M Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"What Do You See, Madam" by Djuna Barnes

"What Do You See, Madam" by Djuna Barnes (1932, 6 pages)


" If Helen of Troy could have been seen eating peppermints out of a paper bag, it is highly probable that her admirers would have been an entirely different class."  Djuna Barnes



I was looking at a very interesting and new to me web page this morning, Modernist Women.   It has great pictures  of Woolf, Mansfield, Rhys, Bowen  and numerous other writers, among them Djuna Barnes.

My second question to myself was (after I wondered how to pronounce her first name) what qualified her to be listed among the great women writers of the 20th century.   Of course I Googled her.

Djuna Barnes (1892 to 1982-New York City) is known now only for Nightwood (1936).    She has achieved the status of a minor cultural icon.    Barbara Harris, co-author of The Joy of Lesbian Sex (1977) said that the work of Barnes was  "practically the only available expression of lesbian culture we have in the modern western world since Sappho."    Barnes was once a very well known and highly regarded literary figure.   She was a friend of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce.   She lived a very long time and had a very interesting life.   Wikipedia has a very well done article on her life and works.   Her life reminded me a bit of Jean Rhys in that she descended into isolation and alcoholism in the closing years of her life.   Like Rhys,  one would have to say she profited by her looks in her early years and felt a sense of abandonment as she became older.  


I was happy to see that the winter 2005 issue of Lodestar Quarterly had one of her short stories online.    "What Do You See, Madam"  is about the back stage life of a dancer New York City in the roaring 1920s:


The Bowery, which is no place at all for virtue or duplicity, had seen Mamie try on her first fit of sulks and her first stay laces. They knew then that her pattern was Juno, her heritage Joseph, and her ambition jade. At the age of ten she had learned to interpret Oscar Wilde.


Mamie grew up in the theaters of New York city and had no illusions as to why men came to see her dance the role of Salome.    Unfortunately the Board of Decency has been advised that her performances may cross the line!     As the story opens the board is on their way to see her do a private show just for them.    I will not tell more of the plot here.    


"What Do You See, Madam" has some good lines.


When she passed the boundaries of decency, it was a full run for your money; when she went up in smoke, those original little pasty pans of Egypt became chimney pots.
It is worth the time it takes to read it.   I am glad I was able to sample her work.    She is for sure a GLBT icon right below Collete and Wilde.   


If you have read other works by Djuna Barnes, please leave your experience in a comment.


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1 comment:

Bruce Barnhart said...

I have read large parts of Barnes' Book of Repulsive Women, which is a collection of poetry. The poems are fantastic: oblique, strange, and compelling. The book also has a number of illustrations by Barnes, which are at least as interesting as the poems. I highly recommend it.