Walking backward

Robert Taubman

  • Selected Works of Djuna Barnes
    Faber, 366 pp, £5.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 571 11579 9
  • Black Venus’s Tale by Angela Carter
    Next Editions/Faber, 35 pp, £1.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 907147 02 X
  • The Last Peacock by Allan Massie
    Bodley Head, 185 pp, £5.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 370 30261 3
  • The Birds of the Air by Alice Thomas Ellis
    Duckworth, 152 pp, £6.95, July 1980, ISBN 0 7156 1491 6

Not long after Ezra Pound, the precocious Djuna Barnes arrived in Paris already equipped with a style derived from the Jacobean dramatists and French post-symbolist poets, and so with as good a claim as any to be counted among the founders of Modernism. In 1936 T. S. Eliot warmly sponsored Nightwood, and one has heard since that her vision of Hell can be traced as an influence in Nathanael West and Malcolm Lowry, and her sort of Gothic fantasy in John Hawkes. In spite of this, when her books reappear it doesn’t seem to be so much in response to a public demand as because the time has come once again for a reappraisal. Has she a place of her own, in or outside the Modernist movement? I don’t think anyone really knows what to make of Djuna Barnes.

She is indeed a Modernist in her obscurity, which can at times command respect as a wrestle with something painfully hard to communicate:

By temperament Nora was an early Christian; she believed the word. There is a gap in ‘world pain’ through which the singular falls continually and forever; a body falling in observable space, deprived of the privacy of disappearance; as if privacy, moving relentlessly away, by the very sustaining power of its withdrawal kept the body eternally moving downward, but in one place, and perpetually before the eye. Such a singular was Nora. There was some derangement in her equilibrium that kept her immune from her own descent.

I had hoped the Selected Works might help with the difficulties, by providing a context for Nightwood. Besides the novel, it contains stories originally published as Spillway, and a verse play, The Antiphon. The general effect, however, is not so much one of Modernism as of fin-de-siècle Romanticism. The ornate splendours of the first page of the novel, where Felix Volkbein is born on a canopied bed amid the family arms and the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, are echoed in drawing-rooms, carriages and Baroninnen, to the point of fantasy. In some modern novels, like The Leopard, there’s a comparable amount of aristocratic décor, but also an individual voice lively enough to resist its seductions. Djuna Barnes doesn’t show any more resistance than her own Felix, who ‘loved that old and documented splendour with something of the love of the lion for its tamer – that sweat-tarnished spangled enigma that, in bringing the beast to heel, had somehow turned towards him a face like his own ...’ The extravagant manner easily slips into the ridiculous:

‘And I do not permit you to suffer while I am in the room.’ Slowly and precisely she began unfastening her brooch. ‘I dislike all spiritual decay.’

‘Oh, oh!’ he said under his breath.

The manner comes off best in the character of Dr O’Connor, an Irish-American mythomaniac who gives life to Nightwood. Wild, Dionysian and an inveterate tall-talker, he’s at the same time a sort of magus with at least a claim to understand the other characters – which is a benefit to the reader. T. S. Eliot seems to have made use of him, with some tidying-up, for the part of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly in The Cocktail Party. There’s an extravagance typical of the book in the use of words too forcible for the thought they contain, and epigrams are particularly apt to show this up: ‘Love is the first lie; wisdom the last,’ or ‘In time everything is possible and in space everything forgivable; life is but the intermediary vice.’ I can’t make anything of ‘Death is intimacy walking backward.’ And if the Doctor has a message, it’s a wholly negative one. At its clearest, the message is: ‘Can’t you be done now, can’t you give up? Now be still, now that you know what the world is about, knowing it’s about nothing?’

Despite the bravura talking-displays, I don’t know that the Doctor ever finds a voice of his own; his words here depend for their effect on an ecclesiastical echo. Nothingness, like so much else in Djuna Barnes, never quite sheds a wrapping of finery. I cannot find her, in the modern world, a reliable guide to Hell: only perhaps to Satanism, which is what seems to be going on in the last chapter with the dog and the girl in an empty chapel. Such as it is, the story of Nightwood is about Nora Flood’s attraction to another woman, ‘a tall girl with a body like a boy’, who is taken away from her by a third woman – towards whom much venom is directed for ‘accumulated dishonesty’. If it isn’t too clear a story, this may be due in part to the subject, perhaps even to constraints arising in real life; but mainly can only be due to the language, which all along withholds more than it reveals. T. S. Eliot maintained: ‘As with Dostoevski and George Chapman, one feels that the action is hardly more than the shadow-play of something taking place on another plane of reality.’ I can’t see any grounds for positing another plane of reality, except the sheer vagueness of what takes place on this one. There are novels that are both genuinely modern and genuinely incoherent, like Between the Acts. I don’t think Nightwood belongs with them. At her best, Djuna Barnes can find a poetic use for a vague emotion, making a virtue out of its very vagueness, rather as Genet sometimes does: but more often her kinds of fantasy and décor make her a private and anomalous figure – as completely unmodern as, say, Karen Blixen.

But a feminist critique might be fruitful. ‘Nora robbed herself for everyone; incapable of giving herself warning, she was continually turning about to find herself diminished. Wandering people the world over found her profitable in that she could be sold for a price forever, for she carried her betrayal money in her own pocket.’ This, from Nightwood, comes close to Angela Carter in Black Venus’s Tale: ‘Seller and commodity in one, a whore is her own investment in the world ... but Jeanne never had this temperament of the tradesperson, she did not feel she was her own property and so she gave herself away to everybody except the poet, for whom she had too much respect to offer such an ambivalent gift for nothing.’ Jeanne is the subject of a prose poem rather than a tale – Angela Carter is adapting, with interpolations of her own, poems of Baudelaire’s inspired by his black mistress. It risks sounding too close to Djuna Barnes: ‘she held her bewildered head with its enormous, unravelling cape of hair as proudly as if she were carrying upon it an enormous pot full of all the waters of Lethe.’ But here the reaching for effect is itself a calculated effect, for Angela Carter is mocking Baudelaire as well as imitating him. Her book is warmer and more human than Nightwood by virtue of being satirical, with a recognisable purpose that runs counter to the grand Baudelairean nostalgias. From Jeanne’s point of view there are no marvellous clouds; she hates cats, and knows all about ‘là-bas’ where she came from – ‘Go, where? Not there!’ The irony is restorative, even if what Angela Carter sees about the relations of a poet and his muse, or about dreams of Cythera, didn’t altogether escape Baudelaire himself. On another subject she’s not ironic at all: syphilis is as much a part of the story as Cythera, and on this the true Baudelairean vein of horror becomes hers as well.

Slight as it seems, there’s more room in The Last Peacock than in most novels: plot and character are minimal, and as with Firbank or Chekhov there’s an absence of overt designs on the reader. This doesn’t denote emptiness. The family and their house in Perthshire are in decay – the croquet-hoops and pegs ‘forlorn, at all angles’ in the garden – and perhaps there’s a touch of moralising when Belinda, talking investment-trusts with her ex-husband, recognises something different, ‘a seemliness, a decorum’, in a picture on the wall – ‘a Victorian oil, done by a great aunt’. But not much detail is provided, certainly no moral pressures or florid prose. It’s pleasant to find such light breathing in an author. Yet the lack of obvious intention is of course an illusion, a trompe l’oeil, like the spaces and vistas – including those into the past – that are carefully constructed to look accidental. Belinda arrives from London, her brother gets drunk, other relatives gather at the grandmother’s deathbed. Politics arise; an eccentric launches a new movement in favour of ‘hierarchy’; nobody cares much, or, if they care, they become disillusioned. The grandmother dies. Belinda has a vague, improvised affair, soon over. There are quite a lot of characters, or half-characters – some are only half-characters just as in a painting by Degas you get half a horse, if that’s all the view happens to include. What matters is the truthfulness of what it does show, and Allan Massie is strikingly detached and truthful, leaving it to the reader to observe and judge.

Not that this means that in a literal sense he tells the truth about the Scottish landed classes. His subject is a way of life with very little sustenance in it, and the sort of fantasies this gives rise to; and it seems to be merely one of the contrived accidents of his novel that it’s set in Scotland. Scottish landed gentry are indeed known to exist, but they haven’t been much studied recently. This is an advantage to a serious novelist, for their English counterparts are no longer available to him, having been ridiculed out of existence, at least in fiction. Allan Massie has every right to his characters, but nothing representative should be read into them. The brother Colin is in any case rather a weakness in the novel as the witty, decadent remnant of the family – happily not glamorised as such, but a thin character to have the title role. Belinda is a thin character too, but with much more potential. I thought she would come through in the end, like Nina in The Seagull, with enough strength of mind to put the others to shame. This didn’t happen. She is never better than in the opening fully-worked scene with her grandmother. Allan Massie has more talent for a fully-worked scene than he likes to show. Much as I admire the under-playing of both characters and scenes in this novel, I hope that in the future he won’t leave it at that.

The Birds of the Air tells an English family Christmas, with an eye for its disadvantages. The mood of discouragement is set by Mary, grieving over the death of her child, Robin: the title alludes to this, and there are seasonable and other references, though none of them – it seems a perverse kind of art – answer the simple question of whether Robin was a boy or a girl. Mary has time for much extraneous reflection: ‘The snow had gone in the night, there was no wind and the day was as still as that day in Aulis for which Iphigenia paid the price.’ But the main animus of the book is satirical, and I’ve scarcely known one contain so many down-putting remarks. There’s an enjoyable caricature of a university don whose ‘insistence on ordinary language and absolute clarity of expression rendered his discourse entirely unintelligible to the ordinary person’. Curiously, it’s when the animus is directed against the powerful that it seems most unreasonable. A policeman: ‘His natural human responses had atrophied years ago under the pressure of applied order.’ Mrs Thatcher: ‘a mean little mouse bred on cheese rind and broken biscuit and the nutritionless, platitudinous parings of a grocer’s mind’.