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‘I was devoted to Djuna and she was very fond of me in her own superior way…’
So goes Janet Flanner’s reminiscence of Djuna Barnes, and it’s one that seems to speak for most of those who knew this extraordinary writer. Barnes inspired devotion in her friends, and it was a devotion that saved her life on various occasions.
Janet goes on to tell a story about how Djuna gave her one of her manuscripts to read. Janet read it, and returned it, admitting she was baffled by the content. Djuna responded in her magnificent way:
‘Oh Janet. I never expected you to be as stupid as Tom Eliot.’
Born in 1892 in New York State, Barnes had a terrible and traumatic childhood, something she explores in her picaresque Elizabethan epic, Ryder. Her father was a failed composer, musician and painter who was unable to support his family financially. And he had a big family – moving in his mistress when Barnes was five and fathering eight children. Barnes spent most of her childhood caring for the kids. Barnes was raped as a teenager, and when she was 17 she was married off to the brother of her dad’s mistress, in what was not a consensual match. She remained with him for two months.
Barnes’ violent and unsettled childhood influences much of her writing. As I mentioned, Ryder deals with the impact her father’s sexual antics had on her family, and it also obliquely references her rape. She later deals with this latter subject more explicitly in her furious play, The Antiphon.
In 1912 Djuna Barnes moved to New York, where she pioneered a new kind of journalism – documenting her own experiences of the stories of the time. She volunteered to be force-fed so she could document the trials of the hunger-striking suffragettes, and was rescued by a fire fighter from a skyscraper. Barnes joined the thriving bohemian community in Greenwich Village and in 1915 published her book of poetry ‘The Book of Repulsive Women’.
But like many women of the time, Barnes believed that in order to live the life she wanted to live, she needed to be in Paris. And so, in 1921, she travelled across the Atlantic and arrived in the City of Light.
One of the things everyone remembers about Djuna is her incredible beauty. She was stunning. And she knew how to make the most of her gorgeous looks. She was always immaculately made-up, with red lips and red nails, wearing the fashions of the day. But her beauty was a double-edged sword. Gertrude Stein dismissed her talent because she didn’t believe such a beautiful woman needed to be taken seriously. Whilst other raved about her work, Stein merely referred to her as having ‘beautiful legs.’ It was not a compliment Djuna took kindly.
In Paris, Barnes became a member of the expat community, and one of Natalie Barney’s circle. She had a brief affair with Natalie not longer after her arrival (but then, who didn’t?).
Natalie eagerly promoted Barnes’ work at her salons, and was a lifelong friend and patron. Barnes later went on to pay a tribute of sorts to Natalie in her privately-published ‘Ladies Almanack’. This hand-illustrated book was a satire of the lesbian circle that orbited Natalie. Stars of the Almanack include Janet Flanner and Solita Solano as ‘Nip and Tuck’; Dolly Wilde as ‘Doll Furious’; and Natalie herself as ‘Dame Evangeline Musset’.
Djuna’s reputation as a writer went beyond the lesbian Paris scene. Despite Ezra Pound calling her a ‘baboon’ (Fuck You Ezra!), her talent was hugely respected by the leading modernists of the day. She had a very close relationship with James Joyce. She saw him as her equal, and would talk with him about her writing and her work. TS Eliot was a great admirer – he would go on to edit and write the introduction to her masterpiece, Nightwood. And Ford Madox Ford championed her work in his Atlantic Review.
Which brings me on to Nightwood – Djuna’s 1936 novel that, among other things, tells the story of her relationship with the artist Thelma Wood. But before we deal with Nightwood, we should deal with Thelma.
Born in 1902 in Kansas, Thelma and Djuna began a relationship in 1921 that would last for eight years. Thelma was very tall and boyish looking – a very attractive woman who dressed in androgynous clothes and pursued ‘silverpoint’ art. At first, the relationship was very happy. ‘They were so haunted of each other’ is how Barnes described the intensity of their attraction to one another.
But over time, the relationship started to show cracks. Thelma was a drinker and unable to remain sexually faithful to Djuna. And that was what Djuna wanted, and needed, from her lover. A drinker herself, the pair became lost in a painful spiral of drunkenness and infidelity, until they could no longer sustain their relationship. When Thelma began an affair with Henriette Metcalf, Djuna ended it for good.
The end of the relationship was devastating for Djuna. She locked herself away and drank solidly. Finally, increasingly concerned for her welfare, Natalie Barney brought her to her home on rue Jacob and her housekeeper, Berthe, who fondly recalled Djuna’s elegance, nursed her back to health.
As she recovered, Djuna poured her heartache into Nightwood – a novel that remains one of the greatest and most beautiful works of the modernist period.
I first read Nightwood as a teenager and it is a book that has haunted me throughout my adult life – a book I return to year after year, each time discovering something new and frightening and beautiful. That is its power.
Nightwood tells the story of Felix Volkbein, an Austrian trying to uphold the traditions of European nobility – a section of society which he doesn’t really belong to. He marries the androgynous Robin and she has a child, but Robin leaves him and their son in pursuit of her own wandering adventures. She meets Nora, and the two fall in love, but Robin constantly seeks out affairs with strangers. In an appallingly frightening and intense chapter, Robin meets a woman called Jenny – a grasping bitch who is intent on stealing the happiness of others. Jenny grabs at Robin, who leaves Nora.
Nora desperately tries to find Robin and bring her back to her, searching for her across Europe and America. She looks for her in the bars and the ports, tries to love the girls Robin has loved, but only finds women who Robin has left. The descriptions of her search are among some of the most heartrendingly painful and beautiful passages in the novel.
Central to the narrative is the character of Dr Matthew O’Connor, a transvestite who opines on the nature of the night (in my fantasy film version, I always imagine him played by John Hurt). His babbling monologues on night, sex, history, philosophy and Robin are the heart of the novel. Despite not taking part in any of the main action, he is the observer. Through Matthew we understand everything that is happening in the novel.
It is impossible for me to put into words the extraordinariness of Nightwood and its impact on me as a reader. There is no other book like it. Although it is seen as a cult gay novel, it really is so much more than that. It is a novel about gay characters, certainly, but it is also a novel about pain, despair, the encroaching fascism taking over 1930s Europe, of misfits and strangers, of love and loss, and of life. Its prose is poetry – rich with visions and intense, sensual descriptions. It is grotesque and beautiful all at once.
Nightwood was a success, yet the applause didn’t bring Djuna happiness. She continued to drink and drink, and she was broke. But the devotedness she inspired in her friends never faded. With war approaching, her friends recognised the need to get her out of Europe. Worried for her safety, Peggy Guggenheim paid for Djuna’s passage home to America. She was so ill that Peggy worried she wouldn’t survive the journey.
She did survive. After returning to New York, Djuna became increasingly bitter and reclusive. In fact, she lived a very long life – dying in 1982. Throughout she maintained correspondence with Natalie, the pair reminiscing on their life in 1920s Paris.