BOOK REVIEW / `I might be anything. If a horse loved me, I might be tha t' - Books - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Strictly Come Dancing 2014 contestants and their professional dance partners open the twelfth run of the celebrity ballroom contest

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin teaches Clara to shoot an arrow
doctor who
Arts and Entertainment
Queen Christina left the judges baffled with her audition
X Factor
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week