Sunday, June 12, 2011

Happy Birthday Djuna Barnes!

(From The Writer's Almanac)

It's the birthday of writer Djuna Barnes (books by this author), born near Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York (1892). For many years she lived in the Bohemian world of Greenwich Village and then as an expatriate in Paris, drinking and smoking and having love affairs with men and women alike. She interviewed celebrities, from Florenz Ziegfield to Coco Chanel, and she was friends with James Joyce, Emily Coleman, and Gertrude Stein.

She had a long affair with the sculptor Thelma Wood, who was constantly unfaithful. Barnes' most famous novel, Nightwood (1936), was a modernist novel about the destructive relationship of lovers named Robin and Nora, and she based Robin heavily on Thelma. Nightwood didn't sell well—her first royalty check was for £43. But it got rave reviews from other writers. T.S. Eliot convinced Faber and Faber to publish it, and he said, "It is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it." Dylan Thomas called it "one of the three great prose books ever written by a woman." William S. Burroughs wrote: "I read Nightwood back in the 1930s and was very taken with it. I consider it one of the great books of the twentieth century. At that time I even tried a few writing experiments, consciously imitating her style. It is an entirely unique style: one sentence, and you know it is Djuna."

Whatever its critical reception, Nightwood didn't make money, and Barnes lived off the support of Peggy Guggenheim, the patron of many writers and artists. She went through a bottle of whiskey a day. As early as 1930 she wrote: "I've gotten cranky and old-maid like — I don't even like to have an animal looking at me, and when I lay a thing down I want to find it exactly where I put it — it's as bad as that!"

So she moved back to New York City and into an apartment in Greenwich Village, 5 Patchin Place , where she lived as a recluse for the last 42 years of her life. In 1971, she agreed to be interviewed by The New York Times. She said, "Years ago I used to see people, I had to, I was a newspaperwoman, among other things. And I used to be rather the life of the party. I was rather gay and silly and bright and all that sort of stuff and wasted a lot of time. I used to be invited by people who said 'Get Djuna for dinner, she's amusing.' So I stopped it." Writers came to pay homage to her, including Bertha Harris and Carson McCullers, but she sent them away. Her neighbor E.E. Cummings used to check on her by yelling out his window. She rarely left her house, and she spent her last 30 years working on a long poem that was found in her apartment when she died in 1982. In 1973, she told her editor Douglas Messerli: "It's terrible to outlive your own generation."

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