Djuna: The Life & Work of Djuna Barnes by Phillip Herring - review by Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming

Who Knows What Went On In That House?

Djuna: The Life & Work of Djuna Barnes


Viking 386pp £20

Djuna Barnes once claimed that she and Emily Brontë were the only women writers worth reading. She may have been tipsy at the time – during one of Peggy Guggenheim’s punishing house parties in 1932 – but she certainly had bravado. So far, all she had published were some imitations of J M Synge, an autobiographical novel full of cod-Chaucerian verse and a volume of bawdy rhymes in the style of Aubrey Beardsley. Nightwood, her experimental masterpiece, did not appear until 1936. Unfortunately, given the scale of his admiration, Phillip Herring’s biography exposes that, too, as something of a double act.

Barnes was born in New York State in 1892. Her father, Wald, an amateur wood-whittler and poet, liked to keep his wife and mistress under the same roof. Djuna grew up with half-sisters called Muriel and Sheila, so at least she had one piece of luck. She seems to have been astoundingly intimate with her grandmother (Herring whispers something about ‘the rarest form of incest’) and she insisted that Wald had her raped as a minor. In her autobiographical novel, she depicted him as a dog-shagger, so who knows what went on in that house? Certainly not Herring, who has enough trouble establishing that both of Barnes’s marriages were bogus.

Herring gallantly suggests that when Wald finally split from his wife, Djuna worked as a journalist in New York to support her mother and brothers. If this is true, it is out of character. Throughout her life, Barnes was propped up by stipends from friends like Samuel Beckett, Natalie Barney and Peggy Guggenheim, whose charity she persistently mocked. In irritable old age, she was supported by her brothers, who were stabbed in return when she published The Antiphon, her vengeful family drama. This impenetrable modernist play was only once performed in their lifetime – luckily in Swedish.

But Djuna Barnes was a brilliant journalist. Her talent was for acerbic social commentary: ‘What is Good Form in Dying?’, in which suicide techniques are matched to the young lady’s hair colour; ‘Women in Collision: Finery Strews Street’, where a cat fight is reported as a traffic accident (Among the casualties: One large summer hat … Two sets of feminine feelings: badly ruffled’). For McCalls, she interviewed James Joyce and Maurice Maeterlinck, taking William Carlos Williams along to translate. She would have interviewed Hitler for Cosmopolitan had he not demanded a fee. Which is probably just as well. Her chief concern in the war was the damage to Europe’s cathedrals.

Phillip Herring, an English Professor in Wisconsin, is at his best with literary criticism. He makes a very persuasive connection between the journalism and the fiction as experiments in decadence driven by a sharp but humorous pessimism. Nightwood, Barnes’s portrait of a carnivalesque, prewar netherworld, is indeed full of the social grotesques you find in her articles: Volkbein, the counterfeit Baron; Robin, the beautiful but bestial drunk; Matthew O’Connor, the great philosopher who furtively dons a wig and women’s clothes by night. Robin was based on Barnes’s lover; Matthew on Dr Mahoney, a homosexual friend in Paris. On reading Barnes’s novel, they both came round and punched her. Mahoney had particular cause. Compare his scintillating conversation as it appears here with some of the speeches in Nightwood, and you see just how much Barnes gained, as usual, for free.

‘For the last forty-seven years of her life, Barnes wrote very little.’ She also did very little, being reclusive for most of that time. Even during the productive years, Herring has a hard job with his heroine, given the fascinating lives of her friends: the heiress Emily Coleman, who gave it all up for a cowboy called Jake; Guggenheim, with her formidable social life; Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, who wore used stamps as beauty spots and eyelashes made from gilded porcupine quills. With no more books to write about, Herring is left with Barnes’s celebrated

reputation for wit’. This usually involved insults: Edith Sitwell looking astonishingly like a sundial at court’, Henry James ‘just a homosexual old woman’. But when offering whisky, she had a special quip: Will you have milk or water with it?’ Try that on your friends and see how they laugh.

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