Book Review: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

lolly-willowes-warner-nyrb-editionWarner’s prose sparkles and snaps like a gin and tonic in an elegant cut glass tumbler, her humor the slice of lime contributing the essential dash of sharp acidity. Warner proves to be a most devious hostess, however: seemingly invited to a pleasantly amusing afternoon garden party, it’s only as the sun begins to set that it suddenly begins to dawn—this is actually a Witch’s Sabbath! What a marvelously devious sleight of hand.

And perhaps more than ever 2017 is the time for stories about waking up from the drowsiness of lives cocooned by social expectations and respectability politics and be pointed toward modes of being that are idiosyncratically imagined and intentionally pursued. Part 1 is all charming, “quintessentially” English eccentricities—a broad assortment of kooky extended family members, whimsical family heirlooms hoarded in drawing rooms, teatime and other daily rituals, and the like; this is the life of one Laura Willowes, quietly sloughed into a life of genteel spinsterhood, and cloistered in the tiny spare room in a brother’s family home in London. She slowly transforms into docile “Aunt Lolly” after being christened as such by a baby niece—her identity is so nondescript that even she doesn’t quite register her very name is no longer her own.

NPG P183; Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton

Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton, 1930 (via National Portrait Gallery)

This all changes when an otherwise inauspicious guide book makes its way into Laura’s possession. Suddenly Part 2 sets off in an unforeseen direction as Laura announces she will be moving to the isolated rural village that is the subject of her book. Her family attempts all means at their disposal—including emotional blackmail and financial threats—to undermine her resolve; Laura nevertheless persists and promptly lets a room of her own, ready to begin a new life distinctly, if somewhat tentatively, her own.

If this was the story of Lolly Willowes, it would still be of note as a showcase for Warner’s remarkable facility with language and sinuous approach to syntax; it’s additionally exceptional as an early feminist fable making a persuasive and poignant case for female agency (Warner’s novel predates Woolf’s landmark A Room of One’s Own by several years). But the author envisions much, much more for her text and hurtles headlong into the utterly startling Part 3. While I suspect most readers will know, as I did, the general trajectory of the narrative, I think the less known the better so will leave it at that. What a lovely defense of demanding and then enacting a life lived fully and deliciously and—take the term in whatever sense you prefer—queerly too.

“Laura had brought her sensitive conscience into the country with her, just as she had brought her umbrella, though so far she had not remembered to use either.”

& even more scholarship

Unfortunately updates to this blog for the foreseeable future will (likely) be few and far between. But it’s for a good reason: work on my thesis has resumed!

It’s been slow going, and progress occurs more on some days than others, but I’ve been working hard to develop daily writing habits that finally seem to be paying off (key to this has been joining an online academic writing group, which I should write about here). And overall it has just felt great to note the expanding page count of an initial chapter draft. Also exciting is that a trip to do archival research is going to happen sometime next spring.

In the meantime, just wanted to note that I have posted another paper up on my academia.edu account. I’ve always been proud of this particular piece of scholarship, which was initially written for a seminar on American autobiographical writing, and then was slightly revised for submission to my graduate program’s annual peer-reviewed published journal.

The paper focuses on several texts by Samuel M. Steward (particularly the 1984 novel  Parisian Lives, the sociological study Understanding the Male Hustler, and the memoir Chapters from an Autobiography) and attempts to grapple with a number of thorny issues, including the nature of autobiography, what happens when autobiography is fictionalized, and the historical necessity for queer individuals to employ pseudonyms and falsify specific details regarding their identity even when dealing with life writing. And all of these issues become particularly fascinating within the context of Steward’s intentionally unorthodox oeuvre.

So if interested, here’s a direct link to The “Strange Mimesis” of Queer Autobiography: Subversive Pseudonyms in Samuel M. Steward’s Autobiographical Writing. (Yet another too-long title that now makes me cringe!)

more scholarship

I recently uploaded another paper on my academia.edu account, a polished up and slightly revised version of a presentation I made at the 2010 MPCA/ACA (Midwest Pop Culture Association / Midwest American Culture Association) conference held in Minneapolis, MN.

It’s on Twilight. Yes, the YA vampire series that was all the rage a few years ago.

And why post about such a thing here?

Well, because the whole purpose of the presentation was to consider how many of the preoccupations exhibited on this site relate to this text and the character of Edward Cullen. I briefly outline the history of the vampire as a queer metaphor, contextualize the fetishization of beauty (and marble statues!) in the Victorian “cult of beauty” movement, consider the “sad young man” figure and the prominence of “twilight” in pre-Stonewall representations of gay life as identified in the work of Richard Dyer, and finally the ambiguous on-and-offscreen persona of Robert Pattinson and the nuanced ways his star-text might be interpreted by a contemporary gay audience member. What’s even more fascinating? That I don’t think any of these dynamics were intended by author Stephenie Meyer!

This whole project started off as a bit of an in-joke between friends, and then it turned out to be perhaps the single most warmly received piece of scholarship I’ve yet produced (funny how that works). It’s not at all the paper I would write if I was undertaking it again today, but I still have a great deal of affection for it, which is why I’ve decided to dig it back out after all this time and send it out into the world.

So if interested, take a look at the rather cumbersomely titled That Ever-Elusive Object of Desire: Gay Spectatorships and Male Objectification in “Twilight”.

 

Book Review: TWO SERIOUS LADIES by Jane Bowles

two serious ladies cover jane bowlesBy the time I felt like I was finally getting a handle on this bitter, black-hearted little novel, it was all over. As I quickly discovered, to make the acquaintance of these titular two ladies is to be initiated into a state of perpetual disorientation; I was not, I’ll frankly admit, adequately prepared, even if Bowles’s novel frequently brought to mind the work of her contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Flannery O’Connor, two favorites of mine.

All three authors have an uncanny ability to distill unsettling visions of the world into terrifying portraits of individuals who, by simply defying the “natural” order of things, unleash an aura of chaos and existential anarchy around everything they do. Yet turmoil is often the source of humor, and I’d say the work of all three is funny—albeit in bleak, dark ways. But where Barnes and O’Connor employ violence (both emotional and physical) and grotesquerie to elicit the kind of laugh that transforms into a horrified gasp before it manages to escape the throat, Bowles’s approach is more akin to screwball comedy, a comedy of manners where the main players have decided to redefine what “manners” entail, upending the world around them (ie “until recently [Miss Goering] had never followed too dangerously far in action any course which she had decided upon as being the morally correct one”). That said, these forms of comedies depend on a sense of order and decorum reestablishing itself by the resolution, typically with a romantic pairing reinstating the “unruly” female safely back into the social order. Not so with Two Serious Ladies: it’s instead a whirligig of despair whose last words offer no sense of solace. Instead it feels like a temporary stopgap in an inevitably continuing story destined for misery and destruction.

janes bowles by carl van vechten

Bowles portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

But also, in the meantime, a sense of escape, even freedom. Perhaps?

Aware of the general outline of Bowles’s biography (sadly, an infamously tragic one), one of the things I was curious was if she would be working in the grand queer tradition of taking up a certain term to signify covert lifestyles and behaviors, and there does seem to be some evidence to support such a reading. In the novel’s first few pages Miss Gamelon inexplicably moves in with Miss Goering—indeed, I assumed these would be the two “serious” ladies—and immediately entwine themselves into an incredibly intense codependent relationship; Mrs. Copperfield has a similar impulse toward Pacifica, noting that the Panamanian prostitute “takes everyone quite seriously” as she takes “Pacifica’s hand in her own.” I’ll be paying closer attention to this on inevitable (at some point) repeat readings, but whatever inflection one wants to read into them, it is undeniable that there are not only more than just two serious ladies populating Bowles’s novel, and, furthermore, all take their relationships with other ladies very, very seriously.

Jane Bowles, Truman Capote by Cecil Beaton, Marruecos, 1949

Jane Bowles & Truman Capote (Marruecos, 1949) by Cecil Beaton

Barnes’s rueful observation the she was “the most famous unknown in the world” also resonates with Bowles’s own legacy, having long been regarded as one of the great, undersung prose stylists of the twentieth century, inspiring an almost cult-like veneration from writers who achieved a much larger degree of fame than she ever managed to (Tennessee Williams’s proclamation that Two Serious Ladies is “his favorite book” and that he “can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic” continues to adorn current reprints of the novel; Truman Capote, John Ashbery, and Bowles’s own husband Paul were vocal supporters). Millicent Dillon has more recently described how “one soon begins to know the sound of a Jane Bowles sentence, its odd jumps, the way in which it continuously confounds expectations, the way in which secrets are withheld and as suddenly revealed.”

Perhaps Bowles does reveal some secrets throughout the tangled trajectories of the two serious ladies of Two Serious Ladies, but it seems more defined by its resolution to always remain something of an enigma, restless and on edge. And while I can’t say I actually much enjoyed the process of reading this novel, I nonetheless sense that it’s going to join the small cadre of texts I find myself returning to on occasion, almost inexplicably, trying to scratch some kind of deep itch it has created. To try and discover answers to some of the unnerving existential questions it poses—even if I never really expect to ever actually find them.

Works Cited

Bowles, Jane. Two Serious Ladies. 1943. New York City: Ecco, 2014.

Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.

Further Reading

 

Book Review: WOMAN OF THE WOLF AND OTHER STORIES by Renée Vivien

renee vivien woman of the wolf coverDuring that great burst of feminist scholarship in the 1960’s and 70’s that set out to reevaluate the traditional literary canon there was a concerted effort to translate the work of obscure turn of the century author/poet Renée Vivien into English. And I’m glad they did. For if Vivien is remembered today, it is less for anything she wrote than for her lifestyle and the legends that sprung up around it: her turbulent affair with Natalie Clifford Barney, the flamboyantly androgynous dress immortalized in now-iconic photographs of the couple, as well as her death at the age of 32 that still remains somewhat of a mystery (though whatever the actual cause it was undeniably exacerbated by alcoholism and anorexia). Sadly, focusing solely on her admittedly fascinating life does a great disservice to legitimate literary accomplishment. 

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

And yet, despite the effort of several prominent scholars and the general interest in that time period and cultural milieu, Vivien has tended to remain a footnote of the period. A major footnote, but a footnote nonetheless. And frankly, it’s not hard to see why. Which is not a knock on Vivien or her writing in the least—I immensely enjoyed the various stories collected in this slim volume. But only several stories in it was obvious to me that Vivien is an author who resolutely resists canonization; despite Karla Jay’s resolute attempt in the introduction in spinning these as proto-feminist tales, even she must ultimately concede that “if judged from a contemporary lesbian/feminist perspective, some of Vivien’s work might appear embarrassing” for the reader in search of strong politically and socially progressive sentiments. Instead, these stories take their cues from the Decadent Movement, much more along the lines of Oscar Wilde’s hermetic Salomé (my review here) than The Yellow Wallpaper. Of her immediate peers, Djuna Barnes might be said to be exploring similar terrain—indeed, I was often reminded of Barnes’s own short story collection Spillway and Other Stories—but resolutely resisting literary modernism to an extent that exceeds even the ever-iconoclastic (and similarly underread) Barnes comes at a steep price: these are stories that refuse to slide neatly onto university syllabi. 

The vignettes that comprise Vivien’s various stories—most which strive for a mythic quality, often reworking actual Biblical and/or classical sources—are feverish, hallucinogenic, and, quite often, downright bizarre. The actions of her characters rarely act and react according to any obvious logic, and her setting are a surreal mishmash of Victorian cultural and imperial imagery and stereotypes (one story, for example, is supposedly set in the American wilderness, but revolves around a wild tiger). 

The unabashed irreality of these stories, however, are also their finest quality. They remind me of exotic tropical flowers that can only be cultivated in a hothouse—valued not for their longevity but for the spectacular effect of their short-lived blossoming.

Work Cited:

Vivien, Renée. The Woman of the Wolf, and Other Stories. Trans. Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein. New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1983. 

Book Review: THE KISSING FISH by Monique Lange

cover of the kissing fish by monique langeUnjustly forgotten, or perhaps it just never managed to establish any kind of reputation in the first place in English translation. This is exactly the kind of text that would be ideal for New York Review Books to pluck out of obscurity: think of Bonjour Tristesse in style, brevity, and tone, only instead of wreaking havoc within her family, precocious, experience-hungry Cécile instead falls in with the queers—the “kissing fish” of the title.*

The novella came to my attention through an allusion to it made by the character of Max in Edmund White’s The Farewell Symphony, who describes it as “a strange trifle” that features “a woman’s obsessional love for a homosexual.” Intrigued—this is the type of obscure citation that immediately pushes all my buttons—the reference brings everything full circle, as Lange’s book was translated by Richard Howard, the eminent man of letters White’s Max is clearly based on.

Monique Lange portrait Image by © Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis

Lange in 1994, by Sophie Bassouls

When she passed away in 1996 Lange had established herself as a novelist, screenwriter, and editor of some renown in France (similar acclaim appears to have eluded her outside of her native country); giving an almost prophetic inflection to her first novel, she had an open marriage with noted Spanish author Juan Goytisolo, allowing him to take male lovers. Set in 1946, The Kissing Fish is related in the first person by Anne, an eighteen year old who becomes helplessly (and rather inexplicably) infatuated with melancholic Bernard. After some coaxing Bernard agrees to take Anne out one evening, but it immediately proves to be a disaster, leading to a funny, sad little exchange:

“Poor gypsy. And I was counting on your to cure me.”
“Cure you of what?”
“Cure me of the world. But I must have been crazy.” (19)

It doesn’t take much imagination to infer other registers of meaning as well, but Anne resolutely attributes Bernard’s romantic disinterest to her youthful naiveté and sexual inexperience (she is a virgin when they first meet). So she settles for a platonic mentoring relationship instead, musing how “he taught me everything. Paris, painting, flamenco music, Monteverdi, dancing, and trees. He taught me everything—except love” (21). (And this is where the reader lets out a little sigh and a rueful “oh girl.”)

If Lange’s breezy and elegantly spare literary style is clearly indebted to Françoise Sagan, then the character of Anne sometimes calls to mind the half-adventurous/half-passive heroines that populate the work of Marguerite Duras (particularly The Lover). Quickly she is zipping through a series of interesting events, with things particularly picking up once she befriends “the Boys,” a young intellectual couple named Eric and Guy. Her description of their relationship remains startling in its clear-eyed frankness:

 After a passionate love affair lasting two days, they slept together in an extremely narrow bed with affectionate complicity, cruising separately. Their relation was a strange one: Eric loved Guy, Guy loved Eric, but they didn’t love each other.” (28)

monique lange cover poissons chatsThe pair invites Anne to join them in Rome, which gives her occasion to describe their sexual behavior and promiscuous sex lives with similarly unflinching acuity (“Guy often brought home for a day or two some stupid little piece of trade who was imitating the James Dean of the moment” (28); her increasingly wry observations also provide a fascinating glimpse into the mechanisms and mores of gay life in the immediate post-war era. As Anne’s friendship with “The Boys” develops she becomes increasingly imbricated into “the secret universe of homosexuals” (28), the gay subcultures of Paris and other parts of Europe she visits. If this all seems like classic “fag hag” behavior it most certainly is; however, Anne also views this connection as fundamentally based on a deeper congruity when she straightforwardly admits that it is “a world I enjoyed because it was as sad as mine and much more desperate than the other one” (28). Even in its brevity—it’s not a dynamic Lange explores in depth—The Kissing Fish nonetheless provides one of the best representations I’ve yet encountered of the deep kinship that can spring up between straight women and gay men (cf. my disappointment with Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

Through it all Bernard continues to wander in and out of the narrative, the underlying impetus behind all of Anne’s behavior and questionable decisions. She is consistently disappointed, of course, for even after he invites her to move in with him she sleeps on the couch and above all is never allowed to enter his bedroom (oh girl). Mirroring the relationship between her and her “Boys,” a deep affection—or is it codependency?—springs up between the two even as sexual intimacy forever remains outside of the boundaries of their relationship.

In the end Anne comes home early and discovers the identity of Bernard’s “mistress,” and even as she is devastated she can admit “the wheel had come full circle” and that “it was a good ending to the story.” And it is: understated, undramatic—the stuff of the little, experience-based revelations of life that are often necessary to move us out of one phase of life and on to the next.

kissing fish kissing men

*A prefatory note explains that the breed of tropic fish known as “kissing fish” have “gained wide publicity from their kissing habits.” Among other things, they are known to”frequently change partners” before noting that “why they unite their lips is a mystery…” (ellipsis in the original).

Works Cited

Lange, Monique. The Kissing Fish. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Criterion, 1960.

White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York City: Vintage, 1998. Print.

Book Review: PHALLOS by Samuel R. Delany

cover of phallos by samuel delany“A tale of a tale,” to cite Delany’s own characterization, thus situating his text within the tradition of self-reflexive literature associated so closely with Borges; declaring it a phallus-obsessed Ficciones is inevitably reductive but sketches out the general textual landscape. Just like the Argentinian master, Delany unapologetically takes it as a given that literary esoterica and other epistemological pursuits can be just as thrilling as an adventure yarn or mystery story. For Phallos is indeed a mystery at heart, albeit unconventionally so.

A brief opening note outlines the experience of a young potential reader who, after failing to track down a copy of an obscure erotic novel called “Phallos” by an anonymous author, is forced to resign himself instead a lengthy synopsis posted on the internet by an obscure academic residing in Moscow, Idaho. This summary is what constitutes the main text of Phallos.

Thus two different intertwined narrative strands immediately come into play. The first is story (re)constructed via the synopsis, revolving around a man named Neoptolomus and his relentless pursuit across the ancient Roman world in search of a sacred statue of a phallus stolen from a temple he happened to be visiting on business. As it turns out, his ensuing journeying has the happy bonus of creating endless sexual opportunity, and with each new area ventured to Neoptolomus quickly and without fail manages to fall into bed with one or more of the (male) locals.

Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany

But remember this all isn’t actually the story itself: it’s merely an approximation of another text, a framing device. Soon digressions, personal references, and especially footnotes soon begin appearing, the latter quickly taking on the life of their own as they record the feedback of two of the academic’s friends. Also fans and scholars of “Phallos,” they begin to describe what they think should be reported in the synopsis, and chide the author on what is omitted, which in turn relate additional micro-narratives… on and on, endlessly. Delightfully so, in my opinion.

Delany is celebrated for his extensive knowledge on a range of subjects, which he interjects into his writing. Phallos is no different, and operates as a clever dramatization of Lacan’s influential formulation of the phallus, where he located a differentiation between a (literal) penis and a symbol of power. What for the French psychoanalyst was psychological in nature, however, Delany renders tangible in the form of the phallic statue and all that it symbolizes for those who encounter it.

But if Lacan isn’t your thing—and in all honestly it’s not really mine either—no need to get tangled up in these aspects of the text, especially when there is so much else to savor and enjoy. For one, despite the fact that all of the explicit sexual material has been edited out (the author worries over issues of hosting sexually explicit material on a university website), I found much of Phallos to still be a surprisingly sexy read. Delany is masterful at conveying titillating solely through inference, and goes a long way in demonstrating how it’s not necessarily the explicitness of material that is inherently arousing, but all of the factors orbiting around it such as context, power dynamics, novelty, spontaneity, unexpectedness, and the particularities of a person, situation, etc, when encountered at a specific moment in time. I also ended up being quite touched by Neoptolomus’s constant discovery and affirmation of the polymorphous quality of love, sex, and desire: “with each of my adventures,” he muses at one point, “I had thought I’d learned a lesson about love, only to discover, with the next, I’d merely learned a lesson about a lover.” And to claims Neoptolomus as a democratic lover would be an understatement: his bedfellows encompass all races, ages, nationalities, and takes no mind of class status, level of education, sexual proclivities, or even orthodox standards of attractiveness.  It’s constantly a pleasure to encounter how our protagonist discovers beauty and sexual fulfillment simply by being open to their possibility.

 

attic red figure kylix greek pottery displaying gay erotic scenes

Red-figured kylix adorned with scenes featuring activities and configurations of the type alluded to and celebrated throughout “Phallos.”

I’m not sure if the novella of Phallos is republished here in its original form, or has been altered in this “enhanced and revised edition,” which is essentially a scholarly edition of the text. Addended at the end is an “Afterward” as well as three scholarly essays—they’re all very academic in nature (that is, highly theoretical and employ the terminology of the academy), and I found lots of interest while perusing them without getting too caught up in the intricacies of their arguments. I’m glad they’re included as they affirm that a text like Phallos merits such close scholarly attention, though I also think it would have been nice to also include at least one analysis immediately accessible to the casual reader.

In the end what I found so wonderful about Phallos is that it essentially invites the reader to embrace the text as a kind of sophisticated variation on the “choose your own adventure” formula. Delany seems to intentionally avoid ever dictating how the text should be read or understood, placing that control (literally) into the reader’s hands. Skip over the extensive footnotes, or dig into the minutiae. Ponder over the broad philosophical questions that are slyly invoked, or simply be entertained by a quick-paced erotic adventure tale. Admire the intricate narrative construction, or marvel at the meticulous historical detail. It’s up to you.

Works Cited

Delany, Samuel R. Phallos: Enhanced and Revised Edition. Ed. Robert Reid-Pharr. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print.

Book Review: THE FAREWELL SYMPHONY by Edmund White

Farewell Symphony Edmund WhiteEvery year or so I dutifully find myself undertaking yet another Edmund White novel, even though I’m well aware it will likely prove to be a frustrating experience for me. What exactly compels this constant return? Mostly because I’m compelled by the manner in which White’s distinctive form of “autofiction” revels in the minute observations that capture the particularities of lived life. His writing is structured by a principle of accumulation as he amasses vast catalogs of the little thingshabits and objects and sounds and garments and slang words and bodies— that are individually experienced but in retrospect seem to become so many synecdoches standing in for an entire era. Thus when White writes that “no single song was long enough to sustain our drug-induced frenzy so the disc-jockey often went from one record to an identical cut in another copy of the same record, thereby doubling our pleasure,” he records the kind of vivid offhand details that are usually forgotten yet capture the unique texture of a particular moment in time. 

White explicitly makes this an integral aspect of his autofiction. In a passage toward the end of The Farewell Symphony that deeply resonated with me, the novel’s unnamed narrator admits that “official history—elections, battles, legal reforms—didn’t interest” him, and that he “didn’t want to be a historian but rather an archaeologist of gossip.” Major historical and cultural events commence at the peripheries of the narrative, but always seem to remain just out of sight, shifting emphasis instead upon interactions between intimates and friend groups and larger social communities, carefully enumerating all the private little stories and jokes we tell and retell to each other.

And yet such sumptuousness of details can become too decadent, even overindulgentI always reach a point, usually around the ¾ mark, when it feels like everything really should have been wrapped up already (it makes me empathize with the enervated partygoers in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, compelled to linger long after the fête has reached its end). Endless aggregation of detail, even when meticulously managed, inevitably comes at the cost of narrative momentum, and a sense of inertia and stasis sets in. Which is strange effect, considering how The Farewell Symphony is crammed with so much activity.

Alfred Corn, Edmund White, and David Kalstone in Venice, 1974

L to R: Alfred Corn, Edmund White, and David Kalstone in Venice, 1974. (Via Chroma Journal)

At the same time I appreciate how the unnamed narrator allows space for other individuals and personalities to temporarily “take over” the narrative for stretches, brandishing it for their own purposes. Like so many specters summoned via memory’s ability of conjuration, the novel often evokes something closer to a memoir of a community than an individual, and each lovingly-crafted portrait becomes a kind of (futile) attempt at keeping their eventual loss at abeyance.  

The novel, in the end, fashions itself into a lamentation for an entire generation of gay men that was quickly and brutally decimated by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. In the novel’s closing pages White alludes to Haydn’s Symphony No. 45—more commonly known as “The Farewell Symphony”—a piece famous for its unorthodox conclusion that entails musicians to “get up [and] leave the stage” one by one “blowing out their candles as they go.” “In the end,” he explains, “just one violinist is playing.” It turns out to be a remarkably poignant metaphor for the final third of the novel, when most of the vivid presences who had been wandering in and out of the narrative unexpectedly fall sick and pass away with a shocking, almost surreal celerity. But like Haydn, White opts for quiet exits, with the deaths of even the most significant characters announced in passing statements. Such a tactic might be accused of sidestepping the devastating gravity of the situation, but the effect ultimately effectively conveys the heavy weight of absence. And in the end it is White himself who is left alone on the stage, playing wistfully until, finally, all lapses into silence.

[My thoughts on White’s memoir Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014) can be found here.]

Works Cited

White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York City: Vintage, 1998. Print.

Duly Noted #3

overlooked underrated writers

While searching for something else entirely different, this morning stumbled across the Little Caesar Magazine website on Dennis Cooper’s Archives. I’ll be spending much more time exploring this (alas, limited) resource, but this caught my eye and thought I’d include it here for future reference. Can’t say that I recognize more than about a dozen of these names offhand, so more research is in order. Advocacy or any specific recommendations would be greatly appreciated!

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.