Although The Fly by Night is up in arms about Djuna Barnes’ secret, she certainly left us enough traces of an extraordinary and absurd life. The myth of Djuna, shared with sculptor Thelma Wood and Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (what’s a girl do to get a name like that?) is a tale of 1920s taboo and lesbian intrigue.
It seems unfair to dwell on the drama of her life and risk overlooking the value of Barnes’s contribution to literature, but I’d say that in her case the two are almost indistinguishable. Rather than drawing on reality to inform her art, Barnes created a reality that was itself art. She made art out of everyone who so much as returned her glance. Her flair for drama is especially apparent in the illustrations she made to accompany dozens of interviews conducted between 1913 and 1931. Here are my favorites, alongside pictures of their subjects:
Gaby Deslys was a French-born dancer, singer, and stage actress. Barnes introduces her by telling how early in her career Gaby was courted by King Manuel of Portugal, who gave her a ludicrously expensive pearl necklace and in doing so accidentally sparked a revolution. Gaby escaped the country in a haycart and went on to succeed with no royal assistance, thank you very much.
You may recognize Helen as Marilla in the 1934 version of Anne of Green Gables.
“I order something ‘with a cherry in it’ and await the appearance of the strange person of the Washington Square Players; and soon she appears, walking easily and wearing another of those adored, secondhand gowns; a secondhand book is under her arm, and she smiles, showing her thirty-two perfect teeth.”
And Here's James Joyce for good measure:
“Sitting in the cafe of the Deux Magots, which faces the little church of St. German des Près, I saw approaching out of the fog and damp, a tall man, with head slightly lifted and slightly turned, giving to the wind an orderly distemper of red and black hair, which descended sharply into a scant wedge on an out-thrust chin.”
Looking at these drawings is like wearing Djuna-Goggles - as if she's chaperoning you through a Parisian salon, introducing you to all of her 'toony pals. The book of interviews is routinely criticized for its exaggerations and outright fictions; it brings us to the point between Djuna's reality and the fantasy she seemed to weave wherever she went (blame it on the difficult childhood.) To Djuna's credit, her scene of eccentric intellectuals didn't leave too much space for caricaturing. Nor did she - a woman with a taste for costume cloaks - mind the larger-than-life.
by HELEN ISAAC