Amazon in her prime

Growing up in Australia, Halloween was something I only knew about from American movies rather than a matter of lived experience. As an adult I happened to be in New York at the end of October one year and, rube that I was, entirely underestimated just how big a goddam deal the Halloween parade is, and emerging out of a subway station and trying to make my way to a restaurant I found myself kettled by revellers, which triggered something close to a panic attack. My adopted home of Germany has a half-hearted, ersatz Halloween culture (saving most of its dressing up for Karneval/Fasching), but with the very real horror of soaring infection rates, even that will be on mute this year.

In short – and not to rain on anyone else’s parade – I’ve never really taken to Halloween. For me, the last day of October means one thing: the birthday of Natalie Clifford Barney, the great writer, aphorist and saloniste who recreated Lesbos on the Left Bank, the woman whose horseback prowess inspired admirer Remy de Gourmont to dub her “l’Amazone”, the lover immortalised in the fiction of Liane de Pougy, Renée Vivien and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus. If you’re just joining us, here is a quick primer of at least some of her manifold romantic interests and other connections.

Many years ago on a trip to Paris I sought out Barney’s former home on the rue Jacob. There wasn’t much to see, just the usual slightly forbidding heavy Parisian apartment building door, and it is probably just as well that Natalie’s secret garden wasn’t visible. Its spell could never be as potent as it was in my imagination, or for that matter in Un soir chez l’Amazone. Francesco Rapazzini’s 2001 book imagines Barney at home on the evening of her 50th birthday, as she gathers friends and frenemies who just happen to number among the most fascinating people between-the-wars Paris had to offer: Colette, Rachilde, Paul Morand, Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner, André Germain, René Crevel, Natalie’s two lovers of the time, Romaine Brooks and Elisabeth de Gramont, and a new arrival who has her wondering whether she can turn this triangle into a quadrilateral arrangement – Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly Wilde.

I mention this now because an outstanding English-language, spoken-word version of Rapazzini’s book is now available, in time for Barney’s birthday this year. A Night at the Amazon’s is voiced by Suzanne Stroh to stunning effect (she also translated from the French with Sally Hamilton). She switches between characters with miraculous dexterity, fully inhabiting the personae of long-dead party guests. I had never previously pondered what a drunken Djuna Barnes doing an imitation of Gertrude Stein might sound like, but I am confident that I now know. Literary giants both present and gossiped about emerge as vividly human, as if enjoying a Rumspringa before settling into the canon.

The utterly captivating voice work is accompanied by an evocative soundscape, and together they manage something even cinema can’t sustain for this long – the sense of actually being there, an enveloping intimacy that draws you through space and time, your awareness catching on snatches of conversation, gaining illicit ingress into the minds of passing guests and stealing away with their thoughts. The mix of characters is electric, at times combustive, dividing along lines of class, generation, gender, sexuality, nationality, sensibility. Even the help is fractious. With prudent fictional licence the author has telescoped events, filling out the guest list and bringing forward Natalie’s encounter with Dolly Wilde, for instance (which happened the following year). And maybe ageing Decadent provocateuse Rachilde didn’t actually sniff around the hostess’s bedroom, but I can certainly imagine her doing so. Her disdain for Colette also squares with the record. Here fiction reveals the greater truth of its subjects.

Woody Allen’s facile Midnight in Paris, which shares a time, location and even a couple of characters with Un soir chez l’Amazone, did at least offer one solid observation that is borne out here: no matter how far back you go, the golden age is even further back. In the mid-1920s we find that many of the characters still seem to inhabit, or long for, the opulence, hedonism and spectacle of the Belle Époque. When Marcel Proust is invoked, it is not as a monolithic edifice of Modernism, but a recently departed associate hovering neurasthenically in the minds of guests, one who passed through these very rooms, in fact, as Natalie relates. Her mind also casts back to lover Renée Vivien, who died in 1909. It is, after all, the night when the veil between the living and the dead is thinnest and A Night at the Amazon’s is, in a sense, a ghost story.

So if your Halloween plans are on dry ice this year, or any time you want to be transported from your doomscrolling day, take off your mask and huddle up. You don’t even need to wash your hands if you don’t care to (but why is René Crevel taking so long in the bathroom?). Take a look here – yes it is that Large Shopping Platform, but the name at least is appropriate.

And I’ll be back soon-ish with a Bavarian interlude.

5 comments

  1. john clarke

    Et Gertrude?

  2. Splendid understanding of the cast of characters. The collaboration among author, translators and Suzanne’s rendering leaves one adoring Romaine, Natalie and their intimates. Thank you for your scintillating review. I loved the audible Halloween treat.

  3. Brenda J.

    Thank you. I’m a big fan of l’Amazone. May she rest in peace.

  4. Amanda Beresford

    Thank you for letting me know this exists. October 31st is my birthday too, and I have loved all these characters for a long time. I have just ordered the book, and I look forward to listening to the audiobook!

  5. Anna Victoria Karras

    Thanks, Mr. Conway.
    I was in the Natalie Barney House on Sheridan Circle in D.C. many times in the ’70s because my friend Jean Lewton was curator there when it was still under Smithsonian auspices. Romaine Brooks’s work was also
    some what responsible for my becoming a conservator of paintings when she was the subject of a show at
    Smithsonian American Art, formerly NCFA.
    Best wishes,
    Anna Karras

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