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Djuna Barnes, Come into the roof garden, Maud (Review)

July 8, 2012
English: Djuna Barnes, writer

A stylish Djuna Barnes (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’ve never heard of Djuna Barnes (1892-1982). However, I was intrigued when I saw her pop up in the Library of America‘s (LOA) Story of the Week program last month, and so decided to investigate. I discovered that, while I didn’t know her, many did, such as, oh, ee cummings, TS Eliot, Carson McCullers, and other contemporary literary luminaries. She even interviewed, apparently, James Joyce. She was a modernist writer, and, according to Wikipedia, a key figure in 1920s-30s Bohemian Paris.

LOA’s notes state that she wrote around 100 articles for various newspapers, and that these articles “straddle the line between fiction and journalism”. That’s certainly how I’d describe “Come into the roof garden, Maud”. I decided to categorise it, according to my minimal blog taxonomy, “Review – Essays”. It’s an uncomfortable fit, but it’ll do!

Anyhow, to the article I’m reviewing today. LOA’s notes describe it as “fictionalised, comic snapshots of the fashionable crowd chasing the latest craze of the 1910s: rooftop dancing”. I did enjoy it – partly because reading about New York in the early 20th century is a treat in itself, but mainly because it is so deliciously satirical and I do like a bit of satire.

I don’t usually do this, but I think I’ll quote the beginning paragraphs of the article:

First of all, enter the atmosphere.

And this, the atmosphere of a roof garden, is 10 per cent soft June air and 10 per cent gold June twilight, and a goodly per cent of high–hung lanterns and the music of hidden mechanical birds, swinging under the tangle of paper wistaria, fifty feet above, where, between guarding panes of glass, shine electric signs, plus a few stars, of Broadway.

A good deal of the grace of God is there, too. It is a majestic something that keeps a distance east of the champagne bucket, and goes out upon the dancing space not at all.

The thing that is really lacking is a sense of humour. There are not ten people with a really good laugh in their systems in a whole evening on a roof garden.

Doesn’t this – together with the clever title – want to make you read on? It did me …

She goes on to describe the “beautiful people” (though that’s my term, not hers of course) who frequent the roof gardens, skewering their superficiality and inability to have a good time because they are too “hung up” (oh, dear, another anachronistic 1960s term from me) on appearance and being seen. Her language and writing are delicious as she describes this one and that one attending roof garden events. Dancing is a big thing in (or is it “at” or “on”) roof gardens. I loved this description of a band conductor:

The conductor, a great, towering figure in white flannels, stands knee-deep in green foliage, which may or may not be false, but which looks extremely like asparagus gone to seed, fine and green and feathery – a soft accompaniment to a fearsome pair of legs.

And her description of those women “who can come in without looking interested – the very essence of refinement”. (Hmmm … Is this still the case? Are “refinement” and “enthusiasm” mutually exclusive? I fear they may be, at least in the eyes of those who define “refinement”.) There is, though, a couple who throw themselves into dancing … but they’re not American. Her criticism of refined New York is a little reminiscent of Edith Wharton – but reminiscent only. Wharton was three decades older, and her style rather different.

Do read the story: the link is below.

Meanwhile, my question to you is: Have any of you read Djuna Barnes, in particular, her novels? If so, I’d love to hear what you think.

Djuna Barnes
“Come into the roof garden, Maud”
First published: New York Press, July 14, 1914
Available: Online at the Library of America

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 9, 2012 12:52 am

    I’ve read Nightwood which I don’t remember that much about to be honest except to recall it being so-so and thinking that the author is one of those “characters” who are famous for being just that.

    • July 9, 2012 1:23 am

      Ah, that could be so Guy … I did get a kick out of this little piece written when she was pretty young. It has the odd awkward touch … But this short commentary style piece may have been her métier (perhaps?)

  2. debbierodgers permalink
    July 9, 2012 3:43 am

    She was 13 when this picture was taken? Oh my!

    • July 9, 2012 9:08 am

      You clicked on the Wikipedia article Debbie? I actually had that in my caption, and then looked at it and thought, that doesn’t make sense, and deleted it. Someone has their wires crossed, eh?

      Anyhow, thanks for commenting … Love your attention to detail!

  3. July 9, 2012 2:21 pm

    I love, love how she described people without “a really good laugh in their systems”. Those are *not* my kind of people!

    • July 9, 2012 3:35 pm

      It’s a great description isn’t it … there are more in the story if you get time to read it.

  4. July 9, 2012 7:14 pm

    Thanks for the link Sue. I am a fan of journalistic fiction (or fictionalised journalism?) and I loved the essay.
    I’ve never read her before but will probably seek something out now.

    • July 9, 2012 8:02 pm

      Oh another one … I’m a bit of a fan too. Glad you liked it. She really gets the flavour of the people in those gardens doesn’t she. You can see them.

  5. July 10, 2012 2:55 am

    I have not read Djuna Barnes, she is on my list though that doesn’t help you at all! Will have to go read the essay and then I can say I’ve read something of hers 😉

    • July 10, 2012 8:11 am

      That’s the trick Stefanie … Use these LOA stories as a quick intro to new writers!

  6. September 6, 2015 6:27 pm

    This sounds wonderful. I bought ‘Nightwood’ on a recent holiday in NYC, and then realised it was pretty much all set in Europe and so really didn’t fit in with my New York Reading project. It’s great to learn about her NY writings!

    • September 6, 2015 6:59 pm

      Welcome shoshi (can I call you that?). Glad I’ve been of some value to you! Did you enjoy Nightwood anyhow? And what are you reading for your New York reading project?

      • September 6, 2015 7:55 pm

        Pretty much everything I could fit into the month of August! Nella Larsen, Nathaniel West, Hubert Selby Jr., Henry Roth… it’s just such a literary city!

        • September 7, 2015 2:25 pm

          It sure is. I think you’ve read some Wharton? Some of her novels are set there too as I recollect?

        • September 7, 2015 4:48 pm

          They are, and they’re wonderful! A NY highlight was a ‘two for the price of one’ when I got to see where both Wharton and James lived and visited in Washington Square.

        • September 7, 2015 7:15 pm

          Oh, good for you, I love seeing places where my favourite writers have lived and worked!

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