Well, it had to happen sooner or later and in this case it is all me as I have long wanted to read Djuna Barnes, but I have to say I wasn't all that thrilled by this weekend's short story, "Jest of Jests". Barnes has a reputation that precedes her--I know she wrote experimental fiction, and if I feel at all adrift with my reading I get fidgety and don't enjoy myself so much. I feel like it is one of my reading shortcomings/failures--as though I really should like literature that pushes the boundaries, but . . . And while I read for a variety of reasons, enjoyment is mostly at the top of the list. So, I was a little lost in this story and the editor's mention of it in the introduction was mostly just cryptic and not very helpful to me. "Djuna Barnes brings an impressively salty tone to her dissection of lovers' rites . . . ". Hmm. Maybe I need to skim and pull out some examples and that will help?
First the cast of characters--Madeleonette our heroine, the hero and her love interest only known as the Physician and Josiah Illock ("a small, good-for-nothing type of man") who is attracted to our heroine. The Physician, though, is tall, dark and even handsome. The place of climax is Long Beach. Both men love Madeleonette, or so they say (and Barnes quite humorously says "love and advertisements must be believed"--HA!). Madeleonette is a woman who is fast aging though she has mostly kept her looks and some of youth's fine hair. The men may love Madeleonette but they hate each other!
"All men begin by loving a woman for what she isn't and end by perceiving what she is. In the beginning they caress the skin with kisses, and in the end they puncture with the pistol."
Because you see--
"Men shoot what they do no understand."
Madeleonette is sure the Physician loves her so she and Josiah make a bet. A little test, if you will. Josiah promises a gun loaded with blanks. She promises a provocation--jealousy to stir things up. He tells her she must only fall and play dead. If the Physician cares for her, "he'll raise hell, and if not he'll just leave the room and let it appear a simple suicide.
The physician adores bravery which he doesn't have and so admires fiercely in Madeleonette. He decides to test her. The Physician muses over all this and Madeleonette prepares for her "death".
Djuna Barnes is not without humor for sure.
"When a woman decides to lie down and play 'possum she always selects with fearful care her hosiery, her petticoats and her shoes."
"The pumps that the Madeleonette picked out were chosen for the newness of soles, the petticoats for its lace and ribbons and the hosiery for its irreproachable unity."
She and Josiah prepare for the 'test'. He grins and says it's going to be a "jest of jests".
The moment comes, Josiah and Madeleonette embrace passionately, the gun goes off, she hits the floor and out the door goes the Physician with not even a backward glance. He fails the test. But Josiah has disappeared, too.
Wow--even my description is sort of lackluster. I won't be convincing you to read this one I suspect, but if you do let me know how you get on with it--I am happy if you can convince me to find something in this story to love or appreciate.
Actually it's not really hard reading at all, but I seem to have missed something somewhere. Maybe it's that lingering feeling of not feeling quite one hundred percent (blame it on feeling under the weather . . . cough, cough, cough), so I think I won't go back over the text just now. If you've read the story and have some insight into it, please tell. I'll try Djuna Barnes again some other day, but maybe not today. Maybe I'll read some other short story instead. A palette cleanser. Maybe Ray Bradbury or Claire Keegan. Maybe someone else entirely. (Oh, I did pick up Claire Keegan and the first story in Walk the Blue Fields is underway even as I post this--since it is March a little Irish Literature is in order and I will share my reading plans very soon).
Otherwise, there is Antonia White for next week and a new New Yorker to look forward to and the end of next week as well.