Ladies Almanack , both originally published in Attempts at making Barnes critically acceptable have usually ended in liberal gridlock. An independent woman who wrote about the lesbian community? Yes, but also a community-rejecting misogynist whose first publication was called The Book of Repulsive Women.
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Her family was artistic, eccentric, and strong-willed. One grandmother had been a suffragette. However, the family was also psychologically murderous, the father a philanderer. As a child, Barnes was possibly sexually abused. Barnes became a stylish, self-created, self-supporting New Woman. From to , she lived in New York. Bisexual, she traveled in bohemian and avant-garde circles. Red-haired, she was a vital presence and vivid wit.
She also wrote stories and plays. She bought her bread through free-lance writing and, once again, she was a part of bohemian, avant-garde, and now lesbian groups. Her rollicking Ladies Almanack pungently satirizes and celebrates the women around Natalie Barney, a lesbian leader in Paris. Her talent respected, Barnes befriended major modernists. Among them were James Joyce, T.
Eliot, Mina Loy, and Samuel Beckett, whose mordancy and ironic play often resemble hers. In , she moved to a tiny apartment on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. In , she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Once a heavy drinker, she wisely gave up alcohol. Yet, she was poor, ill, and reclusive. The famous red hair turned white and thin, and, when heard, the Barnes wit was frequently vicious and prejudiced. She wrote, but rarely published, and in , sick of being old and alone, Barnes died.
Obsessed with a conflict between the ridiculous corruptions of the body and the severe weaknesses of the spirit, she finds us midway between redemption and damnation, ascending toward salvation, descending into the darkness of the unconscious and doom.
She commands a repertoire of genres, from the picaresque novel to the lyric poem, and styles, from raunchy humor to metaphysical speculation. Her writing can be archaic, allusive, dense, aphoristic, metaphorical. The story is about a family, the site of cruelty and comfort, creativity and frustration. This family winds down.
Its iron rusts. Babies die; mothers die in childbirth. Like writers, physicians cannot save lives. At best, they mourn and joke. Catharine R.
The Modern Novel
Her father, Wald Barnes,  was an unsuccessful composer, musician, and painter. They had eight children, whom Wald made little effort to support financially. Zadel, who believed her son was a misunderstood artistic genius, struggled to provide for the entire family, supplementing her diminishing income by writing begging letters to friends and acquaintances. She received her early education at home, mostly from her father and grandmother, who taught her writing, art, and music but neglected subjects such as math and spelling.
Smoke: And Other Early Stories
Smoke and Other Early Stories, by Djuna Barnes (1982)