‘I couldn’t ever boil potatoes over the heat of your affection’

Dear Djuna,

This letter should have been written back in February, when I read your book Smoke and Other Early Stories, but I kept postponing it, and there came other books, other letters to write. This week I was determined not to postpone any longer, and had actually started writing, but a bad cold put me in bed for three days, and I could not even concentrate on the novels I was reading, let alone write about the ones I had read…

Djuna Barnes

So here I am again, gathering the notes I had envisaged to send to you. Smoke and Other Early Stories is a collection of 14 short stories previously published in various newspapers in the 1910s. I heard you dismissed those tales as  “juvenilia”, and, having read your later work Nightwood, I can well understand why. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the wordplay and witty writing of your earlier pieces.

My favourite story, by far, is A Night in the Woods, in which a could see some elements of Nightwood – especially in the way you try to equate beauty and cruelty. The old Trenchard, who longs for freedom, by chance finds himself accused of murder, together with his wife Jenny. Having once imagined he would find freedom inside a prison, away from the boundaries of civil life, once arrested he remains restless, unsatisfied. Suddenly, he decides to escape. While they are running through the woods at night, followed closely by the guardians, and in the brink of being caught, Trenchard finally enjoys the brief moment of true freedom he has longed for so long: the brief moment after escaping and before being found and arrested again.

“Will they find us?”
“Probably.”
“Isn’t that a lantern light?”
“Yes, I think it is.”
“It has cost us dear, Trenchard.”
“But it is freedom – for a little while.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to die now – than later – when -”
“No. Just lie here. This is beautiful.”
“It is terrible.”

Some of the stories read as folktales. In The Earth, for example, we have an intrigue between two sisters, Una and Lena, who owned a farm. The narration here is something in between a fable and a biblical tale. Other stories read like moral allegories. In The Coward, the fact that Varra has a reputation for being brave, together with the fact that she is afraid of losing this reputation, leads her to accomplish a courageous act. In The Terrible Peacock, you explore the ethics of journalism: Karl, a hotshot reporter, suspiciously passes an exciting item to newcomer Garvey, in a ploy to drum up clientele for Poirett’s, Karl business.

Your writing style is eccentric, punctuated by deliciously sharp comments, which reminded me of Dorothy Parker at times.  Dialogue is mostly rendered in a theatrical manner. In What Do You See, the dancer Mamie turns down Billy because of his lack of money: “‘Billy,’ she said, and her voice was cold and practical, ‘I couldn’t ever boil potatoes over the heat of your affection.'”

The stories are narrated in third person singular, but the narrator is an intrusive one: he/ she frequently disrupts the telling with side comments or mere jokes. The characters are often caricatures (the hard worker, the faithful wife, the true friend, the artist, the bourgeois…), tightly bound by a sense of destiny. I appreciate the fact that, despite this sense of necessity and determination, the stories have somewhat open endings, they are not fully resolved. And thus they provided me with glimpses of the way your style would later prove to evolve.

Yours truly,

J.


Tamara de Lempicka. "Card Palyers". 1926
Tamara de Lempicka. “Card Palyers”. 1926

‘Billy,’ she said, and her voice was cold and practical, ‘I couldn’t ever boil potatoes over the heat of your affection.’

– Djuna Barnes, Smoke and Other Early Stories


About the book

  • Virago Modern Classics
  • 1985
  • First published as a collection in 1982. Stories first published in 1917.
  • 184 p.
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 3,5 stars

 

 

 

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