IotD: Djuna Barnes’s Brevity

djuna barnes signed postcard to robert wilson 1970

This made me smile when I saw it; it seems to so perfectly encapsulate the punctilious austerity that defined Barnes’s public persona during the last decades of her life. The brief description provided on the auction listing confirms the recipient as Robert Wilson, owner of the Phoenix Bookshop in Greenwich Village. What Barnes is specifically declining remains unspecified—and almost preferably so.

 

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Thesis Update: Notes from the Archive

This blog is long overdue for an update—and a #jessewritesathesis update in particular. In brief: I’m chipping away at it! Progress doesn’t accumulate nearly as quickly as I’d like, of course, but I now have several docs that hold quite a bit of writing. Still learning to avert—or rather, manage—the crippling inner editor who insists that every sentence or phrase be “perfect” before moving to the next, but things are slowly improving.

ransom center exteriorThe most important development which specifically warrants an update post, however, is that after many years of hoping and scheming I was finally able to do some actual archival research for this thesis. Two weeks ago I spent three days at the University of Austin’s Harry Ransom Center sifting through their extensive holdings on both Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, and it just couldn’t have been a better experience. I was constantly impressed with how the Ransom Center and their staff were able to balance a (rightful) sense of protection over the remarkable material in their possession and an obvious commitment to access. As someone currently suspended somewhere between the categories of scholar and student, it was heartening to see that alongside the scholars were what seemed to be a constant stream of undergraduate students accessing and perusing material.

[That said, even though the Center is extremely generous in allowing users to take as many photos of the material as they want, one must sign a strict confidentiality agreement that forbids sharing it without written permission. So unfortunately I can’t provide any images to accompany the things I mention below. Just an FYI—I’m not being stingy!]

What did I find? Well, that three days was hardly enough to even pretend that I’d managed to scratch the surface in regards to what’s available for discovery in both of these archives. It’s been very heartening to see both Ford and Tyler receiving increasing scholarly interest over the last year or so—something itself I should do a write-up one of these days—which leads me to assume that eyes are starting to get on this material (indeed, I was told someone had been working with the Ford material the week before I arrived), but it was also IMMEDIATELY clear that this is a “story”—indeed, multiple stories—that needs, is even demanding, to be told. Though I was forced to do a lot of scanning/speed-reading, Ford’s prolific correspondence (of which this is only a partial holding; there also seems to be much held at Yale’s Beinecke Library, to say nothing of holdings in archives of his countless correspondents) offers so much first-person documentation of modernism, American expatriatism, the pre-Stonewall queer experience, and early twentieth century American/European culture in general—in addition offering perspectives that have been generally kept to the peripheries of historical accounts of these eras and communities.

djuna barnes letter

Image of a typical Djuna Barnes letter found online [NOT from the Ransom Center collection]

Perhaps the single most personally satisfying experience was the several hours spent poring over the collection of Djuna Barnes’s letters, most written between 1933 and 1936. Some were typed, but the majority were handwritten—itself a thrill (though it took a little while to acclimate to her distinctive handwriting!). I was able to answer some questions I had regarding Barnes’s involvement with the manuscript and initial publication of The Young and Evil, as well as Ford’s contact with Nightwood. I was also able to get quite a bit of insight into Barnes and Ford’s brief but intense romantic partnership, a chapter not widely known, probably because it complicates the most common narratives regarding both figures (and Barnes’s life and career in particular). A long term goal is to carve out of my thesis a publishable article on this specific topic.

Other highlights: several draft fragments from The Young and Evil that provide insight into Ford and Tyler’s collaborative process, as well as facsimile copies of Ford’s correspondence with Gertrude Stein which helped illuminate her involvement with the text.

And finally, more information which only led to more mystery: one of the central enigmas that has emerged during my research is the figure of Kathleen Tankersley Young, a poet and critic initially associated with the Harlem Renaissance and appeared in a number of the “little magazines” of the period. As well as taking on a kind of mentorship role and co-editor credit for Ford’s literary magazine Blues, she is important to The Young and Evil, not only as the novel’s dedicatee but appearing as the text’s only major female character. From her poetry I had started to suspect that she is actually a more crucial influence on Ford and Tyler than even Barnes and Stein; reading through her letters has only confirmed this.

Yet despite all these fascinating connections (and others—she went on to found a minor but admired publication company before a tragic and mysterious early death) Young currently remains more or less invisible—indeed, the several mentions of her currently out there (mostly in studies and compilations of women connected to the Harlem Renaissance) can only mention that practically nothing is known about her. Indeed, I’ve yet to come across a photograph of her. I was cautiously hoping an image of some kind would emerge somewhere in Ford’s material, but that ended up not being the case (at least in what I was able to go through)—though I sense that a dramatic pencil sketch of a female face on one of her letters might be a portrait of her. I’m  now more curious than ever about this fascinating, unknown figure; if anybody reading this happens to have ANY information on Young, please get in touch with me! (My info is in the “About” section.)

The Ransom Center actually shared on their Instagram account a snippet from one of letters from Young that I was able to look at, making it (I presume) ok to share here. I’ll also include below a few other images taken outside the restricted Reading Room.

It’s taken the two weeks since to simply organize and upload the notes and images (nearly 250 of them!) that I took over the course of the three days. Now it’s time to dive back into the writing—something I’m taking on again with a renewed sense of excitement and engagement. Wish me luck!

kty letter to chf ransom centerransom center jacques cocteauoscar wilde ransom center windowransom center leon bakst ballet russes costume

Top to bottom:

  1. Letter from Kathleen Tankersley Young to Charles Henri Ford (1928), posted on the Ransom Center Instagram account
  2. The eyes of Jean Cocteau from the interior of Ransom Center
  3. “Apparition” of Oscar Wilde on the exterior of the Ransom Center
  4. Original costume designed by Léon Bakst for Narcisse, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe (1911)

 

 

Duly Noted #5: Queer Lady Longevity

Romaine Brooks (February 2, 1972 – December 7, 1970) – 96
Natalie Clifford Barney (October 31, 1876 – February 2, 1972) – 95
Jeanne Galzy (September 30 1883 – May 7, 1977) – 93
Rachilde [Marguerite Vallette-Eymery] (February 11, 1860 – April 4, 1953) – 93
Gisèle Freund (November 19, 1908 – March 31, 2000) – 92
Djuna Barnes (June 12, 1892 – June 18, 1982) – 90
Alice B. Toklas (April 30, 1877 – March 7, 1967) – 89
Bryher [Annie Winifred Ellerman] (September 2, 1894 – January 28, 1983) – 88
Solita Solano
 (1888 – November 22, 1975) – 86/87
Janet Flanner (March 13, 1892 – November 7, 1978) – 86
Mina Loy (27 December 1882 – 25 September 1966) – 83
Colette (28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954) – 81

Queer modernist ladies tended to live loooooong lives. Was it the French air? Or something in the tea served at The Temple of Friendship??

 

Book Review: LADIES ALMANACK by Djuna Barnes

[To continue celebrating Djuna Barnes this week and because I was thinking about it in light of a film adaptation currently in the works, I’ve decided to revisit and expand this review which was originally posted on Goodreads.]

“‘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.'”

Ladies Almanack cover Djuna Barnes illustration

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? An exuberant celebration? A sly denunciation? A parodic exercise in self-loathing?

Of course, this is Djuna Barnes we are talking about, so it’s probably all of these things, though perhaps “none of the above” gets even a bit closer to the heart of the matter. But these tensions touch upon exactly the thing that most compels me most about Barnes’s text—it somehow can manage to encompass nearly all interpretations one could possible pose, but stakes itself definitively to none of them. Which makes it a superlative example of one of my academic interests: the conveyance of queer content through “queered” form.

Djuna Barnes Natalie Barney

Photograph of Djuna Barnes and Natalie Clifford Barney, c. 1930.

The Almanack is deliberately constructed to work simultaneously on two different levels, with different sets of meaning available to different communities of readers. For the uninitiated the text can come off as a rather bewildering–perhaps even incomprehensible–take on medieval hagiography, with its mock-reverent depiction of Dame Evangeline Musset and her seemingly limitless benevolence toward young women in need.

Some readers, however, might also pick up that Dame Musset’s munificence is not purely altruistic in nature, but extends to a more sensual dimension that involves the women’s “Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most” (Barnes 6). But Barnes herself readily admitted that her Almanack was more than anything intended for “the private domaine” [sic], to be “distributed to a very special audience” (cited Lanser 164); that “special audience” was first and foremost Natalie Clifford Barney, as well as the many members of the lesbian-centric coterie that assembled around her in Paris. And not only was Barney & co. the audience that would be able to understand the layers of meaning shrouded within the narrative, they comprised of the subject matter themselves, as the text’s expansive cast of characters all had real-life counterparts that were being wittily caricatured (see below).

djuna barnes ladies almanack key

Key to the characters of Ladies Almanack I once made for a seminar presentation.

Privately printed and distributed, it’s interesting to consider how the Ladies Almanack was part of a spontaneous(?) flowering of literature published in 1928 that prominently featured same-sex desire–and sometimes dared even more–between women, including Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, and, perhaps most importantly in a purely historical sense, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (for a good consideration of the importance of the year 1928 to feminist and/or lesbian texts I highly recommend Bonnie Kime Scott’s important 1995 study Refiguring Modernism, Volume I: The Women of 1928).

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration

Original illustration by Djuna Barnes for Ladies Almanack

It is particularly enlightening to contrast Ladies Almanack to the latter of these novels, for not only does Hall, along with her longtime partner Una, Lady Troubridge, make appearances within Barnes’s text, but it throws into sharp relief Barnes’s own aim and approach in regards to both content and aesthetics. On the most obvious level, Barnes’s obscure, archaic utilization of language and form in the Almanack is a far cry from Hall’s unambiguously presented apologia-cum-petition. But unlike the wealthy Hall who could use her artistocratic lineage and social privilege to withstand public backlash, Susan Snaider Lanser writes that for Barnes, penniless and an American expatriate, 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” (166).

As such, Ladies Almanack can’t just be considered an example of willful high modernist obfuscation; at the same time, its stylistic choices can’t just be solely marked up as a method for eluding censorship either. Rather, it’s something between, I’d argue, an alchemical concoction that attempts to avoid simply shoehorning queer–and intensely personal and private–topics and desires into traditional novelistic forms (The Well of Loneliness again, which can make for a rough reading experience today in its relentless proselytizing), with the purpose of beginning to articulate a new means of expression altogether. Barnes accomplishes this by queerly 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 (if perpetually undervalued) figures.

All these factors–and many others I’m necessarily sidestepping at present–lead to a text that is at once both outdated and undateable, and as playfully and deliberately enigmatic today as it must have been in 1928.

And hell, it’s just an awful lot of fun.

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration 2

Djuna Barnes’s original illustration of Dame Musset’s funeral. Let’s just say it’s this is not the bleak scene you might assume it is…

WORKS CITED

Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack. (1928). Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1992. Print.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. “Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire.” Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Ed. Mary Lynn Broe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. 156-68. Print.

Currently In Production: a Djuna Barnes Film Adaptation

Ladies Almanack still Dolly & Djuna

Dolly Wilde (Slaveya Minkova) and Djuna Barnes (Josefin Granqvist) appearing in a cinematic reimagining of the “Ladies Almanack” by Djuna Barnes

Shame on me for failing to make some kind of mention of Djuna Barnes’s birthday last Friday (June 12), but considering that the date of her passing is June 18, I figure it would be appropriate over the next several days to celebrate all things DB.

For my first post, I thought I’d bring some attention to a fascinating project I’ve been following for a while now, a film adaptation of Barnes’s fascinating/bewildering/bewitching roman à clef Ladies Almanack which is currently in production. It is being written and directed by Chicago-based writer, performer, and filmmaker Daviel Shy.

Ladies Almanack cover Djuna Barnes

Cover of “Ladies Almanack” with illustration by Djuna Barnes

According to the film’s website, The Ladies Almanack will be “a feature-­length experimental narrative film,” and that it will be “a kaleidoscopic tribute to women’s writing through the friendships, jealousies, flirtations and publishing woes of authors and artists in 1920’s Paris.” For those not familiar with Barnes’s original text, it was written in 1928 and privately published that same year, and reportedly undertaken for the amusement of Natalie Clifford Barney and the circle of lesbian artists associated with the celebrated salon she hosted in Paris. Drawing equally upon literary elements both archaic and modernist, in mock-Rabelaisian style Barnes casts Barney and her friends (which include Romaine Brooks, Radclyffe Hall, Mina Loy, Janet Flanner, and many others) and almost beatifies them, casting the coterie’s various in-jokes, tangled relationships, and interpersonal tensions almost as a form of medieval hagiography. I haven’t at all managed to do justice to Ladies Almanack in this brief description, but will just say that while I found this a strange and perplexing work on my first reading, after some research and several more reads I now find it to be as screamingly funny as much as it is artistically and conceptually innovative. Barnes’s witty and characteristically eccentric illustrations only further emphasize these qualities.

ladies almanack film still daviel shy

Mimi Francetti (Fannie Sosa) and Lily de Gramont (Merci Michel) in “The Ladies Almanack”

I’m pexcited about Shy’s adaptation precisely because all available information and imagery makes it seem like there is little interest in “faithfully” adapting Barnes’s anarchic text, but rather Shy is extensively–and I’d say appropriately–reimagining the project Barnes herself originally set out to undertake. According to the film’s website, “each character is a hybrid of the historically researched figure and the contemporary artist who portrays her,” and, intriguingly, Shy is casting Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Monique Wittig as narrators, with Cixous actually portraying herself and Eileen Myles embodying Wittig. Iconic queer filmmaker and actress Guinevere Turner (Go FishThe L Word) will play Liane de Pougy. My impulse is that Shy is undertaking some really clever strategies to access this text within the context of 2015, with the potential for representing how the queer legacies of this particular storied moment of the queer past possesses a legacy that continues to resonant in the queer present.

Ladies Almanack collage Sarah Patten

Collage Cover of “The Ladies Almanack” by Sarah Patten

I’m also particularly pleased that the film is intentionally taking on an experimental style, and the images that have been shared on the film’s website and through other social media sources have brought to mind the work of numerous queer artists, from the lush style and evocative anachronism of Derek Jarman and Werner Schroeter, to Barbara Hammer’s erotic utopianism, to the stylized posing of Claude Cahun’s portraiture, to the inventive and insatiable cultural bricolage of Jack Smith. The film’s stated “Bibliography” demonstrates that Shy & co. have definitely done their homework in regards to literary based research, and I’m expecting the same regarding the film’s visual sensibility, which certainly seems to be operating within the tradition of queer non-mainstream filmmaking.

The film’s Profile page also excites me, as it is clear that the Ladies Almanack will be representing a large swath of the contemporary queer community in all of its diversity, beautiful idiosyncrasy, and immense creative energy.

The production is still raising funds to help get the project completed–I donated last week during a fundraiser they were holding. Otherwise, keep up the project through the website’s news page, its Facebook page, or tumblr site. I’ve also been enjoying wandering through Daviel Shy’s personal site.

To close, several more collages by Sarah Patten, which are reportedly going to serve as chapter headings in the film. To say I’m obsessed with them is an understatement.

mina loy collage sarah patten

Mina Loy (Brenna Kail) by Sarah Patten

thelma todd collage sarah patten

Thelma Wood (Erin Jackson (aka Audio Jack)) by Sarah Patten

 

dolly wilde collage sarah patten

Dolly Wilde (Slaveya Minkova) by Sarah Patten

renee vivien collage sarah patten

Renée Vivien (Caitlin Baucom) by Sarah Patten

 

 

Book Review: SPILLWAY AND OTHER STORIES by Djuna Barnes

spillway cover djuna barnes

“You see,” she continued, “some people drink poison, some take the knife, others drown. I take you.”

As anybody familiar with the singular artistic vision of Djuna Barnes is well aware, reading anything she wrote is like entering a type of parallel universe—one that resembles our own in many ways, but also one that is no longer able to repress and erase what is odd or sad or grotesque, particularly in regards to the human condition. As an astute commentator much smarter than me has noted, reading Barnes is to enter a textual space “in which the normative becomes, for once in history, the excluded, the taboo, and the unmentionable” (Boone 235).

Barnes was a prolific artist and her written work encompasses journalism, interviews, novels, plays, poetry, criticism, and a copious amount of wittily irascible letters exchanged with just about all of the great cultural luminaries of the 20th century (unfortunately a collection has yet to emerge, so for now one can catch glimpses of them in the countless biographies and commentaries detailing the modernist era).

Spillway Djuna Barnes First EditionShe was also, of course, a short story writer, and this was my first extended encounter with her short-form fiction work. Once one becomes familiar with Barnes’s baroque style and bleak worldview it is difficult to not immediately recognize her writing, which helps in being able to contextualize these stories with all of the other modes she expressed herself in. But I also found them different in a crucial way as well, for if her novels and longer fiction feel like a meander through a shape-shifting dream world, the short stories operate quite differently. Within these little slips of short stories–many no more than several pages long–Barnes is somehow able to contract and compress entire cosmos of feeling, affect, experiences, and histories (of both a personal and cultural nature) into the space of several pages.

Not that this ever seems the case at the beginning of each story. Barnes’s general technique is to introduce several eccentric characters, establish a setting and then embroider these elements in a delicate meshwork of commentary and observations that are unexpected and incisive and beautiful. Often they hardly seem like “stories” at all, but rather character sketches, all evocative description and not much else. But that impression is deceptive, for almost like clockwork in the closing lines something inevitably happens—a snippet of dialogue perhaps, or a turn of phrase—and suddenly everything comes together in a brief flash of insight. It’s not exactly that everything seems to “fall into place,” or it is like a puzzle with an “aha!” conclusion, or even that it feels like an epiphany, but somehow everything always seemed to come together in the very last moment, almost improbably, suddenly making (some kind of) sense of everything that came before

barnes a night among the horses

“Spillway” was earlier published as “A Night Among the Horses”

But “sense” isn’t even the right word, as it’s something more ambiguous and indescribable than that. But whatever it is it’s extremely potent: there were several times upon reaching the end of a story that I had to set the book down for a few minutes, blown away by an unexpected wave of emotion that just coursed through me. How? I likely wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Why? Glancing back through the stories now, I can’t exactly tell anymore. And yet somehow, fleetingly, in the moment of reading these stories they would somehow reveal an emotional coherence, and often to devastating effect.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to become fully convinced that Barnes is one of the great short story writers, even if she is rarely anthologized, and I’d be quite surprised if she’s ever included as a “how-to” example in a guide to writing a “good” short story. Because by any standards these stories shouldn’t work. But somehow they do, and the results are unlike just about anything else I’ve ever encountered or had the great pleasure to read.

[A version of this review was originally posted on Goodreads.]

 NOTE

Spillway was originally published in 1923 under the title A Book, and a new edition was published in 1929 under title: A Night Among the Horses.

WORKS CITED

Barnes, Djuna. Spillway and Other Stories. 1923. New York City: Harper & Row, 1972.

Boone, Joseph Allen. Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.