Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, February 16, 2015

"What do you see, Madam" by Djuna Barnes, author of Nightwood (1917)

"Her world held rows and rows of dusty caned chairs, and over these, like migrating robins, the pink anatomy of the chorus -- hips thrown out against the painted drop, listless eyes that saw only supper, a new step, and once in a while, some other things. Mamie Saloam could go where she willed. She could stoop or look up because Mamie breathed true ambition and heroic drudgery.

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. 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." From "What Do You See, Madam?"

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is a classic of modernism.  She has a cult like following, perhaps more talked about than anymore read.  I have not yet read Nighfwood but would like to one day.  I am today to be able to share with my readers a very interesting, no doubt a little shocking for 1920, one of her stories that can be read online.  Barnes was fascinated by the demi-monde world of New York City, in an era where the Bowery was a theater district, of sorts and the line between actress and prostitute was a bit blurry.  

Mamie is a young actress, playing the part of Salome in the story of John the Baptist.  This drama was popular as it gave theater managers an excuse for having women do sultry dances in brief outfits.  Theaters were policed by public decency groups.  Mamie is just beginning to feel the power of her sexuality.  It is when she glances at herself, from the back, in a mirror that she realizes she won't have to "eat cod from a paper bag" any more.  When the ladies of The Decency League comes in the manager of the theater asks them "What do you see, Madam?"

"What Do You See, Madam" is a very well done story.  It lets us see how Mamie feels.  I would have liked to have been front row center on Mamie's opening night and I could have told my wife I was at a theatrical performance of a biblical story.  

(1917 is my guess of first publication date, if you have details, please leave a comment.

Please share your experience with Djuna Barnes with us.

Djuna Barnes was born on the 12th of June 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. She began her career as a reporter and illustrator for magazines, under pseudonyms such as Lydia Steptoe, and Gunga Duhl, the Pen Performer. In the 1920s she lived in Paris with her lover, the sculptor and silverpoint artist, Thelma Wood. She was a member of the influential coterie of mostly lesbian women that included Natalie Barney and Janet Flanner. Although she wrote many plays, short stories, and poems, she is best known for her novel Nightwood, written in 1936. She died in 1982.  from Lodestar Quarterly

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