Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

djuna barnes - the Thread makes no Conquest of the Needle

I picked up Ryder off the bookshelf pretty much at random, having not particularly heard of Djuna Barnes one way or the other before, and to those who say i don't like any book unless it's by you-know-whom, i say: oh yeah well i like Djuna Barnes!

Ryder is amazing. Written in 1928, it presages the current vogue for faux-victorian novels by pretending to have been written in say the 1870s. Ryder was censored when it was first published (in America), both passages of text and illustrations being elided. It was reprinted in 1979, and Djuna decided *not* to repair the censorship. In the 1990 version, all the illustrations have been restored, but the missing text is still missing; in its place are start asterisks.

Anyhow, it's primarily about sexuality, and especially it's viciously anti-patriarchical. Which i normally consider fine topics but not ones i'm particularly interested in reading about personally, thank you all the same. But Djuna's prose - my god. It's amazing.

Allright, check this out. Warning: it's crass and lewd. Like all of Ryder.

Wendell speaking to his mother:

... "the angels play the tympanum, the devils twang, with pleasure, the human gut, the humble Scotsman wheezes at his bags, and the Austrian thumps his mandoline; and I amuse me with half-a-dozen instruments, but it is only diversion and a practise, for my real glory is the merry music I've struck up with my spherical, timbersome pipe of a single stop, the core of the codpiece. How many notes fly through a woman at its orchestration! Grave notes, and half notes, and demi-semiquavers, all clinging to the beam of her interior, and ripening after nine months, to fly forth duly harmonized, like a good war-song of the early pagans, or those rollicking dances that set peasants bobbing and flinging many a shapely leg up in a hornpipe, or," he added, with a melancholy pause, "stillborn like a rush of grace notes, too hurried for the voice to catch, and then silence and a Christian burial."

- stillborn like a rush of grace notes. holy cow.

or, Barnes on society's treatment of the rape victim.

... Who told you, Hussy, to go ramping at the Bit, and laying about you for Trouble ? What thing taken from your Father's Table turned you Belly up? What Word in your Mother's Mouth set your Ears outward? Bawd! Slattern! Slut! Who gave you rope to turn on ? Slain you are of Slumber, and your Family mown down before that Sword of Sorrow. Thy Brother weeps amid his Diapers, and thy Father behind his Beard!
Great things by Little are thus brought to Dust. Fair Rome sees Men come buttoning up her Appian Way, and an Ass brays over Babylon. Strong Nations rise and come to Flower under the Hee of one Emperor, and are brought low by the Haw of the next.
Oh Fie upon you! What have you done, but make some Pimpish Fellow a Braggart and a Nuisance in all the Streets that run a Blind Alley! And shall the child, Girl or Boy, stand in after Years a little at the Pump, and say aught that shall contradict the Wry Proportion of its Begetting? 'Tis such who Poison Wells, and make the Hackle rise on every Pubic Inch [sic?], and do split the very Bells by which we tell the Time!
Have not all Philosophies of Avoidance been Penned for you? Do not Mathematics, take them where you will, prove there is always a Deviation that brings down a Marvellously Different Total, an you had wished? Has not Science proved that no Bodkin takes the Riband but at will, and the Thread makes no Conquest of the Needle, and the Needle has not a leaning to the Thread?
Have not Logicians, from Seneca to Plato, settled it, that no Proposition may come to a Head an there be Wit for evading? Shall not a Council of Women, such as we, make clear to you in a Sitting that had you a Vocabulary of Movement the Case had been a Riddle still and not a Certainty?

.. and it goes on for pages and pages, this passage. (Capitalization Djuna's)

or, last one, Amelia in unwelcome childbirth:

When the young lamb puts its head sideways forever, and the herd is short by four feet, when the fish goes no more in the way of fins, when the feathered bird gives back to the sky his part in it, and comes fast climbing down to earth, grieve they ?
I fall to weeping for the two bare heels that took me for a nest to ripen in. Be not yourself a moment till I get that moment's peace in which to think of you! You do not trust me? It is well. No mother would be mother ever an she could, in mid-fight, throw herself a moment out of scent, so I, like any soldier in any war, cry loud, `Long live that which can in no wise be stemmed!' And love you that you forged the coin of hate in my own mint, and stamped it with my name. Out, monster, this is love!"
(Dr. Matthew O'Connor holds the baby up, slaps it resoundingly on its most unaccustomed bottom, turns it over, glancing) "A Boy!"

So there you go. The prose is amazing. You definitely have to not be overly concerned with knowing precisely what's going on in the plot, however. It wanders all over the place without too much regard for getting anything done or making a remotely tight seal. - At one point, after a longish chapter written in verse, comes Chapter 11, which is titled "However, for the Reader's Benefit".

I tore thru Ryder and quickly turned to Nightwood which was conveniently on the same bookshhelf in the hall. Nightwood however, and Ladies Almanack which is appended to it, i can't bring myself to read. The spark just isn't there. The sentences are still long and contorted, but the effect is one of a messy ball of yarn rather than a celtic knot or something. I can't believe i just made that analogy. Anyhow, one's interesting and engaging, one's not.

Ryder may be one of the very few books which i'll read more than once.
That short list would then be:
The Works of Salinger
Infinite Jest
The Silmarillion and other Tolkien
The Brothers K*, The Idiot*

* I haven't actually read these more than once yet, but expect to.


  • I have picked up and put down "Nightwood" no less than 10 times over the last 15 years.

    There's always been something that attracted me to Djuna (more than just the moniker...) and I wanted so badly to appreciate her work. "Nightwood" just did absolutely nothing for me. John Hawkes' "Limetwig" has had the same draw. I wanted both books to be so much better...

    So, it's nice to hear that one of Djuna's titles did it for you, especially after hearing that we shared the same misadventure with "Nightwood". I'll follow suit and give Ms. Barnes another go...

    By Blogger Rain Hiawatha Kernytsky, at 11:38 AM  

  • word on the Moniker, holy cow.
    i find it bouncing around my head for no reason at all pretty often. "djuna barnes, djuna barnes". no candle to "isabelle eberhardt", but what is ?

    By Blogger good old o, at 7:53 PM  

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