Monday, January 9, 2012

{review} i could never be lonely without a husband

"Well, let's stop it."
"We can't, not yet; I have at least three pages more to fill."
"Have you been making notes?"
"I don't have to. My memory always makes a paragraph out of a note automatically." ['The Confessions of Helen Westley']
This is an extraordinary book. 

I wanted to read more of Djuna Barnes' writing after I read Nightwood (1936) {REVIEW}, and I was very pleased to stumble across this Virago [the book, not Barnes!] in a second-hand bookshop. In theory, this volume collects some of Barnes' interviews with celebrities in a variety of predominantly New York magazines and newspapers from 1913 to 1931. In practice, this volume is very much about Barnes herself, by herself. I initially wondered if this impression was because I had heard of so few of these once famous people she interviewed - boxers, nightclub singers, evangelists, stage actors, Russian dancers, film producers, - and so I had only Barnes' voice to cling to in these little pieces. But, no, I think it is about Barnes in the end.

The editor of the volume suggests that Barnes almost certainly tidied up her interviewees' impressive bon-mots: "Sometimes I regret I was not a Roman. They had such a lot of time and baths." ['Diamond Jim Brady'] She also apparently didn't take many notes.

The interviews are witty (veering not infrequently into that dangerous Aristotelian region of 'wit' as 'educated insolence': thus someone has "a laugh like a submerged French pastry shop"), racy, incredibly broad in scope (ranging from the Great War to lingerie in a space of sentences) and very, very smart. She has a wonderful ear for both the absurd and the truly melancholy.
I could never be lonely without a husband, but without my trinkets, my golden gods, I could find abysmal gloom. [Lillian Russell in 'I Could Never Be Lonely Without a Husband, Says Lillian Russell']
Well, unless you are a master at suicide, can do it nicely without messing the furniture up or spoiling your collar, I should say no, because at some time a chance to be great comes to us all. Even if it is at the last moment, one still has a chance to change his will or say something in Latin, Latin being the language of those about to cross the river. [Irvin Cobb in 'Irvin Cobb Boasts He Is Still Just a Country Boy']
She is capable of completely subverting the form of an interview (so 'Lou Tellegen on Morals and Things' is written in the form of a play!). I would not like to be on the receiving end of a Barnes' interview: "With hands outspread in hope of collecting profit, I came into the presence of Wilson Mizner, and therein he threw the tinsel of his wit" ['Wilson Mizner - of Forty-fourth Street'; ouch]. She is occasionally openly hostile ['The Tireless Rachel Crothers'], sometimes openly jealous of others' success ['Donald Ogden Stewart Confides the Secret of Worldly Success'], and she possesses a rapier sharp eye and a dogged determination to dig in deep. How many interviewers could get away with writing that their subject "droned on" [on 'Mother' Jones in 'I'm Plain Mary Jones of the U.S.A.']! Or this:
"Really, Djuna, you are sort of clever, aren't you?"
"I am only a little less conceited than you yourself, Helen." ['The Confessions of Helen Westley']

It often seems as though it is Barnes' own persona being crafted through these interviews as much as her subjects'. Her pronunciations tend towards the obscurely oracular (which can be irritating): "Her silences are organic bickering; when she does not speak she is profoundly articulate." [on 'Mother' Jones, again].
Someone has told me that I have a peculiar habit of noticing mouths. I have, and when I see one that does not merge into the rest of the face, I want the world to know about it, a mouth that is a personality upon a person. [in 'Alfred Stieglitz on Life and Pictures: One Must Bleed His Own Blood' {incidentally, there is a most interesting article on Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe in the NYRB here}
As contemporary documents of an era, they contain interesting material: for instance, there is the stage actor who reflects on the new world of cinema and offers thoughts on the new art as a means of conferring immortality ['John Bunny']; or the black actors of the controversial The Green Pastures Broadway hit. Many of Barnes' subjects were exiles from a Europe at war or Russia in revolution - trying to establish themselves in America away from their loved ones. Many have seen or experiences extremes of brutality. Barnes is undoubtedly attracted to survivors. There is a lot of abrasive rubbing of the old vs. the new as these exiled cosmopolitans encounter the [from their perspective] limited cultural fora of the New World. There are interviews with a couple of super-stars (from our perspective) - James Joyce (the writer of greatest importance to Barnes' style) and Coco Chanel. The book ends with a lovely Coco-ism: "Personally, nothing amuses me after twelve o'clock at night!" ['Nothing Amuses Coco Chanel After Midnight', 1931]. 

Rating: a collection of interviews more interesting because of the interviewer than the subjects! Most of the pieces also have a very free drawing by Barnes of her subject. I wish the editor had included full publication details. 7/10 (too many boxers).

If you liked this: Nightwood?! Maybe some Fitzgerald jazz age short stories?


  1. Thank you for introducing me to someone new! Thanks also for visiting my blog.

  2. Thank you for visiting, Mystica: I hope you find something to tempt you here (not that any of us need any more books on our TBRs, really!).


{READ IN 2017}

  • 23.
  • 22.
  • 21.
  • 20. The Murder on the Enriqueta - Molly Thynne
  • 19. The Nowhere Man - Gregg Hurwitz
  • 18. He Dies and Makes No Sign - Molly Thynne
  • 17. Death in the Dentist's Chair - Molly Thynne
  • 16. The Crime at the 'Noah's Ark' - Molly Thynne
  • 15. Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • 14. Night School - Lee Child
  • 13. The Dancing Bear - Frances Faviell
  • 12. The Reluctant Cannibals - Ian Flitcroft
  • 11. Fear Stalks the Village - Ethel Lina White
  • 10. The Plot - Irving Wallace
  • 9. Understood Betsy - Dorothy Canfield Fisher
  • 8. Give the Devil his Due - Sulari Gentill
  • 7. A Murder Unmentioned - Sulari Gentill
  • 6. Dead Until Dark - Charlaine Harris
  • 5. Gentlemen Formerly Dressed - Sulari Gentill
  • 4. While She Sleeps - Ethel Lina White
  • 3. A Chelsea Concerto - Frances Faviell
  • 2. Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul - H. G. Wells
  • 1. Heft - Liz Moore

{READ IN 2016}

  • (K = Kindle; rr = re-read)
  • 92. Richardson's First Case - Basil Thomson [K]
  • 91. The Alington Inheritance - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 90. Orphan X - Gregg Hurwitz [K]
  • 89. The House of Godwinsson [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 88. Music Tells All [Bobby Owen 24] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 87. Helen Passes By [Bobby Owen 23] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 86. It Might Lead Anywhere [Bobby Owen 22] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 85. There's a Reason for Everything [Bobby Owen 21] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 84. Secrets Can't Be Kept [Bobby Owen 20] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 83. Night's Cloak [Bobby Owen 19] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 82. The Conqueror Inn [Bobby Owen 18] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 81. The Diabolic Candelabra [Bobby Owen 17] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 80. The Dark Garden [Bobby Owen 16] - E. R. Punshon [K]
  • 79. Picture Miss Seeton - Heron Carvic [K]
  • 78. Down Under (Benbow Smith 4) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 77. Walk with Care (Benbow Smith 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 76. Danger Calling (Benbow Smith 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 75. Fool Errant (Benbow Smith 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 74. The Annam Jewel - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 73. Mr Zero - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 72. Will o' the Wisp - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 71. Red Shadow - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 70. Pursuit of a Parcel (Lamb 3) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 69. Who Pays the Piper (Lamb 2) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 68. The Blind Side (Lamb 1) - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 67. Outrageous Fortune - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 66. The Amazing Chance - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 65. Red Stefan - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 64. The Coldstone - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 63. Anne Belinda - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 62. The Black Cabinet - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 61. Hue & Cry - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 60. The Skin Collector - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 59. The Kill Room - Jeffery Deaver [K]
  • 58. Nothing Venture - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 57. Kingdom Lost - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 56. Beggar's Choice - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 55. Hole and Corner - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 54. Touch and Go - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 53. The Red Lacquer Case - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 52. Run! - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 51. Fear by Night - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • JULY
  • 50. The Dower House Mystery - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 49. The Astonishing Adventure of Jane Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 48. Weekend with Death - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 47. Blindfold - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 46. Silence in Court - Patricia Wentworth [K]
  • 45. Acts of the Assassins - Richard Beard [K]
  • JUNE
  • 44. Hack - Kieran Crowley [K]
  • 43. The Portable Veblen - Elizabeth McKenzie [K]
  • 42. The Spirit Murder Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • MAY
  • 41. The Ginger Cat Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 40. The Pleasure Cruise Mystery - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 39. The Polo Ground Murder - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 38. The Outsider - Jason Dean [K]
  • 37. The Hunter's Oath - Jason Dean [K]
  • 36. Missing or Murdered - Robin Forsythe [K]
  • 35. The Beetle - Richard Marsh [K]
  • 34. A Curious Beginning (Veronica Speedwell 1) - Deanna Raybourn [K]
  • 33. The Chimera Vector - Nathan M. Farrugia [K]
  • 32. An Infamous Army - Georgette Heyer [K]
  • 31. Mr Bazalgette's Agent - Leonard Merrick
  • 30. Don't Tell - Karen Rose [K]
  • 29. Say Goodbye - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 28. Gone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 27. The Killing Hour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 26. The Next Accident - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 25. The Third Victim - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 24. The Perfect Husband - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 23. Find Her - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 22. Fear Nothing - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 21. Catch Me - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 20. Love You More - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 19. Live to Tell - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 18. The Neighbour - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 17. Hide - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 16. Alone - Lisa Gardner [K]
  • 15. The Humans - Matt Haig [K]
  • 14. Utopian Man - Lisa Lang
  • 13. Love Insurance - Earl Derr Biggers [K]
  • 12. The Ignition Effect - Viv Ronnebeck [K]
  • 11. My Brilliant Career - Miles Franklin [K]
  • 10. Dangerous & Unseemly - K. B. Owen [K]
  • 9. In Bitter Chill - Sarah Ward [K[
  • 8. Half a Crown - Jo Walton [K]
  • 7. Ha'penny - Jo Walton [K]
  • 6. Hilda Wade: A Woman with Tenacity of Purpose - Grant Allen [K]
  • 5. The Case of William Smith - Patricia Wentworth [K; rr]
  • 4. Blue Murder - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 3. Bleeding Hooks - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 2. Knock, Murderer, Knock! - Harriet Rutland [K]
  • 1. Ten Star Clues [Bobby Owen 15] - E. R. Punshon [K]