DJUNA: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes by Phillip Herring

DJUNA: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes

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The author of Joyce's Uncertainty Principle (not reviewed) sketchily profiles a lesser-known modernist: the acerbically witty author of Nightwood. Born into a bohemian clan whose unconventional sexual behavior may have included incest with her grandmother and/or father, Djuna Barnes (1892--1982) was stuck at age 20 with responsibility for the support of her mother and brothers when feckless Wald Barnes divorced his spouse to marry the mother of his three other children. Djuna fled her family to become a journalist in New York, settling in among the Greenwich Village avant-garde: Provincetown Players director Jimmy Light and radical editor Floyd Dell, among others. Aspiring to more serious writing than the fluffy features that earned her a comfortable living, she moved to Paris in the '20s, where again she hobnobbed with the era's free spirits, including heiresses Natalie Barney and Peggy Guggenheim, who supported Barnes with a small stipend during many lean years. Although she was bisexual, the great love of her life was Thelma Wood, whose betrayal in 1929 after an eight-year relationship inspired the mordant Nightwood. Finally published in England (at T.S. Eliot's instigation) in 1936, the novel was influential rather than profitable, and none of Barnes's other works were even that successful, though she became a hero to some younger writers in the 1970s. Herring (English/Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison) does not succeed in conveying to the reader why Barnes's moody, impressionistic writing so affected a select few, nor does his poorly organized text capture her complex personality, which comes across most vividly in brief quotes from friends. The author's habit of giving the entire life history of virtually every person introduced into the narrative makes for a bumpy chronology that never focuses compellingly on Barnes herself. As elusive as Barnes's writings, but not as artistically satisfying.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0641922914
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Viking