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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.