This website is an interactive academic
tool for CEA-UNH course:
Gay Paris:
Culture, Society, & Urban Sexual Identity

CEA GlobalCampus | Spring 2009
UNH Course Code: GEN230
Credits: 3 | Location: Paris, France

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

City of Dark Nights | Djuna Barnes

"Perhaps the greatest enigma of Paris literary life between the wars was, and remains, Djuna Barnes. Men and women of all persuasions found her irresistible, falling for her considerable beauty, glamour, intelligence and sharp wit. Today, darker and more disturbing qualities than these continue to attract readers and scholars to her life and work...

Born in 1892, Djuna Barnes grew up in a 'bohemian' household which included not only her grandmother, parents and their three children, but one of her father's several mistresses and her various children. This family has been called sexually unconventional but is perhaps more aptly described as exploitative and sexually abusive...

In 1910, at the age of 18, Djuna started publishing poetry. Two years later she moved to Greenwich Village, began art studies...and found a reporting job...thus embarking on a journalistic career that would continue intermittently for 25 years."

Djuna came to Paris in 1919. Djuna, like many others, had a brief affair with Natalie Barney, the quintessential lesbian of Paris at the time. Djuna met the love of her life, Thelma Wood, an American silverpoint artist and sculptor in 1920.

"The first few years with Thelma Wood were genuinely joyful ones. From 1922, the two women lived together on the Left Bank, first at 173 Boulevard Saint-Germain and later at 9 rue Saint-Romain."

"Before the city of light became a city of dark nights for Djuna Barnes, she was an integral part of the vibrant female artistic community which congregated at Natalie Barney's Friday salon." In 1928, Barnes published Ladies' Almanack, it "quickly became the talk of the town, with much speculation as to who was who." The illustrated book was a satire of Natalie Barney's lesbian soirées and salon.

Barnes was a serious member of Modernist community in Paris. "The intrepid Djuna Barnes not only was on first-name basis with T.S. Eliot, but was also the only person allowed to call James Joyce 'Jim' - something that even Hemmingway didn't dare."

A sketch of James Joyce by Djuna Barnes

"In the writing of Nightwood, her greatest work, she began closest to home, with her relationship with Thelma - which by now was not ordinary by any standards - and over the years kept re-writing and transforming her novel towards the extraordinary, the fantastic and the bizarre...The initial relationship between Nora and Robin in Nightwood clearly recalls the early, idyllic days between Djuna and Thelma. But by 1924 or early 1925, the romance between Djuna and Thelma began to turn increasingly volatile, strained by their excessive drinking and Thelma's promiscuity...

A desire for revenge, an attempt to exorcise her personal demons, and those magical, inexplicable motives for which writers write, even in their darkest hours, were forces which combined to propel Djuna Barnes into the voracious writing project she engaged in for over eight years, from 1927 to 1935, which eventually became Nightwood."

Barnes: "Suffering is the decay of the heart. In the beginning, after Robin went away to America, I searched for her in the ports. I sought Robin in Marseille, in Tangier, in Naples, to understand her, to do away with my terror. I said to myself, I will do what she has done, I will love what she has loved, then I will find her again. At first it seemed that all I should have to do would be to become 'debauched,' to find the girls that she had loved; but I found that they were only girls that she had forgotten. I haunted the cafés where Robin had lived her nightlife; I drank with the men, I danced with the women, but all I knew was that others had slept with my lover."

"Ultimately Nightwood is much more than a road map to the disintegration of a tortured love affair. It has been considered a visionary allegorical tale of the rising tide of fascism across Europe...Some have read it as a feminist reworking of Dante's Divine Comedy, in which the price paid for personal and sexual freedom is judgement and damnation; others have claimed it is a lesbian rage against the clergy."

Barnes' writing is not easy to follow. Janet Flanner (American journalist and writer in Paris) recounted, "Djuna had written a play that she showed to T.S. Eliot; he told her that it contained the most splendid archaic language he had ever had the pleasure of reading but that, frankly, he couldn't make head or tail of its drama. She gave it to me to read, and I told her, with equal candor, that it was the most sonorous vocabulary I had ever read but that I did not understand jot or title of what it was saying. With withering scorn, she said, 'I never expected to find that you were as stupid as Tom Eliot.' I thanked her for the only compliment she had ever given me."

_Andrea Weiss
Paris Was a Woman: Portraits from the Left Bank
(Excerpts taken from Chapter 4: City of Dark Nights, pp. 142-173)

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