Djuna Barnes was born 120 years ago today. On the occasion of her 80th birthday, when she was happily still around with another decade to go, she was the dedicatee of a festschrift, with contributions from the likes of Kay Boyle, Lawrence Durrell, Ned Rorem and Anaïs Nin. This piece from Canadian writer John Glassco, “For Djuna Barnes on her 80th Birthday”, contrasts the writer’s youthful naivety with his mature insights into Barnes’s masterpiece Nightwood, which was begun 40 years previously:
I met you only once, in Paris in 1928, at the Falstaff Bar on the rue du Montparnasse, and (I was then seventeen) was so awed as to be speechless. The proof-sheets of The Ladies Almanac [sic] were being passed around by Robert McAlmon, and I was dazzled by the wit and daring of the subject no less than by the exquisitely archaic illustrations: but I thought the work was hardly worthy of you: how young and serious and foolish I was! At this time I had read nothing but A Book. Ten years later, reading Nightwood – that apocalyptic novel! – I recognized you for what you were, the greatest and most impassioned anatomist of sexual infatuation and jealousy since Proust. And the style of this book, your chef d’oeuvre, still strikes me as grandly decadent in the same way as Huysmans’ A rebours: the reverberations of centuries of English baroque – all the way from Sir Thomas Browne to Synge – are astonishingly co-ordinated and made modern and permanent in a prose which, with its vast vocabulary and inexhaustible store of images, draws the simple story of Nora and Robin, “by the hair or the feet, down the worm-eaten staircase of a terrified syntax”, towards its macabre climax.
Only last week, dear Miss Barnes, re-reading this book, I was more than ever impressed by the superb balance it maintains between anguish and wit, by the brilliant collocation of Robin Vote and Dr O’Connor – those ultimate types of female ephebe and grotesque invert – and could still hear the original note of a piercing, lyrical sorrow under the complex, cadenced prose which has managed, even after a third of a century, to make the book itself a model of what an “interior” novel should be.