“I am the most famous unknown of the century.” — Djuna Barnes

When Barnes called herself a “famous unknown” she may have been being elliptical or ironic. Her writing was not known for its literal through-line. But she was also very well-known for her love affairs with women, and immortalized in print by all the memoirs written by the lesbian community in ex-pat Paris, particularly its main scribe, the glorious Amazon (her real nickname) Natalie Clifford Barney. Barnes knew everyone. Pals with James Joyce, pals with Hemingway, Sylvia Beach, everyone. She was a writer and illustrator, and is most well-known today for Nightwood (1936), a lesbian cult classic, written in a curlicue almost Gothic style but flavored with the ironic Modernist detachment. An eccentric. They all were. She shows up briefly in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (played by Emmanuelle Uzan) – gratifying to any Barnes fan. She dances with Owen Wilson, and he comments afterwards, when he realizes who she was: “That was Djuna Barnes? No wonder she wanted to lead.” Ba-dum-ching.

She wrote Nightwood in 1932, and worked on it for a couple of years, giving public readings, editing, passing the manuscript around for feedback. Nobody wanted to publish. It is a difficult book. Nightwood was finally passed on to T.S. Eliot, who edited – and published – it through Faber and Faber in 1936. (He also said, famously, of Barnes: “Never has so much genius been combined with so little talent.” He wasn’t the only one who felt that way.) Nightwood is practically a roman a clef, with barely-disguised portraits of Barnes, her lovers, the women in that fascinating crowd.

 
 
Barnes and Joyce were good friends. His influence on her work is clear. She pushed the “difficulty” factor and – I know I say this all the time but it bears repeating to the people who don’t even know they’re being snobs when they sniff-sniff at Joyce’s stylings – James Joyce is not difficult once you get into the swing of it. (Okay, the “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Ulysses is difficult. He’s just showing off there!) But the NARRATIVE is clear to the point of being prosaic. A man takes a walk. A man goes to sleep. I mean, he wasn’t trying to be clever or bury the lede. In any way. He wasn’t writing for an elite. He really wasn’t. He was writing for everyone. He wanted a universal language. Joyce’s prose experimentations did create monsters of imitation, however! William S. Burroughs called Nightwood “one of the great books of the twentieth century”. So take your pick.

Barnes wrote a profile of James Joyce for Vanity Fair in 1922 (the year Ulysses was published). I cherish it for a lot of reasons, the main one being that in it he spouted off maybe my favorite thing he ever said about his magnum opus. He sits down at the table, ready to talk: Ulysses had come out, and it was immediately controversial (understatement). It was being banned left and right, entire countries – like the United States, like his native country – refused to allow it off the damn boats. Joyce said to Barnes: “The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book – or worse they may take it some more serious way, and on the honour of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.” This comment from him became a guiding principle when I read Ulysses for the first time.


Barnes’s drawing of James Joyce illustrated her 1922 interview with him in Vanity Fair.

Barnes was a talented artist and illustrator. I found this image of an illustration she did for J.M. Synge’s play The Well of the Saints, and it reminds me of Beardsley:

Kate Zambreno (a recent-ish discovery, I adore her) wrote a lot about Djuna Barnes in her book Heroines, about the “mad” wives of Modernist writers. Highly recommend it. Djuna Barnes wanders through the pages. Zambreno writes this about the following photo of Djuna Barnes and Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, known universally as “The Baroness”:

That picture of the Baroness on the beach with Djuna Barnes while they were still young, their elegant pointed shoes, the Baroness is subtly dressed, for her, Djuna always posed like a fashion model, always elegantly turned out, her dark shiny hair in the chignon, the red lipstick, the jaunty hat. These women like silent film stars for me.

Barnes’ life was not easy. She was an alcoholic. She lived in almost obscurity for decades, almost baffled by the young gay women who sought her out to tell her how much Nightwood meant to them. She had no concept of what she had done. Or maybe she did, but she lost interest in it, or couldn’t relate it to the newer generations.

Nightwood is difficult but worth it, an essential portrait of Modernism, and the lesbian-scene in Europe in between two cataclysmic wars.

She was nervous about the future; it made her indelicate. She was one of the most unimportantly wicked women of her time –because she could not let her time alone, and yet could never be a part of it. She wanted to be the reason for everything and so was the cause of nothing. She had the fluency of tongue and action meted out by divine providence to those who cannot think for themselves. She was the master of the over-sweet phrase, the over-tight embrace.
— Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

 
 
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