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Homages  //  DJUNA BARNES

" Le bois de la nuit " et " Nightwood " de Djuna Barnes - © C. Rey

The first homage goes to Djuna Barnes. On the homepage and the background of this site, I handwrote the first paragraphs of Nightwood, in English first, then in the French translation by Pierre Leyris. The ink drawings reproduce three illustrations by Djuna Barnes, taken from two of her books Ladies Almanac and The Book of Repulsive Women. My admiration for Djuna Barnes goes back to 1977. Elizabeth Béranger, professor at the University of Bordeaux III and my teacher of contemporary English literature, was working on this American author. Djuna Barnes was still alive, yet her work had long been forgotten. She was eighty-five years old, lived in New York and ferociously refused to receive anyone, including a scholar from Bordeaux who praised her books. The two women, however, spoke on the phone. Elizabeth Béranger found her "caustic", which hardly surprises me. Yes, Djuna Barnes was caustic. I read Nightwood in the French translation by Pierre Leyris. Spurred by this reading and under the supervision of Elizabeth Béranger, I wrote my master’s degree on Le bois de la nuit, Barnes' masterpiece, published in 1936. Luckily, the scholars had not yet invented the “écriture feminine”, nor had they pigeonholed Djuna Barnes’ writings under the heading of “lesbian fiction”. Reading through the English Wikipedia page on Djuna Barnes, quite a long one, will give you an idea of what I am hinting at. On the other hand, the short page in French doesn’t mention more than a few dates. Not that I rely on Wikipedia to find accurate information, but many students, and people, do. In doing so, they should tread lightly.  

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Let’s clarify a misunderstanding about this “lesbian fiction” cataloging. Djuna Barnes had affairs with women as well as men, including Ernst Hanfstaengl and Courtenay Lemon. Thelma Wood shared her life. Does it change anything in the way one should read her work? No. Do we write with our gender? No. Do we write with our sexual orientation? No. Have Proust or Oscar Wilde been listed in the category “gay literature”? No. Was Virginia Woolf’s Orlando branded “lesbian literature” ? No. Is the flavor of Colette's writings homosexual ? No. Is Violette Leduc worth being read because she is an amazing author or because she had affairs with women ? Or because she was a friend of Simone de Beauvoir ? … Where does it stop ? When do we draw the line ? When does the insanity starts ? If I were to write an academic paper on the topic, as I often did in the past, I wouldn’t dare flagging such ideas. Scholars wield their authority, sometimes their tyranny, when it comes to literature. Roughly, they love to put writers into boxes. Unfortunately, writers don’t have such authority. Because writers don't have the expertise, the skills, the knowledge. The experience ? Years spent in solitude and silence mulling over one’s thoughts ? Experience isn’t taken into account. If you aren’t convinced, listen to Doris Lessing’s enlightening interview “The lamentable gap between writers and academics.” So then, I will light my lantern in broad daylight as Diogenes did who looked for an authentic man, and affirm that one writes neither with one's gender nor with one's sexual orientation. A writer is a writer before being a woman. He is a writer before being a man. A writer has no gender. Writing comes from somewhere else, from a cosmic and overwhelming source of inspiration which lays beyond the person, the gender, the social norms, the epoch. Because writers rely on inspiration, even though the word have disappeared from the scholarly lexis. For me, one thing matters : literature. Literature as the expression of an authentic voice. What is not authentic is but a fraud.

 

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Djuna Barnes is not any author. Djuna Barnes is a myth. She was revered by the greatest writers. T.S. Eliot wrote the preface to Nightwood. Carson McCullers and Dylan Thomas worshipped her work. Beckett and Joyce were overwhelmed by her genius. The letter dated 4 September 1936 from Frank Morley, director at Faber and Faber, to Geoffrey Faber, who was going to publish Nightwood, shows how much he was dazzled by the manuscript of Nightwood. Yes, Djuna Barnes had been a cult figure back then, still very few people have heard of her. She was born in New York in 1892, worked as a journalist, came to Paris in 1921 and resumed her work as a journalist. She loved hanging around Nathalie Barney's salon to mix with the eccentric crowd of bohemian artists and writers. In 1939, as the war broke out, she returned to the United States. She was forty-seven. Penniless, having no other place to go to, she stayed with her mother. It turned out to be hell. Her brother burned one of her manuscripts. Aware of her predicament, her friend Peggy Guggenheim rented for her the small apartment in Patchin Place in Greenwitch Village where she lived till her death. Beckett who admired her work and whom she admired, the generous Beckett, gave her a large sum when he received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. He knew, without being told, she needed help. 

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We are in 1978. I am twenty-two. I write. Draft after draft, I seek my way, my style, my voice. I mimic Nathalie Sarraute’s style. And one day, I meet Djuna Barnes. The passion binding Robin and Nora in Nightwood, mirroring the passion between Djuna Barnes and Thelma Wood, doesn’t interest me. I am captivated by the language. I fall for Barnes' style. I love her irony. Her puns. Her obsessions. Her Wolffian passion for rich decors. Orlando had been published in 1928, eight years before Nightwood. The more I read Orlando, the more I feel the Elizabethan atmosphere of Nightwood. The more I read André Breton’s Nadja, the more I sense its surrealist mood. I like the overloaded sentences. I like the opacity. I like the clutter, the baroque and the crazy taste for detail. And the freedom, the great freedom of a deconstructed story which doesn’t have a plot. I remember thinking: so then, one can write in such a manner, freely, one can strike the imagination by the power of the language and thus achieve a great work of art. One doesn’t have to follow the path of tradition. The tradition -first rule- of the story with a beginning, a middle and an end. The Boileau-like tradition of -second rule- “A well-conceived thought is clearly stated.” So then, one can write like Djuna Barnes. 

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What about the irrational passion between women and between men and women? This passion has no flesh. This passion is pure literature. As Frank Morley puts it in his letter to Geoffrey Faber as he was going to edit the manuscript of Nightwood in a time when crude sexual references had to be cut out: “The point is that there is no reporting of lesbianism, no details; the conflict is one of souls, not bodies.” Frank Morley is right. Nora’s, Robin’s, Jenny’s struggles are purely existential. They express the loneliness of those who endure an ill called passion. They express the waiting, incomprehension, devastation, madness, but they never revel in sordid anecdotes, never. Djuna Barnes liked neither Gertrude Stein nor Anaïs Nin. She was devilishly beautiful. She was tall, slim, elegant. She wore capes and hats. She had a translucent skin. Thick auburn hair. A glance at the profile photo on the cover of the 1957 edition of Le Seuil is enough to be convinced.

 

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Thanks to Djuna Barnes, my life took a new turn. I was a wanabee writer, an apprentice, a beginner. After I’d read Djuna Barnes, I realized that writing was a serious matter which would require a serious commitment. I had found in Djuna Barnes a sister, a mother, a father. A teacher. An inspiration. The irony with which she looked at the world became mine. It was this colour that I was going to adopt. The colour black. Djuna Barnes gave me the audacity to write my first novel, l’Ami intime. First, I thought of assuming a masculine pen name, as George Sand had done. I gave up the idea to adopt another one: my narrator could be a man. And that “I” could be me. The outcome was puzzling. Many people thought that the book had been written by a man, and wondered why the name and the photo of a woman appeared alongside the book. Others were absolutely sure that the book had been written by a woman. Too many details let it drop. At the “Festival of the first novel” in Chambéry, 1993, where my book was awarded, a woman took me on to explain that as a female writer, I wasn’t allowed to do such things, meaning to write from a male point of view. I realized a posteriori that there was no such thing as “écriture feminine.” I had truly experienced the fact that one doesn’t write with one’s gender.

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Djuna Barnes died in 1982 at the age of ninety. And there, in her small apartment in Patchin Place, she would have subsisted in sheer misery if it hadn’t been for Peggy Guggenheim’s help. I often think of her, the caustic old woman, forgotten, of her tragic and lonely fate. She was said to be a recluse and an alcoholic. Quite possible. Many writers I know are recluses and alcoholics. I think of her fondly as a member of my own family. Of the handful of books which I managed to save, having lost in my divorce not only my manuscripts but also my entire library, I could snatch Le bois de la nuit. This old and stained book, a survivor, precious above all, the book which still bears the annotations I scribbled forty-five years earlier when I was writing my master's degree, can be seen on the photograph illustrating these lines. Facing it is the modern edition of Nightwood which was first published in London by Faber and Faber in 1936. It took until 1957 to be able to read the French translation by Pierre Leyris. 

© Catherine Rey 2022 - All rights reserved  

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