‘Are ya still alive, Djuna?’

Gaby Wood

  • Djuna Barnes by Philip Herring
    Viking, 416 pp, £20.00, May 1996, ISBN 0 670 84969 3

I look at pictures of her and I just can’t see it. She’s elegant, composed, straight-backed. She’s in a tweedy suit on the beach, scowling at the sun, one hand in pocket, the other holding sunglasses, as if about to make some school-ma’amish point. She’s neat, both modern and quintessentially luxurious; dark hair pulled back into a bun, eyes like soft triangles, sweeping cheekbones, it is a sculpted head, a lukewarm, intelligent face. She might be an actress, a spy, a photographer.

The woman is Djuna Barnes. What I am looking for, and can’t see, is the grotesque, the decadent, the rotten; the slop, the left-over, the bilious. Where did she store it all? Where did that live?

Djuna Barnes was born in 1892 in a log cabin on the Hudson River in upstate New York. She was the second in a seemingly endless line of bohemian children. Her father, ‘a misunderstood artistic genius’ according to his mother Zadel, never had a job until Zadel died when he was 53. Meanwhile, he did her proud by acting out their shared philosophy of free love (in one account, his two wives are giving birth simultaneously in the same two-roomed cabin). Zadel was a journalist who had hung out at Lady Wilde’s literary salon in London and was so close to Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor that she signed letters to her ‘Mother’. She also appears to have been a medium, which talent she passed on to her second daughter-in-law (the ‘other woman’). When visited, her face, it was said, would rubberise itself into the shape of the spirit, who was, at various times, Lord Kitchener, Jack London or Franz Liszt (he came to tell the children to practise their instruments more frequently). But the barmy, scrambled upbringing wasn’t always innocent or even well-intentioned. Although Barnes later said that she loved her grandmother Zadel ‘as a child usually loves its mother’, Philip Herring quotes letters to her from Zadel which say things like ‘Pink Tops are simply gasping with love!’ (‘Pink Tops’ are Zadel’s breasts) and feature cartoons of naked women on top of one another. He also claims that Barnes may have been raped by her father, but more likely by a friend of her father’s, with his knowledge. Barnes’s mother, an Englishwoman who had been ‘adopted’ by Zadel, gave her inheritance to her new husband, only to see it shared with other women, and to be booted out with her kids a few years later.

In 1912 Djuna, her mother and her brothers moved to New York, where Djuna started writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and proceeded to write and illustrate for, in her estimate, ‘every English language newspaper in New York but the Times’. She moved into a ‘cavernous old house’ in Greenwich Village with sundry trendies and their visitors – Alfred Stieglitz, Edna St Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill and Marcel Duchamp, among others. She was connected with the Provincetown Players and the Little Review. She had affairs with decadents of both sexes, she wrote about their lives and their haunts in newspapers and published interviews with celebrity-grotesques. Her first book was a chapbook of poems and drawings called A Book of Repulsive Women (‘a disgusting little item’, she later said).

In 1921 Barnes was sent to Paris by McCall’s magazine, and she stayed there for most of the Twenties, having met her legendary lover Thelma Wood, a silverpoint artist from St Louis. Barnes called Nightwood, her most famous book, ‘my life with Thelma’. As seen by their contemporaries, it was a life that involved swanning around cafés dressed in black, Djuna with a sweeping cloak and a walking stick, Thelma in men’s trousers. They were friendly with Natalie Barney and her lesbian circle; they were unfriendly with Gertrude Stein and hers. (Barnes wrote the satirical Ladies’ Almanack, based on Barney’s clique, in order to pay Thelma’s medical bills.) Barnes had two other books published, a collection of stories called A Book and Ryder, a long novel which included a veiled attack on her father. She met Hemingway, Pound, Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Man Ray, Brancusi. She and Thelma slotted in neatly with the American expats Stein called the ‘Lost Generation’.

Thelma was lost and losing it more and more. Her life with Barnes (or Robin Vote’s life with Nora Flood), as described in Nightwood, involved prowling the streets and bars at night, pursued despairingly by her lover, giving herself up to drink and to a middle-aged widow with a ‘beaked head’ named Jenny Petherbridge. (Herring shows that the Petherbridge figure is a woman named Henriette Metcalf, who is quoted in Andrew Field’s 1983 biography of Djuna Barnes, but whose real name could not at that time be revealed.) When her eight-year relationship with Thelma ended, Barnes flitted between New York, Paris and London, with spells in Devon at Hayford Hall, a house rented by Peggy Guggenheim for her lost and drunken friends.

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