by DH Varma
Published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2010 | 240 pages
How to describe Djuna Barnes’s utterly sui generis 1928 comic novel Ryder? It is, to begin with, a family history, covering four generations of the hilariously troubled Ryder clan. Particularly emphasized is Wendell Ryder (modeled on Barnes’s father, Wald Barnes), a procreation-obsessed narcissist whose troubled relationships with his two wives, Amelia and Kate, and their eight children constitute much of the book’s action. The bigamous Ryder family is drawn directly from Barnes’s own; she would return to the havoc wrought by her egomaniacal, and possibly abusive, father in her 1954 play The Antiphon. The Antiphon stages Barnes’s family history as psychosexual tragedy; Ryder, on the other hand, as bawdy farce.
Djuna Barnes is best known today for her 1936 novel Nightwood, which might be described as a gothic lesbian romance. Notable for its taboo-breaking themes and dense, highly wrought language, Nightwood was loudly praised on its publication by T. S. Eliot, who, in his capacity as editor at Faber and Faber, got the book published. Eliot contributed a memorable introduction to the American edition of Nightwood in which he favorably compares the “musical pattern” of Barnes’s prose to that of “most contemporary novels, [which] obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of the noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication.”
No one could mistake the prose of Ryder for such quotidian chitchat. Ryder is written in a mock Elizabethan and Jacobean idiom similar to, though more extreme than, the rambling sentences of Dr. Matthew O’Connor in Nightwood. Much of Ryder’s faux-archaic prose recalls the syntax of the King James Bible—say, those familiar, endlessly aggregated “begats” with which the Old Testament records genealogical succession: “And unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael begat Methusael: and Methusael begat Lamech.” Barnes was a great devotee of Joyce and surely felt authorized by his example to experiment with the long, litany-like, word-drunk line. In a 1936 article, she writes that she first “sensed the singer” in Joyce reading lines like Ulysses’ “Thither the extremely large wains bring foison of the fields, spherical potatoes and iridescent kale and onions, pearls of the earth, and red, green, yellow, brown, russet, sweet, big bitter ripe pomilated apples and strawberries fit for princes and raspberries from their canes.” Every page of Ryder delights in this joyous Joycean list-making.
In Ryder, such paragraph-, page-, even chapter-long enumerations often involve themes of parentage and generation, those Biblical “begats” ever hovering in the background. Consider, for example, one of Wendell’s many obsessive orations on fatherhood, here given a metaphysical turn:
I, my love, am to be Father of All Things. For this I was created, and to this will I cleave. Now this is the Race that shall be Ryder—those who can sing like the lark, coo like the dove, moo like the cow, buzz like the bee, cheep like the cricket, bark like the dog, mew like the cat, neigh like the stallion, roar like the bull, crow like the cock, bray like the ass, sob like the owl, bleat like the lamb, growl like the lion, whine like the seal. …
Much of Ryder—the bulk, even—consists of lists like this, by turns exhilarating and exhausting, “as if,” notes Paul West in his afterword, “[Barnes] were intent on producing La Brea tar pits of blather, just to get us in a primitive mood, amazed that humans could come to the Word.” Barnes’s authority may have been Joyce, but her primary model is surely Robert Burton, the 17th-century divine whose Anatomy of Melancholy established the art of the list in English prose.
Burton, by the way, recognized that “such as lie in child-bed” are subject to melancholy (hardly a surprise, since everyone, for Burton, is subject to melancholy), and Barnes makes it clear that Wendell’s ambitious procreating has its downside—for the woman, who has the business of bearing all the brats. As Amelia, in the painful throes of childbirth, says to one of her not-yet-born: “Out then, mole! Who taught you a woman’s body had a way for you? Why, now I’ll be afraid of you forever, for this road makes me most aware of you.” Ryder, in its depictions of pregnancy, participates in an important modernist trend: increasingly frank literary treatments of childbearing. One thinks not only of the maternity ward episode in Ulysses and Katherine’s death in A Farewell to Arms but also of Mina Loy’s deliberately grotesque lines on childbirth in her long poem Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose, published several years before Ryder: “They pull / A clotty bulk of bifurcate fat / out of her loins.”
Barnes’s sentences, like Burton’s, like Joyce’s, are rhythmically precise rivers of language, rollickingly pointless litanies sweeping the reader along on a tide of lexical self-infatuation. Ryder is a tissue of digressions. As Burton knew, such obsessive digressiveness will not appeal to everyone: “Which manner of digression howsoever some dislike, as frivolous and impertinent, yet I am of Beroaldus his opinion, ‘Such digressions do mightily delight and refresh a weary reader, they are like sauce to a bad stomach, and I do therefore most willingly use them.’” But the reader weary of the dry, responsible prose of so much contemporary fiction will not lack for sauce in Ryder. This attractive new edition of Ryder, which restores some of Barnes’s hitherto unpublished illustrations, is a treat.
Len Gutkin lives in New Haven, CT, where he is studying for his PhD at Yale.