Join 3,440 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Djuna Barnes
June 10, 2009 11:43 AM   Subscribe

Djuna Barnes (12 June, 1892 – 18 June, 1982) was an American writer who played an important part in the development of 20th century English language modernist writing and was one of the key figures in 1920s and 30s bohemian Paris after filling a similar role in the Greenwich Village of the teens. Her novel Nightwood became a cult work of modern fiction, helped by an introduction by T. S. Eliot. It stands out today for its portrayal of lesbian themes and its distinctive writing style. - Wikipedia

Her early works include The Book of Repulsive Women and Ladies Almanack. She spent the last 40 years of her life in seclusion in Greenwich Village's Patchin Place.
posted by Joe Beese (18 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Joe Besse, why do you like all the people I like?
posted by The Whelk at 11:46 AM on June 10, 2009


Joe, do you do anything other than post on MeFi? :-)
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:09 PM on June 10, 2009


Nightwood is a seriously weird book. Large tracts of it are just the drunken monologue of a cross-dressing charlatan.
posted by creasy boy at 1:03 PM on June 10, 2009


Nightwood is beautiful, haunting, weird, inspiring. I have had a soft spot for Ms Barnes's writing since college.
posted by damehex at 1:05 PM on June 10, 2009


Nightwood is one of my favorite books (hence my name).
posted by nightwood at 1:38 PM on June 10, 2009


Djuna Barnes is great. I especially love her description of James Joyce in this article [pdf]. The whole thing is stellar, but here's the best part:

His hands, peculiarly limp in the introductory shake and peculiarly pulpy, running into a thickness that the base gave no hint of, lay, one on the stem of the glass, the other, forgotten, palm out, on the most delightful waistcoat it has ever been my happiness to see. Purple with alternate does and dog heads. The does, tiny scarlet tongues hanging out over blond lower lips, downed in a light wool, and the dogs no more ferocious or on the scent than any good animal who adheres to his master through the seven cycles of change.

Both the content and style of that segment are unreal. As I wrote in a previous thread (where I found this article linked):

Seriously, a purple waistcoat covered in alternating doe and dog heads? Huuurrgh. Maybe his underwear had clowns on it.

Not only is the waistcoat ridiculously overornate, the description of it is as well. "[T]he dogs [were] no more ferocious or on the scent than any good animal who adheres to his master through the seven cycles of change." What in the world? The only reference Google gives for "the seven cycles of change" is this very interview. After a bit of searching, I ended up finding this article. Maybe this isn't what Barnes is referring to -- these are are better described as "cycles of seven" than "seven cycles" -- but it's my best guess. If I'm right, the reference is to some obscure philosophy of the Austrian "anthroposophist" Rudolph Steiner. It's not even mentioned in Steiner's rather long wikipedia article. That is a long way to go for a description of some dogs on an ugly waistcoat!


I'm not sure I was right about that "seven cycles of change" allusion now. If anyone has a better guess, I'd love to hear it.
posted by painquale at 1:57 PM on June 10, 2009


painquale, I'm curious. Are obscure references like that characteristic of Djuna Barnes' work? Is that part of the appeal?
posted by LogicalDash at 3:18 PM on June 10, 2009


LogicalDash: ". Are obscure references like that characteristic of Djuna Barnes' work? Is that part of the appeal?"

Yes, and yes.
posted by Joe Beese at 3:36 PM on June 10, 2009


I found Nightwood to be insipid and totally awful. Also, fairly overtly anti-semitic. I found myself wondering whether Eliot actually read the book before he wrote the introduction.

And, seriously, why the need for the introduction? If a book is good, it doesn't need to piggyback on the respect given to an established literary figure. Yet even now, when Nightwood is fairly well-known, the introduction is still there. I'm pretty sure the only reason I bothered to read to the end of the book was because I was waiting to see the magic that Eliot apparently saw.
posted by Ritchie at 3:46 PM on June 10, 2009


I'm pretty sure the only reason I bothered to read to the end of the book was because I was waiting to see the magic that Eliot apparently saw.

I think that's the need for the introduction right there.
posted by LogicalDash at 4:46 PM on June 10, 2009


"And, seriously, why the need for the introduction?"

Hm, could've sworn I read Eliot discussing that very question at length, throughout the introduction in question.
posted by Glee at 4:55 PM on June 10, 2009


More pictures of Barnes in her later years here, at the lovely blog Ephemeral New York.

As for Eliot not noticing the anti-Semitism in Nightwood ...you might want to check out Cynthia Ozick and Anthony Lane on the man. (Registration and/or subscription required; rather lengthy abstracts, free.)
posted by Diablevert at 5:01 PM on June 10, 2009


Hm, could've sworn I read Eliot discussing that very question at length, throughout the introduction in question.

That's very true, and it's embarrassing that I've forgotten that (I read the book about 10 years ago), but his central argument rings somewhat hollow: it's a book for people who like poetry. Well, I love poetry, and I despised this book.

It's not that long a novel, and I don't want to turn off anyone who might be inclined to give it a try - you can probably finish it in a day. But for me it was very much like paddling against the current, and after I closed it I threw the book across the room.
posted by Ritchie at 5:36 PM on June 10, 2009


For whatever it's worth I think Nightwood is my favorite book. Ever. Thanks for the post and the comments with the pics and interviews. As for the antisemitism, I don't remember it being any worse that Eliot's but I'm sure someone will set me right on that.
posted by thankyoujohnnyfever at 7:27 PM on June 10, 2009


hmm - that's been sitting in my shelf unread for a couple of years - thanks for reminding me about that
posted by pyramid termite at 9:00 PM on June 10, 2009


Nightwood is brilliant and woefully under-read, and Djuna Barnes is one of my all-time favorite human beings.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:41 AM on June 11, 2009


painquale, that sounds to me like a reference to Shakespeare's seven ages from "All the world's a stage". Presumably the point is that these particular dogs' aspect is of a loyal, lifelong companion rather than any kind of hunter.
posted by Lorc at 2:43 AM on June 11, 2009


Aha! That has got to be it! Thanks, Lorc.

Now to file that away so I can inappropriately bust it out when writing some flowerly description of my own....
posted by painquale at 3:27 AM on June 11, 2009


« Older A supervolcano may be brewing beneath Mount St Hel...  |  Mark Richardson muses about me... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments