‘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.

Barnes reworked many drafts of Nightwood here, with the support and editorial expertise of her friend Emily Coleman, who made sure T.S. Eliot read the manuscript. Though Eliot admired and published Nightwood, he wasn’t such a fan of Barnes’s poetry. A couple of years after Nightwood was published, Barnes showed him some poems she had written. He threatened to give her a black eye if she wrote any more. (Years later, she wrote one for his 70th birthday.) By 1938 Barnes had developed a serious alcohol problem. She was sent to a nursing home in England by Guggenheim, and to a sanatorium by her family when she returned to the States two years later. She moved into a small apartment in Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, where she wrote The Antiphon (an unreadable play championed by some) and became such a recluse that her neighbour E.E. Cummings would shout every so often: ‘Are ya still alive, Djuna?’ She stayed there until her death, a week after her 90th birthday, in 1982.

Philip Herring, a Joyce scholar, began work on this biography when he wanted to teach Nightwood and was frustrated by his ‘futile attempts to understand it; before I could understand the novel, I believed, I had to understand Djuna Barnes’. Its origins make this an odd book. Since Herring is concerned with deciphering, Barnes’s life becomes a series of keys. Nightwood, it’s true, is based on autobiographical fact, but this biography seems lax in its elisions of life and work (Herring continually uses terms like ‘her surrogate’, ‘fictional counterpart’, ‘the play’s Djuna figure’ in relation to all of Barnes’s works). And even Nightwood inverts the usual order of biographical connections. She wrote in a letter: ‘I want to live ... in the Hotel Récamier – where, in my book, Robin lived – tho Thelma never put her foot, in reality, over its steps – I haunt the Place St Sulpice now, because I’ve made it in my book into my life.’ Herring’s biography is full of information, very well-documented, and good on particular incidents or people, but it doesn’t add up to a picture of Djuna Barnes. There are many anecdotes, but no sign of the voice that spoke in them.

To hear the voice, or see a picture, one has to look elsewhere. In September 1978, Hank O’Neal, a record producer, started making regular visits to Barnes’s apartment in Patchin Place. He had been asked to do so by Berenice Abbott, a photographer friend of Barnes’s and one-time lover of Thelma Wood. The renowned recluse seemed to open up to him. He would talk to her, get her medicines, sort through her papers, and rush round when anything went wrong. He brought her recordings of Dylan Thomas (reading Nightwood) and James Joyce – she had never seen a tape-recorder before. After his meetings with her he wrote a diary – published as Life is Painful, Nasty and Short (1990) – in which he would report the conversations they had just had.

When O’Neal went to Barnes’s apartment for the first time he found it ‘in a state of decay, a room full of despair, disarray, and confusion. It appears to be a place shut away from time, but the ravages of time are there.’ Later, he made a detailed inventory of the apartment. (In Nightwood Barnes lists the items in Dr Matthew O’Connor’s room, and concludes: ‘There was something appallingly degraded about the room, like the rooms in brothels, which give even the most innocent a sensation of having been accomplice.’) O’Neal, you could say, is simply describing the flat of an old person who has lived in the same place for a long time (Barnes called out to one visitor: ‘I warn you, it smells like old lady in here’), but in Barnes’s case the details do seem to add up to a picture of her life, and of the taste for the decrepit that must have been there earlier on (was there in her writing) but was invisible, or untraceable. O’Neal found rows of empty blue medicine bottles, letters from T.S. Eliot kept in a box at the head of her bed, a baby pillow, lavender smelling salts, a ‘blue princess telephone’, ‘aerosol cans of Hargate roach spray’ next to an oxygen tank ‘and additional breathing apparatus’. In a chest of drawers, buried beneath assorted clothing, was ‘a small misshapen doll from the 1890s’. Thelma had given Barnes a doll every Christmas for eight years. He found a woman who had been giving herself enemas for decades, who was terrified of blindness, who would send him out to buy ginger ale and coffee-flavoured Haagen Dazs, who typed poems in the middle of shopping lists and had to start again every time she wanted to return to the poem, leaving sheets of interrupted groceries and metaphysics lying all over the place. ‘The real Djuna Barnes is dead,’ she told him.

Barnes was so good on detail in her own writing, so apt, in a dark sort of way, in her descriptions of people, that one wants to find similar hooks for her. (When she met Joyce she wrote that his smile showed ‘those strangely spoiled and appropriate teeth’. Elsewhere she commented: ‘someone has told me that I have a peculiar habit of noticing mouths. I have, and when I see one that does not merge into the rest of the face, I want the world to know about it.’) I don’t mean that the life and work should always be the same, but that the people she met or invented, and more precisely, the way in which she saw and described them, must have filled her head. One gets the impression that Barnes had the opposite of what she calls, in Nightwood, ‘unpeopled thoughts’.

Joyce advised Barnes that ‘a writer should never write about the extraordinary, that is for the journalist.’ She apparently called her journalism ‘rubbish’, and Herring clearly believes that her journalism was not the same as her ‘art’ (‘she was meant to write for a more distinguished audience’; ‘one does not expect much subtlety in newspaper stories’). But both of those professions were hers, and as a journalist she wrote about so many extraordinary people that they might have become ordinary to her. And she was so fascinated by the excessive and the grotesque that she might have seen them in the most ordinary places. In fact Barnes’s journalism is often better than her fiction. Nightwood is full of accumulated aphoristic observations (perhaps this is what Eliot had in mind when he said in his preface to Nightwood that ‘only sensibilities trained on poetry’ would wholly appreciate it); it can be indulgent, and too rich, like a very sweet dessert. Her interviews are more clipped, her questions sharp and cynical. If one is trying to get a sense of her actual voice, there is a person here, being rung up, arranging to visit people, walking the streets, candidly telling an interviewee her job is on the line, writing about the time in her life when she met Mabel Dodge and Alfred Stieglitz. Most strikingly, we can see her looking at people, we can see the decadence unfurling – this is how Nightwood got its gloopy camp.

One of Barnes’s funniest and most extravagant interviews (and one in which we get an image of Barnes herself) is with Helen Westley. The actress and co-founder of the Theatre Guild called her and said: ‘I want to be interviewed again.’ They met at the Brevoort where Westley tried to order oatmeal in the middle of the afternoon. A small part of her launching soliloquy went like this:

Ah, to be both young and beautiful! Now I am beautiful and you are young; I can never be what you are, and you in all probability will never be what I am, so after all I have the advantage of you – no oatmeal? How perfectly preposterous! Very well, bring me a highball.

Later Barnes interrupts her: ‘Some advice for young actors would come in here very nicely.’ To which Westley replies: ‘There isn’t any advice.’ She goes on. ‘I am a super-ennuian, if I might coin a new word.’ ‘A little faster with your youth, Helen,’ Barnes urges. When Westley has finished preaching about studying life – ‘Sit on a sidewalk and contemplate the sewer’ – Barnes calmly asks: ‘Do you often sit on the sidewalk, Miss Westley?’ Questioned on how she reacts to ‘joys’, Westley responds, ‘I laugh a little, looking around to see that no one else laughs a little better.’

This is clearly a florid performance on both their parts, though Douglas Messerli, who wrote the Introduction to Barnes’s collected interviews – I could never be lonely without a husband (1987) – believes that her voice is so instantly recognisable in those of others that she must have invented her interviewees’ quips herself. If so, the journalism really is connected to the fiction, the extraordinary people a prelude to elaborate characters. It would then be a minor shift from Westley to a woman in a short story called ‘A Little Girl Tells a Story to a Lady’ in A Night Among the Horses (1929):

She must have been forty then, and she dressed very richly and carelessly, and she wore many jewels, and she could not keep her clothes on, always her shoulders would be coming uncovered, or her gloves would be lost, or her skirt would hang on one hook, but all the time she was splendid and remorseless and dramatic, as if she were the centre of a whirlwind, and her clothes a temporary débris.

Unlike the subjects of her interviews, the people she describes in her fiction don’t come alive through their speech. Only the Doctor in Nightwood, whose drunken theories take up a large part of the book, really talks. In the short story the woman’s clothes falling off becomes a metaphor for the rest of her person – this is all we know about her, and we don’t need any more. In Nightwood, the descriptions pile up in short bursts, without any word from the character. People are the worshipped or despised creations of a harsh mind. They become things with properties, diseases with symptoms, almost: they are made mythical as we read. Jenny Petherbridge

had a beaked head and the body, small, feeble and ferocious, that somehow made one associate her with Judy; they did not go together. Only severed could any part of her have been called ‘right’. There was a trembling around in her wrists and fingers as if she were suffering from some elaborate denial. She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be steaming in the vapours of someone else about to die ... She had a fancy for tiny ivory or jade elephants, she said they were luck; she left a trail of tiny elephants wherever she went; and she went hurriedly and gasping. Her walls, her cupboards, her bureaux, were teeming with second-hand dealings with life ... She frequently talked about something being the ‘death of her’, and certainly anything could have been had she been the first to suffer it.

When we first meet Robin Vote (the character based on Thelma Wood) she has fainted, and is lying on a bed ‘surrounded by a confusion of potted plants, exotic palms and cut flowers’. She is to become known as the bar-roamer, one of the ‘Night People’, a ‘somnambule’:

The perfume that her body exhaled was of the quality of that earth-flesh, fungi, which smells of captured dampness and yet is so dry, overcast with the odour of oil of amber, which is an inner malady of the sea, making her seem as if she had invaded a sleep incautious and entire. Her flesh was the texture of plant life, and beneath it one sensed a frame, broad, porous and sleep-worn, as if sleep were a decay fishing her beneath the visible surface. About her head there was an effulgence as of phosphorus glowing about the circumference of a body of water – as if her life lay through her in ungainly luminous deteriorations – the troubling structure of the born somnambule, who lives in two worlds – meet of child and desperado.

Barnes writes of her characters as if they were animals in the pages of a biology textbook, suddenly appearing in a dictionary of Greek gods. A friend of hers once said: ‘I cannot read your stories, Djuna Barnes – I don’t know where your characters come from.’ The friend was Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, and, ironically, Barnes’s characters probably came, in some way, from her. Barnes knew Elsa from their early Greenwich Village days. She might be seen as just another loony Villager, were it not for the fact that she was the most flamboyant of the extraordinary things and people Barnes was surrounded by, and that she left Barnes her autobiographical fragments when she died in 1927, with the idea that Barnes would write her life story. The book never materialised, but Barnes returned to the project at various stages of her life, including the time of Nightwood’s publication.

Elsa was born in 1874 in a town on the Baltic. She drifted from an unhappy childhood into prostitution, venereal disease, endless affairs and three short-lived marriages (her last husband committed suicide, the previous one faked his). Between 1919 and 1923, when she returned to Germany, Elsa wandered around Greenwich Village, scraping a living as an artist’s model, and often starving. She was a sort of socialite bag lady, producing art out of rubbish, perhaps in attempted imitation of the object of her adoration and persecution, Marcel Duchamp. (She composed a short poem for him: ‘Marcel, Marcel, I Love You Like Hell, Marcel.’) She disgusted William Carlos Williams; she terrified Wallace Stevens. She wore cancelled postage stamps on her cheeks as beauty spots, and dressed in outfits one would think Barnes had invented had they not been confirmed by other people’s accounts (Herring is very good on this). Her hair was sometimes cropped and dyed vermilion or purple, sometimes tied up with ‘shipping cable’. Her hats were covered in gilded vegetables, or were coal scuttles decorated with mustard spoons, or birthday cakes with candles. Her lips might be painted black and her face powder yellow or emerald, her eyelashes made of gilded porcupine quills ‘rustling coquettishly’ (her own description). Once when she went to offer her services as an artist’s model she flung open her scarlet raincoat to show her naked body decorated with tomato cans on her breasts, fastened with green string, and a small birdcage containing a live canary as a necklace.

Elsa died in Paris, from the gas fumes of an oven – it’s not clear whether or not she committed suicide. Years later, Barnes tried to retrieve her death mask in order to use it as an illustration for her biography. Another time when Barnes was struggling to write Elsa’s story T.S. Eliot advised her that she should use it ‘solely as impetus’, to trigger whatever writing project emerged from it. This is the real clue to the spectre of Elsa in Barnes’s writing life. What would it mean to have that story as an ongoing, unwritable project? If Elsa’s extravagances and miseries were the latent story behind all of Barnes’s work, the idea she kept coming back to between others, then surely it must have fed the books that actually got written. The combination of Elsa’s story and the image of Barnes as an old woman in Patchin Place gives quite a good picture of how this writing came to be. It is a picture of someone who always wrote about what Herring calls ‘the horror of modern life’, and who could invent characters like Jenny Petherbridge, said to be ‘avid and disorderly in her heart’.

Djuna Barnes lived longer than any of her friends. The title of Hank O’Neal’s book is a quote from her: ‘Life is painful, nasty and short. In my case it has only been painful and nasty.’ Eliot’s widow took Barnes to see Ezra Pound in 1969. Not having seen him for almost forty years, Barnes was appalled and distressed to find him so feeble. She told Mrs Eliot afterwards she never thought she would ‘see Ezra in this condition’, ‘his eyes no longer his own sort of eye’. When Barnes last saw Emily Coleman ‘she seemed erased’ and ‘found it difficult to balance’. Her friend Peter Hoare died after increasing problems with ‘aphasia and disorientation’. The last time Barnes spoke to Hank O’Neal she said to him: ‘I’m totally disoriented, nothing makes any sense.’ ‘You’re right,’ he replied, ‘it doesn’t.’ They were confused, unbalanced. Their vision had deteriorated and they mixed up words. They didn’t know where they were going. They were now lost.