Picks and Pans Review: Djuna

updated 07/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/18/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Andrew Field

Born at the turn of the century in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y., Djuna Barnes never went to school because her father, who had failed as an artist, thought that schools created mediocrities. Whatever Barnes became, she was never mediocre. Shortly after her father left her mother, Barnes, then 21, went to work as a free-lance journalist, doing articles and drawings for the 20 newspapers New York had at the time. Gradually she worked her way up to the slick magazines like Vanity Fair. She was remarkably beautiful, but what people really noticed was her manner—mercurial, angry, prickly. And she was liberated long before anyone had thought of the term. Barnes came to know everyone in the literary world of the '20s and '30s; T.S. Eliot was her editor in London, Eugene O'Neill wanted her to collaborate with him on a play, and she was photographed by Man Ray. James Joyce, however, was the only writer she truly admired. Barnes eventually lived in Berlin, London and Paris (she detested Gertrude Stein because Stein, equally egotistical, didn't have much use for her). She married once, briefly, and had many affairs with men, but her big love was a little-known sculptress. She had several nervous breakdowns, and lack of money was a constant problem. Peggy Guggenheim ("I kill myself for artists—the hell of it is, I hate them") supported Barnes for decades, but Djuna had to beg for her help. Neither Barnes' most famous novel, Nightwood, nor her play, The Antiphon, made her famous, as she had hoped, except among an elite. She also painted and wrote poetry. The author of this quoteful, rambling, highly readable biography met Barnes in 1977, when she was frail and isolated and nearing the end of her life in Greenwich Village. She had told a professor who interviewed her in 1970, "I'm the most famous unknown in the world, you know that, don't you?" Her sad, tormented life, which ended in 1982, was like her writing: exceedingly rarefied, difficult and engrossing, especially to those who are fascinated by the period in which she lived. Field, a noted biographer (three volumes on Nabokov), does her justice in this intriguing book. (Putnam, $16.95)

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