Edited with an Introduction by Phillip Herring
Sun & Moon Press
Soft - 488 pp.
Guest Reviewer Peter Klappert
(Though not poetry, this collection brings together the work of an artist whose writing has influenced, and continues to influence, many poets and writers.)
If one short novel is enough to establish a writer as "major," and
it is, then Djuna Barnes (1892-1982) achieved that distinction in 1936,
when Nightwood was published in London. The first edition carried an
introduction by T.S. Eliot which has accompanied subsequent printings and
in which he praises "the great achievement of a style, the beauty of
phrasing, the brilliance of wit and characterization, and a quality of
horror and doom very nearly related to that of Elizabethan tragedy."
Later, with enthusiasm that just manages to outshine an absurd, lamentable
hyperbole, the language-addicted poet Dylan Thomas called Nightwood "One
of the three great prose books ever written by a woman." [ Click to Order Barnes Collected Stories (soft $) ]
In addition to its many incidental pleasures, three things make
Nightwood powerful and compelling: the dark brifliance of the writing,
which is by turns aphoristic, satirical, witty, passionate, musical,
melancholy, sonorous, biblical and funereal; the love story of Robin Vote
and Nora Flood, two American women on the Left Bank in the incredible
Paris of the 1920s; and Dr. Matthew Mighty-grain-o-sand Dante O'Connor,
the novel's Tiresian commentator, confessor, and chorus. It is now widely
known that Robin was modeled on the great love of Barnes' life, Thelma
Wod, Nora on Barnes herself, and Dr. O'Connor on the Irish-American, quack
doctor, sometime abortionist, flamboyantly campy homosexual and cafe
raconteur, Daniel Mahoney.
Nightwood was published in the United States in 1937 and published
again by New Directions in 1946: it has remained in print for 50 years.
Yet as recently as the early 1970s, Barnes and her work were comparatively
unknown. One sometimes encountered groups of friends (particlarly gay and
lesbian readers) who were devoted to the novel, but one also encountered
professors of modern fiction who had not read Nightwood--or had read it
with distaste and condescension. Barnes collection of short stories,
published as A Book (1923) and as A Night Among The Horses (1929),
received little attention when it reappeared, edited and revised, as The
Spillway (London, 1962; New York, 1972). The Selected Works of Djuna
Barnes (1962) did not much extend Barnes' audience or get her into the
college curriculum. Other works of fiction, particularly Ladies Almanack
and Ryder, were hardly known and hard to come by.
All that has changed over the last quarter century, thanks to the
rise of feminism and gender studies, the recognition by scholars of
something called "gay and lesbian literature," the recognition by
publishers of something called "gay, lesbian and bi-sexual readers," and
by curiosity about Barnes' life. Since 1976, she has been the subject of
three critical biographies, most recently Phillip Herring's superb Djuna:
The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes.
Barnes has been called "The Garbo of literature": although she
was a sought-after and well-paid journalist and interviewer in the early
decades of this centry (when she interviewed F. Scott Fitzgerald, he
reportedly said "I ought to be interviewing you!"), although she was part
of the legendary expatriate community in Paris after World War One and was
"the red-haired Bohemian" liked and admired by such figures as Joyce,
Eliot, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Robert McAlmon, Mina Loy, Peggy Guggenheim
and Janet Flanner, Barnes spent the last half of her life as a virtual
recluse in a small apartment in Gqeenwich Village. She spent those
solitary 42 years in straightened circumstances, although not (as one
sometimes hears) in abject poverty. Ironically enough, among the seven
requests for the movie rights to Nightwood that she turned down was one
from Ingmar Bergman: legend has it she might have relented, if Bergman
could have signed Garbo for the role of Robin!
Barnes spent the last decade of her life feeling besieged. She
trid to get the feminist bookstore, Djuna Books, to change its name; she
denied a mime troupe permission to do an interpretation of Nightwood;
although she would not read the manuscript, Barnes vehemently opposed
publication of my book of poems, The Idiot Princess of the Last Dynasty
(an extended homage to Nightwood and to the Paris of the inter-war years)
and kept it out of print for four years. When Douglas Messerli, publisher
of Sun & Moon Prss, discovered that Barnes' early stories had gone out of
copyright, she tried--and failed--to stop him from publishing them as
Smoke and Other Early Stories (1982).
If Messerli caused the combative octogenarian discomfort, he has
more than redeemed himself. Collected Stories is the most recent of six
Barnes' titles from Sun & Moon Press, and three more books are in
preparation. There are forty-three stories here, edited and introduced by
Barges' biographer Phillip Herring and accompanied by a substantial
bibliographic note by Messerli, ranging from early, naive work such as
"The Terrible Peacock" (1914) to her last story, the high-spirited, witty
and satirical "The Perfect Murder" (1942). As Barnes' readers would
expect, all are economical (the longest is twenty-one pages, the shortest
barely two) and consciously--sometimes, too self-consciously--crafted.
Readers who come to the Collected Stories expecting Nightwood's
desperate, passionate words about the betrayal of love will be
disappointed. They will find nothing like
"Time isn't long enough," [Nora] said, striking the table.
"It isn't long enough to live down [Robin's] nights. God," she cried,
"what is love? Man seeking his own head? The human head, so rented by
misery that even the teeth weigh! She couldn't tell me the truth because
she had never planned it; her life was a continual accident, and how can
you prepare for that? Everything we can't bear in the world, some day we
find in one person, and love it all at once.... There's something evil in
me that loves evil and degradation--purty's black backside! That loves
honesty with a horrid love; or why have I always gone seeking it at the
"And then that day I'll remember all my life, when I said:
'It is over now'; she was asleep and I struck her awake. I saw her come
awake and turn befouled before me, she who had managed in that sleep to
keep whole. Matthew, for God's sake, say something, you are awful enough
to say it, say something!"
and Dr. O'Connor's answer:
"Oh, for God's sweet sake, couldn't you stand not learning
your lesson?....You are full to the brim with pride, but I am an empty pot
going forward, saying my prayers in a dark place, because I know no one
loves, I, least of all, and that no one loves me, that's what makes most
people so passionate and bright, because they want to love and be loved,
when there is only a bit of lying in the ear to make the ear forget what
time is copiling....Be humble, like the dust, as God intended, and crawl,
and finally you'll crawl to the end of the gutter and not be missed and
not much remembered."
Those who come to Collected Stories expecting the gay high-camp of
O'Connor's more frothy monologues will also be disappointed. They will
find little that resembles Matthew's cafe debate about the merits of
particular pissoirs ("If you think certain things do not show from what
dstrict they come, yea, even to an arrondissement, then you are not
gunning for particular game, but simply any catch, and I'll have nothing
to do with you!"), or his conversation with his penis ("Tiny O'Toole") in
the church of St. Merri.
They will find just one story with an explicitly homosexual
subject. "Dusie" is set in Paris in the house of "Madame K," who is
transparently modeled on "the Empress of the Amazons," Natalie Clifford
Barney. The stoqy itself hardly amounts to a story, but its satire is
telling and its title character prefigures the "Robin Vote" of Nightwood.
Collected Stories also includes "Behind the Heart," which is pastel and a
little gauzy and quite unlike Barnes' other fiction, an affecting love
story based on Barnes' infatuation with the much younger, bisexual writer
Charles Henry Ford. Barnes refused to publish it during her life time.
Sensitively written, "Behinb the Heart" has more in common with T.S.
Eliot's early poem "Portrait of a Lady" than it does with (for example)
the luh, androgenous sensuality of Shakespeare's "Venus and Adonis."
Barnes was not a great short story writer, although she was often
very good. Herring's introduction uses expressions such as "one of
Barnes's better stories" and "one of Barnes's most successful stories,"
and avoids exaggerated claims like "one of the greatest." Barnes herself
recognized the core of her accomplishment in the form, preserving and
revising most of her best work in each of hr short story collections and
finally narrowing the cannon down to just nine in Selected Works. She also
made mistakes of judgement: there are at least eight or nine other stories
that should be counted among her best.
In his introduction, Herring quotes a 1923 letter from Barnes to
her mother "which goes far to explain the mood in which many of her
stories were written":
"having life is the greatest horror--I cannot think of it as a
'merry, gay & joyous thing just to be alive'--it seems to me monstrous,
obscene & still with the most obscene trick at the end."
In story after story Barnes confronts us with a dark view of our
precarious, metaphysical predicament: that we are neither as unconsciously
noble and disinterested as other animals nor as wisely noble and
disinterested as angels.
I don't mean to mislead the reader: the pleasures of Collected
Stories are many. We get to observe the evolution of Barnes' distinctive
prose (a little of the Renaissance charater book and Jacobean revenge
drama, a little of the Nineteenth Century short story, a little of Oscar
Wilde, and a great deal of Senecan wit and Barnesean strangeness). We
encounter a full cast of Barnes eccentrics--humble laborers, immigrants,
farmers displaced to the city, competing lovers, defunct aristocrats,
pretenders to noble lineage, bon-bon-brained ingenues and worldly widows.
We enjoy short sojourns in times and places which have now vanishd.
But the greatest pleasure of Collected Stories, I suspect, is
reserved for those who know and love Nightwood and crave more--even minor
work--by the author of that monstrous masterpiece.
Peter Klappert is the author of five collections of poems; his The Idiot
Princess of the Last Dynasty will be reprinted in Carnegie-Mellon's
Contemporary Classics series next year. He teaches in the MFA Program at
George Mason Univerity.