Although she died in 1982, at the age of ninety, Djuna Barnes seems to have recorded her voice on only a few occasions. The tape below was made in her Patchin Place home in 1971. Barnes is best known for Nightwood, her modernist classic, but she had a long and thriving career as a journalist and in the avant-garde literary scene. Her body of work, including The Book of Repulsive Women, Ryder, and The Ladies Almanack, spans aestheticism, Dada, and high modernism. Her books are deep, often challenging, and crucial.
Here, she reads from her final play, 1958’s The Antiphon. Barnes told her publisher, Robert Giroux, that she considered it her most important work. The New York Times praised the play as one rich in “the pleasure of language. Not spoken language; Miss Barnes has no ear for the stage, but the intricate, rich, almost viciously brilliant discourse, modeled more or less on the murkier post-Elizabethans.” The play concerns the war of wills within a family, primarily between a middle-aged woman and her mother: in the course of the action, the entire clan faces a sort of stylized trial on a stage decorated with “flags, gonfalons, bonnets, ribbons, and all manner of stage costumes … A long table with a single settle facing front, at either end of which is set the half of a gryphon, once a car in a roundabout.” In the end, mother and daughter, tried and found wanting, effectively kill each other (by means of a large brass bell, at that).
The audio here is not great; even when you really crank it, Barnes’s voice fades in and out, and there’s a good deal of setting up. She reads briefly from The Antiphon, however, and it’s worth your time to hear her interpretation—the mix of strength and frailty, querulousness and imperiousness. And, of course, to hear her voice, that long-extinct citizen-of-the-world inflection, an emissary from another world.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.