Her father, Wald Barnes,  was an unsuccessful composer, musician, and painter. They had eight children, whom Wald made little effort to support financially. Zadel, who believed her son was a misunderstood artistic genius, struggled to provide for the entire family, supplementing her diminishing income by writing begging letters to friends and acquaintances. She received her early education at home, mostly from her father and grandmother, who taught her writing, art, and music but neglected subjects such as math and spelling.
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Ladies Almanack , both originally published in Attempts at making Barnes critically acceptable have usually ended in liberal gridlock. An independent woman who wrote about the lesbian community? Yes, but also a community-rejecting misogynist whose first publication was called The Book of Repulsive Women. An early spokesperson for survivors of childhood abuse?
Well, she survived childhood, true, and she spoke about her family; past that things get fuzzy -- and, more embarrassingly, the fuzziness seems deliberate and unapologetic.
No wonder academics get petulant and biographers stick to gossip. Even posthumously she snubs us. Nor have I that respect for the public. Barnes was supremely capable of journalism: her gonzo New York City exploits and her later high-society interviews were successful sources of income. Barnes is opaque but at the same time blatantly unconcerned with softening her message. From the beginning, this insistence on difficulty for uncraven motives has annoyed critics who prefer smoke which can be tracked to a simple flame or two.
Realism enforces supposedly well-understood identity categories within which a few in-depth "individual" portraits can be carefully drawn. But these "individuals" can only exist in a mundane world of stereotypes. In a non-realist world with no privileged point of view, characters become mysteriously flat. Barnes uses allegorical techniques and other anachronisms not for their original purpose and not out of nostalgia, but because the alien must express itself outside time to be comprehensible as alien at all.
Barnes not only dislocates time stylistically, by refusing to write "contemporary" prose, but also narratively, by collapsing temporal progression into a series of tableaux. She freezes mortally dangerous situations in disdain, all the better to polish them.
Literature, that area of the library which contains "primary sources" to be read for their own sake, is our easiest access to the alien of other cultures and times and to the individual, a single voice speaking for the sake of speech. Djuna Barnes meant to write literature, and so she wrote the alien. Or the other way round, if you prefer: she meant to write the alien, and so she wrote literature. Causality is suspect when dealing with the associative development of the ego, "kneeling at the parent knee, in all ages, all times and all bindings, becoming what books make of a child.
Smoke: And Other Early Stories
Her family was artistic, eccentric, and strong-willed. One grandmother had been a suffragette. However, the family was also psychologically murderous, the father a philanderer. As a child, Barnes was possibly sexually abused.
Smoke and Other Early Stories, by Djuna Barnes (1982)
The Modern Novel