Djuna: The Life and Works of Djuna Barnes

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Author: Margot Norris
Date: Winter 1996
From: Studies in the Novel(Vol. 28, Issue 4)
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Document Type: Book review
Length: 3,793 words

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Phillip Herring's biography of Djuna Barnes is a wonderful "read" and a treasury of crucial information and documentation on Barnes' origins (with their transparent influence on her novels) and on the unusual life and career that produced some of the most imaginative, outrageous, and significant avant-garde art of the twentieth century. Herring earns praise for this book, for he had his work cut out for him. Djuna Barnes' life yields marvelous materials for the biographer to work with--outlandish figures, bizarre relationships, scalding feelings, uncommon situations, ribald documents so rich, fabulous, profound, and wild as to rival the surreality of Barnes' own fictions. But when the life is stranger than most fiction--rivalling Djuna Barnes' own strange fiction--it becomes a challenge to the very genre of biography itself. Does an avant-garde artist demand an avant-garde biography? Does a conventional biography violate the performative imperatives Barnes' life and art appear to have obeyed? Should the biographer defamiliarize or refamiliarize highly charged and transgressive materials? These questions are not without their ethical dimension, and the honorable character of Herring's discreet and modest choices must not be lost in the swirl of controversy that marked the book's early critical responses.

The life of Djuna Barnes is complicated by the contradictions that always inhere in what we now call "specularity"--her self-creation as a spectacle, a stunningly attractive figure ("Well of course I used to be absolutely gorgeous dear"(2)) that commanded attention while signalling the enigmas and silences that her extravagant style concealed. "Who was this `famous unknown' whose cultural portrait is so legendary, yet whose place in literature has been until recent years a long ellipsis?" Mary Lynn Broe asks in her introduction to Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes (p. 3). The descriptions of Barnes in many modern memoirs consistently stress body parts and accoutrements that fetishize her (remarkable legs, sharply tilted nose, black cape, cloches, turbans, veils, canes, make-up of outlandish blue, purple, and green) and thereby symptomatize some cut, some gap, some violation, some insufficiency that left her persona fragmented and incomplete. Barnes' trenchant wit rounded her out as a person rather than an icon, but behind every brilliant mot ("The only time I was a doormat was to Thelma, and then I was a damned good doormat" [p. 53]) or acerbic put-down ("The bloody fecundity of Kay is revolting. She should have been a rabbit and have written in lettuce" [Herring, p. 245]) there was a painful story that Barnes told only obliquely and figuratively, in her art. Barnes' famous reclusiveness and aggressive privacy may have been compounded by genuine repression and self-unknowing. Margaret Anderson wrote in her memoir, "Djuna would never talk, she would never allow herself to be talked to. She said it was because she was reserved about herself. She wasn't, in fact, reserved--she was unenlightened. This led her into the construction of self-myths which she has never taken the pains to revise" (Broe, p. 35).

The explanations for Barnes' specularity, highly overdetermined, tend to pull biography...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A19226125