“He turned to quill and paper, for so he could arrange, in the necessary silence, the abundant inadequacies of life, as a laying-out of jewels — jewels with a will to decay.”
By Maria Popova
Djuna Barnes might be celebrated as a pioneer of modernist writing, her 1936 novel Nightwood a beacon of both modernist fiction and queer literature. But few know that Barnes was also a formidable journalist — a practitioner of literary journalism decades before Gay Talese pioneered the genre. In 1913, after completing her studies in art, 21-year-old Barnes began interviewing and profiling some of the greatest artists, writers, actors, singers, playwrights and other luminaries of the first half of the twentieth century for a number of prominent magazines. In 1985, three years after Barnes died at the age of ninety, outliving every single person she ever profiled (“It’s terrible to outlive your own generation. I wish I could be dead,” Barnes had remarked a decade earlier), these extraordinary conversations were collected in Interviews by Djuna Barnes (public library), featuring Barnes’s own drawings of her subjects. But what makes them especially compelling is that Barnes, like today’s most masterful interviewers, poured into these conversations an enormous amount of her own heart, mind, and sensibility, so that they invariably reflected as much about her as they did about her subjects.
Among them was none other than James Joyce, whom Barnes interviewed and profiled for Vanity Fair in 1922, months after Ulysses was published. The interview remains the most significant one Joyce gave in his lifetime, at once the most cryptic and the most revealing.
Barnes met Joyce in Paris in 1922. After reading an excerpt of Ulysses in The Little Review, where her own work had appeared, she was so impressed that she proclaimed in despair: “I shall never write another line. Who has the nerve after this!” She soon befriended Joyce and became especially close with his wife, Nora. But the admiration was far from one-sided: Joyce thought highly enough of Barnes to gift her the original, annotated manuscript of Ulysses. He may have been a major influence on her writing, but so was she on his, especially as later evidenced in Finnegans Wake.
It is this admiration that pours into Barnes’s introduction to the interview, where her beautiful prose and expansive mind tickle one another into transcendence:
There are men in Dublin who will tell you that out of Ireland a great voice has gone; and there are a few women, lost to youth, who will add: “One night he was singing and the next he wasn’t, and there’s been no silence the like of it!” For the singing voice of James Joyce … is said to have been second to none.
The thought that Joyce was once a singer may not come as a revelation to the casual reader of his books. One must perhaps have spent one of those strangely aloof evenings with him, or have read passages of his Ulysses as it appeared in The Little Review, to have realized the singing quality of his words. For tradition has it that a singer must have a touch of bravado, a joyous putting-forth of first the right leg and then the left, and a sigh or two this side of the cloister; and Joyce has none of these.
Barnes, who had been “on one or two theatrical committees just long enough to suggest the production of Exiles, his only play,” revels in Joyce’s most beautiful sentences (“So stood they both awhile in wan hope sorrowing one with the other.”) and writes:
I realized Joyce must indeed have begun life as a singer, and a very tender singer. And, because no voice can hold out over the brutalities of life without breaking, he turned to quill and paper, for so he could arrange, in the necessary silence, the abundant inadequacies of life, as a laying-out of jewels — jewels with a will to decay.
(This sentence itself if undoubtedly among the most beautiful prose ever written.)
Before that first meeting with him in Paris, Barnes held great admiration for Joyce the writer but what she knew about Joyce the man was somewhere between hearsay and legend — mostly based on the ludicrous rumors about him in America. (Ezra Pound had famously contributed to the myth by writing, “Joyce is the only man on the continent who continues to produce, in spite of poverty and sickness, working from eight to sixteen hours a day.” Of course, we now know the reality of Joyce’s daily routine was rather different.)
So when Barnes first met Joyce at a little Parisian café across from the church of St. Germain des Près, she found herself transfixed by his odd appearance — a waistcoat too young and too small for him, “partly because he had thrust its gathers behind him, and partly because the belt which circled it lay two full inches above his hips,” a strangely styled red and black beard, which “descended sharply into a scant wedge on an out-thrust chin, and a what appears to be the early-twentieth-century version of an Ugly Christmas Sweater, knitted by Joyce’s own grandmother “for the first hunt of the season” — a purple waistcoat featuring “alternate doe and dog heads, [the does’] tiny scarlet tongues hanging out over blond lower lips, drowned in a light wool.”
Joyce’s demeanor was equally unapologetic, beginning with the very first thing he said to Barnes regarding the recent censorship of Ulysses:
The pity is, the public will demand and find a moral in my book — or worse, they may take it in some more serious way, and on the honor of a gentleman, there is not one single serious line in it.
And yet it is quickly revealed that he takes language — and thereby his own writing — rather seriously as a sculptor of culture. He tells Barnes:
All the great talkers have spoken in the language of Sterne, Swift, or the Restoration. Even Oscar Wilde. He studied the restoration through a microscope in the morning and repeated it through a telescope in the evening
[In Ulysses] they are all there, the great talkers, them and the things they forgot. In Ulysses I have recorded, simultaneously, what a man says, sees, thinks, and what such seeing, thinking, saying does to what you Freudians call the subconscious.
He adds a quick sleight against Freud and his craft, which had just reached its cultural height some years earlier:
But as for psychoanalysis, it’s neither more nor less than blackmail.
Once again, Barnes’s own exquisite prose pours in:
People say of him that he looks both sad and tired. He does look sad and he does look tired, but it is the sadness of a man who has procured some medieval permission to sorrow out of time and in no place; it is the weariness of one self-subjected to the creation of an overabundance in the limited.
If I were asked what seemed to be the most characteristic pose of James Joyce, I should say that of the head, turned farther away than disgust and not so far as death.
Barnes, who went on to befriend Joyce over the course of the four months she spent in Paris that year, notes that “one may not ask him questions, one must know him” and recounts their talks, the conduit of knowing:
We have talked of rivers and of religion, of the instinctive genius of the church which chose, for the signing of its hymns, the voice without “overtones” — the voice of the eunuch. We have talked of women;a bout women he seems a bit disinterested. Were I vain, I should say he is afraid of them, but I am certain he is only a little skeptical of their existence…
We have talked of death, of rats, of horses, of the sea; languages, climates and offerings. Of artists and of Ireland.
Joyce told her of the latter:
The Irish are people who will never have leaders, for at the great moment they always desert them…
Barnes remarks on Joyce’s curious customs and routines:
Joyce has few friends, yet he is always willing to leave his writing table and his white coat of an evening, to go to some quiet nearby cafe, there to discuss anything that is not “artistic” or “flashy” or “new.” Callers have often found him writing into the night, or drinking tea with Nora. I myself once came upon him as he lay full length on his stomach poring over a valise full of notes taken in his youth for Ulysses — for as Nora says, “It’s the great fanaticism is on him, and it is coming to no end.” Once he was reading out of the book of saints (he is never without it) and muttering to himself that this particular day’s saint was “a devil of a fellow for bringing on the rain, and we wanting to go for a stroll.”
However it is with him, he will come away for the evening, for he is simple, a scholar, and sees nothing objectionable in human beings if they will only remain in place.
Of course, Barnes knew better than to let the reader mistake Joyce’s outlook for sheepish resignation to the human condition. She quickly counters by relaying Joyce’s iconoclastic tenacity in his own words:
I will not serve that which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church; and I will try to express myself in my art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use: silence, exile, and cunning.
Interviews by Djuna Barnes is a treasure trove in its entirety, with many more rare conversations with cultural icons. Complement this particular one with three poems by James Joyce and his newly revived children’s book.