BOOK REVIEW / `I might be anything. If a horse loved me, I might be tha t'

The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes by Philip Herring Viking, pounds 20

Of the many eccentrics that populate this academic study of a fabulous menagerie, my favourite is the Baroness Elsa von Freytag Loringhoven, whom Djuna Barnes - her prinicipal patron - memorably described decanting from a Manhattan cab in 1916 wearing seventy black and purple anklets, a (cancelled) foreign postage stamp on her cheek in lieu of a beauty spot, and a purple wig entwined with strands from a mooring cable.

Herring's book is full of such glimpses of bohemian life in New York, Paris and London. To footnote aficionados, Djuna Barnes's is an evocative name and image; her lips as pursed as those of her contemporary fellow female rebel, Nancy Cunard; both women of a hard new century who had in turn hardened themselves against the world. Barnes's background is a chronicle in itself, full of bizarrely-named relatives: Saxon, Buan and Zadel, her grandmother, a literary and sexual adventurer who had known Speranza Wilde in London. She and Djuna shared a bed for 15 years, where Zadel made her granddaughter play with her breasts. Djuna's polygamous father, Wald is said either to have raped his daughter as a young girl, or to have introduced her at the age of 16 to a middle-aged family friend who took it upon himself to do the deed. Such experiences left Djuna with a permanently wounded look, and a cynical outlook on life, much of which appears to have been spent in a depressive state: "Melancholia, melancholia, it rides me like a bucking mare". Yet it is the sort of state which created great art - and Herring maintains that Nightwood, a Gothic narrative of sexual obsession, is a landmark of modernism.

Djuna's early career progressed from decadent short stories and Beardsleyan art (lamentably this book lacks any reproductions), through daring journalism - undergoing forcefeeding in order to write about the Suffragettes - to star writer status for McCall's, who sent her to Paris, the city which would fix her in literary history. She fell easily into the Lost Generation and a long succession of lovers, male and female. When asked if she were a lesbian, she replied, "I might be anything, if a horse loved me, I might be that."

The great female love of her life was Thelma Wood, with whom Djuna smoked dope and conducted a nine-year affair; she said she loved Thelma because she looked like her grandmother. Wood had already had affairs with Edna St Vincent Millay, and "on her knees proposed sex to Peggy Guggenheim" (Djuna's benefactress). She was, said a friend, "made for fucking". Together the pair were a remarkable sight; beautiful, blackcaped and glued to each others' arms as they walked the Left Bank. They dallied with Natalie Barney's lesbian salon, about whom Djuna wrote Ladies Almanack, a satire which Barney loved; Ryder was another satire, this time on her own family, a subject ripe for revenge in Djuna's smarting heart.

Revenge was a characteristic of her writing, a sort of post-trauma literary therapy. When Thelma and Djuna's "marriage" broke up bitterly, Barnes portrayed her savagely in Nightwood. The book was written partly in Tangiers - where Djuna and her latest lover, Charles Henri Ford, had been invited by Paul Bowles and where she caused comment with her blue, green and purple make-up - and partly at Peggy Guggenheim's rented Devonshire mansion, Hayford Hall, renamed Hangover Hall by its self-abusive tenants.

Afraid of Dartmoor, Djuna stayed in her rococo bedroom and wove her narrative of the freaks of Nightwood. Herring's assessment of the book is incisive: "It argues that regardless of sexual orientation, human nature itself is perverted and grotesque, which is why people seek to remake themselves. We are all God's jokes." TS Eliot published it at Faber in 1936, subsequently writing a 1,500 word preface for its US publication. He liked its author so much that he kept her photograph on his wall, alongside those of WB Yeats and Groucho Marx.

Herring has taken on the mantle of Djuna's latter-day champion with evident relish and empathy. He points up the value of her work, with its bleak Nietschzean views and acidic, fantastic prose which mutated from decadence through to modernism. The high autobiographical content in Barnes's works is both a boon and a blessing for a biographer; switching from biographical fact to Barnesean fiction, Herring's lit crit approach can get in the way of the story. It also makes for occasional repetition, and can seem disjointed; a series of thematic essays rather than a cohesive whole. Yet these are minor caveats. Always entertaining, Herring revels in these spatting personalities of interwar Bohemia as they fight their internecine battles for superiority.

Eliot also published Djuna's verse play, The Antiphon in 1957. Translated into Swedish by her new friend, Dag Hammarskjold, and premiered in Stockholm, it was a further literary revenge on her family, who had violated her person once again by sending her to a sanatorium to treat her alcoholism.

But by that time Djuna had left Europe for good, and the rest of her life was spent holed up in Greenwich Village, where she became unaccountably homophobic, hating her reputation as a lesbian writer. An attempt to write the fabulous Elsa's biography came to nothing - Djuna complained that the book kept trying to become poetry - and she published little in her later years.

Having made two attempts at suicide, she died in 1982, largely unknown and uncelebrated. Herring's book will do much to correct that sad lapse of taste on the part of posterity.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform