through her father and grandmother, Barnes gained a great appreciation of and dedication to the arts (the Barnes home was often frequented by such artistic greats as Jack London and Franz Liszt). Barnes did not have a formal education because her father believed that the public school system was inadequate, and thus felt he felt that home schooling was much more beneficial. Her only formal schooling came after she left the home and moved to New York City. In 1912 Barnes enrolled as a student at Pratt Institute (1912-13) and the Art Students League (1915-16). While at Pratt, she began her writing career as a reporter and illustrator for the Brooklyn Eagle.

Barnes' first published her poetry in 1915 as a collection of "rhythms and drawings" entitled The Book of Repulsive Women; four years later three of her plays were produced by the Provincetown Players. In 1923, Barnes published a collection of lyrical poems, stories, drawings, and one-act plays which she entitled, simply, A Book. In 1921, Barnes was sent to Paris by McCall's as a correspondent and wrote articles for such magazines as Vanity Fair, Charm, and The New Yorker; she stayed for almost twenty years. While in France, she was heavily immersed in the modernist scene in Paris where she befriended such beneficial patrons as Natalie Barney and Peggy Guggenheim. This circle of women, which included writers such as Mina Loy, Janet Flanner, Dolly Wilde, and Gertrude Stein, became known as 'The Academy of Women.' (These days they are referred to as "The Literary Women of the Left Bank.") Barnes wrote a satirical work, Ladies Almanack, about this salon and the women who were a part of it.

Her second novel, Nightwood (1936), is her masterpiece of which T.S. Eliot praised its style. Having read it several years ago, I also was impressed with its singular modernist style more than the content. It is the sort of book you do not forget easily even though it is hard to describe. However, the one thing which critics are not divided upon is the large sphere of influence that Barnes had upon other writers of her era. She is often compared to Joyce, Pynchon and Nathaniel West and the circle of her influence reaches out to include Truman Capote, William Goyen, Isak Dinesen, John Hawkes, and Anais Nin. Along with Nathaniel West she has been identified as one of the originators of "Black Comedy". When she returned to the United States, she wrote little and lived a reclusive life in her apartment on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, where she died in 1982. Apart from the notoriety of her bohemian lifestyle and radical views, Barnes became "the unknown legend of American literature" (her description) on the basis of her cult lesbian novel, Nightwood, and for her poetry and artwork. She was also known for her sensationalist journalism and off-beat interviews.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. New Directions. 2006 (1936).

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