Friday, 20 January 2017

Review: 'Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth: The Early Works of Djuna Barnes' by Djuna Barnes, Katharine Maller

Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth: The Early Works of Djuna BarnesWhat do you do when you see a book by "the most famous unknown author in the world"? You rack your brain, find you really don't know her, are shocked at yourself and get your hands on the book ASAP. That's what happened when I saw Vivid and Repiulsive as the Truth by Djuna Barnes and her name didn't ring a bell. Unlike many, I'd never heard of Nightwood, a novel now solidly on my TBR-list, so Barnes really was completely unknown to me. And what a shame that was. Thankfully, Dover Books and Katharine Maller changed that. Thanks to Dover Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 17/08/2016
Publisher: Dover Books

The self-described "most famous unknown author in the world," Djuna Barnes (1892 - 1982) is increasingly regarded as an important voice of feminism, modernism, and lesbian culture. Best remembered for her 1936 novel Nightwood, Barnes began her career by writing poetry, short stories, and articles for avant-garde literary journals as well as popular magazines. She took the grotesque nature of reality as her recurrent theme, a pessimistic world view frequently brightened by her sparkling wit. 
A longtime resident of Greenwich Village, Barnes drew inspiration from the bustling streets of Lower Manhattan, and this eclectic compilation of her early journalism, fiction, and poetry recaptures the vitality of her bohemian literary scene. The collection opens with articles ranging from an account of an evening at the Arcadia, a "modern dance hall," to a firsthand report of the force-feeding endured by suffragettes in 1914. In addition to profiles of a postman, vaudeville performer, and other local personalities, Barnes interviews Lillian Russell and Alfred Stieglitz and describes an encounter with James Joyce. A dozen short stories follow, and the book concludes with a selection of compelling and sensual poetry, including verse from The Book of Repulsive Women. A selection of the author's original illustrations is included.
Before going into Vivid and Repulsive itself, a quick note on Dover Books is necessary. I've read and reviewed a number of their collections by now and I always greatly appreciate them. They are well-structured and always offer a great insight into an author's full work. But they don't just cover the well-known and famous, they also provide collections such as these which reintroduce the audience to woefully forgotten voices. It's a real pleasure to be able to find such strong female voices and have them presented so delightfully. Which brings us back to Djuna Barnes and Katharine Maller. Maller both edits this collection and wrote an introduction for it. Quite often these types of introductions get skipped, but in the case of Vivid and Repulsive the introduction is a real gem. Maller does an excellent job at contextualizing Barnes, introducing her and 1900s New York to the reader. Especially of note is her statement on some of Barnes' opinions. Despite having feminist notions, Barnes is also a product of her time. Maller does not edit these more unsavoury moments out, but has excluded some stories from the collection for this reason. She doesn't cover up Barnes' more outdated opinions, but gives them a place without making them dominant. It's an excellent way to deal with covering older authors, I think.

Vivid and Repulsive is a collection of early work, when Barnes started off as a journalist. The first section of the collection focuses on her articles. This was probably my favourite section, as Barnes' articles cover a whole range of topics and are written with a perfect balance of cynicism and interest in her topics. Amongst my favourites are her interviews with contemporary actresses such as Yvette Guilbert who had delightfully modern and feminist thoughts. Also interesting is her obituary of James Joyce, who she met repeatedly. Her articles offer a different kind of perspective, especially on the Bohemian life in Greenwich Village, NY. Impactful is her report on the force-feeding of the Suffragetes, which puts the reader right in the middle of this terrible act.This section was my favourite, although I also enjoyed her short stories. She writes about the miseries of life with an almost blase attitude. Terrible things happen, but it is what it is. For some it may be a bit depressing, but I thought it was very interesting. The final section of the collection focuses on Barnes' poetry. There are some beautiful poems in the mix, such as 'Call of the Night' and 'Love Song', which I loved. The title of this collection is taken from one of the last poems, 'Seen from the L'. Although I enjoyed Barnes' poetry it wasn't as enticing as her prose, but full of beautiful imagery.

After reading Vivid and Repulsive one understands why she called herself 'the most famous unknown author in the world'. On the one hand that is simply her style, but as always there is also a kernel of truth in it. Djuna Barnes' writing is alive with personality and spark. This is the woman who walked into her first job interview saying: 'I can draw and write, and you’d be a fool not to hire me'. She put herself in the most difficult positions in order to be able to truly write about them. She was a Bohemian who moved to Paris and wrote a cult classic of lesbian fiction. She is one of those people whose life reads like a 'Who's Who' of 20th century Paris and New York. Her articles are beautifully descriptive, her short stories depressingly honest and her poetry ever so slightly elusive. Having not read Nightwood, this collection has made me very curious for it!

I give this collection...

4 Universes!

I'm very happy to have discovered Djuna Barnes, not only as a writer but also as a person. Seemingly fearless for most of her life, she can serve as a great inspiration for beginning writers. Perhaps don't adopt her violently alcoholic latter years however. I'd recommend Vivid and Repulsive as the Truth to those wanting to find a gem of the 20th century and for those interested in female writers.

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