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Book Review: Shattered Objects

Peter Adkins, University of Kent

Elizabeth Pender and Cathryn Setz, eds, Shattered Objects: Djuna Barnes’s Modernism (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2019)

Shattered Objects is an apt title for this new collection of essays on Djuna Barnes. Taken from a 1935 letter that Barnes wrote to friend and fellow writer Emily Holmes Coleman, in which she asserted that ‘[t]here is always more surface to a shattered object than a whole object’ and that ‘the surfaces of a fragment are less “cheering”’ (p. 1), it offers, as editors Elizabeth Pender and Cathryn Setz point out, a good metaphor for an oeuvre that has often been seen to resist organic unity. Barnes, whose first publication was in 1911 and last in 1982, authored a body of writing that, thanks its sheer breadth, variety, and difficulty, offers an excess of surfaces and fragments. Yet, the image of the shattered object also offers a fitting symbol for Barnes criticism. As Tyrus Miller argues in his contribution to the volume, while Nightwood (1936) has surely ‘crossed the threshold of full canonization in modernist studies’ (p. 162), other works, such as her first novel Ryder (1928), have remained of peripheral interest even to critics working on her. As such, while Nightwood has steadily seen its critical stock rising from the 1980s onwards—both within modernist studies but also, as Julie Taylor shows in her chapter, within a twentieth-century canon of gay, lesbian and queer literature—Barnes’s wider achievements have been only partially and intermittently the subject of attention. Indeed, while a handful of monographs[1] have done much in the last fifteen-years to challenge the perception of Barnes as a one-hit wonder, it is nonetheless the case that criticism on Barnes has generally remained fragmentary and selective, not yet coalescing into a recognisable field that we might safely call ‘Barnes studies’.

It is at precisely this juncture that Shattered Objects is primed to make an intervention. The first edited collection to be published on Barnes for more than twenty-five years[2], the book offers eleven new essays on Barnes, as well as an introduction by the editors and a short afterword by Peter Nicholls. Moreover, as the subtitle of the volume implies, the book is premised not only on generating a renewal of interest in Barnes but reassessing her relationship to modernism. As Pender and Setz persuasively outline in their introduction, the relationship between Barnes criticism and the New Modernist studies is one of convergence and symmetry. In the same way that the pluralistic impetus behind the New Modernist studies challenged a narrowly canonical idea of capital ‘M’ Modernism, those working on Barnes in the 1980s and ‘90s aimed to recuperate what was seen as a modernist style (or rather set of styles) that sat in awkward relation to contemporaries such as Joyce and Eliot. Offering the most comprehensive reception history of Barnes to date, the introduction makes clear the significance of Barnes to questions around how we define and understand modernism (and vice versa), as well as providing a clear rationale for the essays that will follow.

The volume is organised into four ‘paths’: ‘Modernism in Print’ addresses questions of publication, reception and revision in relation to Barnes’s activities as a writer; ‘Human and Beast’ offers readings of Barnes premised on her well documented interest in the relationship between the human and the animal, with all the attendant questions of identity, sexuality and selfhood implied therein; ‘Barnesean Style’ reconsiders Barnes’s aesthetic modes and their relation to modernism; and, finally, ‘Modernist Afterlives’ examines Barnes’s relation to later cultural and theoretical discourses that refashion and revise modernism. Moreover, although we get two very good chapters on Nightwood from Rachel Potter and Drew Milne, focusing respectively on constructions of human identity through citizenship and the exhaustion of modernist wit, the volume keeps true to the editors’ intention to go beyond Barnes’s most widely read book. As such, we get chapters that address Ryder, A Night Among the Horses (1929), The Antiphon (1958), Spillway (1962) and Creatures in an Alphabet (1982), as well as her poetry and journalism (it is, however, perhaps surprising that Ladies Almanack (1928) is not discussed more extensively, considering the importance it has come to hold in lesbian and queer understandings of modernism). And it is not just the breadth of materials covered that makes Shattered Objects of such value to Barnes criticism. The newly discovered or little discussed archival material that is drawn upon across the volume stands to fundamentally change how we understand Barnes. Perhaps most striking in this respect is Alex Goody’s discovery of previously unknown journalism by Barnes (helpfully included in the selected bibliography at the back of the book). Goody, whose chapter looks to restore the material networks of Barnes’s journalism, shows a Barnes who travels between avant-garde and mass-market forms with an ease that demonstrates the impossibility of ‘separat[ing] out her modernist writing from her pulp journalism’ (p. 27). Similar critical insights through archival research are present in Pender’s careful reading of Barnes’s revisions to her short fiction in the 1960s, revealing an author anxious to revise her work to fit an already established idea of modernist merit, and Daniela Caselli’s analysis of how the marginalia in Barnes’s copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy might provide a way of understanding The Antiphon. More broadly, the quotations from Barnes’s unpublished letters that pepper many of the chapters further add to the sense of oeuvre coming into focus with the aid of archival materials. And it is not only Barnes’s verbal archive that is scrutinised. Joanne Winning offers a comparative reading of the little studied visual art produced by both Barnes and her lover Thelma Wood to argue for the presence of a ‘lesbian modernist grotesque’ aesthetic (p. 95) and even the photography that adorns the handsomely designed dustjacket contributes to a revising of how we see Barnes as well as read her.

What is more, if the volume succeeds in tracing the material archive that surrounds and constitutes Barnes’s oeuvre of shattered objects, it similarly succeeds in theorising it too. The ‘Modernist Afterlives’ path is of particular note in this respect, with Julie Taylor offering a chapter in which Barnes’s works are understood to have the potential to make interventions within queer theory insofar as her texts self-reflexively invite readers to ‘reflect on their own identificatory practices’ (p. 196). Melissa Jane Hardie, in a chapter in the same section, traces the filmic ‘remediation’ of Barnes from the 1980s to the present, looking at how ‘cinematic space and visual metaphor amplify the global circulation of [Barnes’s] work’ (p. 178). Yet, perhaps most exciting is the degree to which the volume as a whole captures the sense of a field still coming into being. The book, although capacious in scope, makes apparent the work still to be done on Barnes either through points of concern that are highlighted but not fully explored (the introduction makes clear that a study of Barnes and the law would be of great value, especially in relation to the question of copyright which preoccupied Barnes herself in her later years) or through the collection’s necessary limitations (there is very little discussion of her short drama, for instance, or of her works in translation). The selected bibliography, which helpfully supplements earlier bibliographies with detailed listings of recent editions of Barnes’s work, translations of Nightwood, and locations of relevant archives, similarly succeeds in feeling both comprehensive and provisional, nodding towards forthcoming as well as newly published editions and drawing attention to just how much material by Barnes is out there, waiting for new readers and critics. As a number of the chapters comment, it is not only the sprawl of Barnes’s oeuvre that refuses critical mastery. Her texts ‘resist formalist or academic description’, Milne argues (p. 120). For Hardie, writing about Barnes always ‘requires a faith in the improbability of being able to speak about it’ (p. 191). Indeed, although Shattered Objects offers an invaluable revision of how we understand one of modernism’s most beguiling authors, the collection keeps true to its title, resisting the temptation to arrive at a unified or settled image of its subject. Instead, it succeeds in presenting a figure ‘whose work challenges and extends recent thinking about literary modernism’ (p. 15) precisely thanks to her ability to invite multiple, oftentimes contradictory understandings of both her life and her work; a quality, which as this book shows, is likely to continue to generate growing interest in Barnes for some time to come.


[1] See especially Daniela Caselli, Improper Modernism: Djuna Barnes’s Bewildering Corpus (Vermont: Ashgate, 2009) and Julie Taylor, Djuna Barnes and Affective Modernism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012). For a detailed picture of recent Barnes criticism see Cathryn Setz, ‘“The Great Djuna”: Two Decades of Barnes Studies, 1993-2013’, Literature Compass 11.6 (2014); pp. 367-387.

[2] Mary Lynn Broe’s ground breaking Silence and Power: A Reevaulation of Djuna Barnes (1991) remains the only book of essays on Barnes.


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