By Francesca Panseri

One of Peggy Guggenheim’s close friends was Djuna Barnes (1892–1982). They met in the early 1920s through Laurence Vail and their friendship lasted a lifetime. Guggenheim was in England at Hayford Hall manor when, as she wrote in her autobiography:

Djuna was writing Nightwood. She stayed indoors all day, except for ten minutes when she went for a daily walk in the rose garden and brought me back a rose. Emily [Coleman] had threatened to burn Nightwood if Barnes repeated something Coleman had confided to her by mistake. As a result Barnes was afraid to leave the house. She felt it necessary to guard her manuscript.

Peggy Guggenheim, Out of This Century (London: Andre Deutsch, 1979), p. 116.

Djuna Barnes, ca. 1921

Who is Djuna Barnes?
Barnes was a writer who is best known for Nightwood (1936), a masterpiece of Modernist literature and one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century.

Barnes was born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, in the United States and completed her apprenticeship as a writer in New York. She worked as a journalist and illustrator for various magazines in the city, including Smart Set and Vanity Fair, and became deeply interested in poetry and short stories. In 1915 she published The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings, which caught the attention of U.S. avant-garde literary circles. In 1921, like many other U.S. writers and artists both before and after her, Barnes left New York for Paris, where she entered the artistic circles of James Joyce and of Gertrude Stein. In Paris, over the course of the following two decades, she matured into an accomplished artist. She fell in love with the U.S. sculptor Thelma Wood, who was ultimately unfaithful to her. The end of the relationship led Barnes to depression and alcohol abuse. In the 1940s, driven by wartime events, Barnes returned to the United States and this marked the end of her public life and her explosive literary activity. As a result of her self-imposed isolation, coupled with her refusal to reprint much of her work, she never enjoyed the reputation her literary work deserves.

Although Barnes created a scant body of work, she was able to convey, through an unprecedented feminine gaze, the moods, attitudes, and concerns of the lively and irreverent European avant-garde. She published four works: A Book (1923), Ladies Almanack (1928), Ryder (1928), and Nightwood (1936). For each of these works she drew upon events and characters from the bohemian circles which surrounded her, transfiguring them, evoking them as dreams or nightmares, exorcising them in words, rhythms and images. Her poetic imagination is chiaroscuro, powerful, complex, and translates into a multifaceted style that draws on all the literary genres she had the opportunity to try throughout her life.

The first novel, Ryder, which tells the story of a man who ruins the lives of the women he loves, was an incisive work in the literary panorama of the time, not only for the courage with which Barnes delved into the most difficult expressions of human failure, but also for its structural and stylistic experimentation. Ryder’s chapters do not follow a linear narrative: the narrative style changes from chapter to chapter, parodying the Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer, epistolary novels, and mystical literature.

Barnes’ masterwork, Nightwood, is one of the most influential novels of the modernist period and of the twentieth century. It was published with a laudatory introduction by T. S. Eliot. The work revolves around the lives of five characters, two of whom are based on Barnes and Wood and the circumstances surrounding the end of their relationship. Barnes tells the story of Robin, a woman who has relationships with other women after leaving her husband. One of these women is Nora, whom she betrays and abandons. Dr. O’Connor, an ambiguous figure in search of his own sexual identity, is entrusted with the task of consoling the rejected suitors. Everything about the novel is radical: the story, the explicit homosexuality between women, the dizzying and incomprehensible structural complexity, and the style which makes use of poetry, visual arts, drama, and music. Barnes’ style is based on Elizabethan tragedy with a surreal connection and dark humor which combines tragedy and satire. Barnes forces life to merge with language to demonstrate that the final outcome is not so much truth as literature by virtue of its visionary and symbolic nature.

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