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??

 

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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