on Djuna Barnes from Written Lives by Javier Marias

Djuna Barnes’s life lasted ninety years and for far too many of them she either did not want or could not have any lovers and so she had no alternative but to remain silent. Her apartment in New York was her inaccessible refuge. There she received letters and the cheques with which her friend, the multimillionairess Peggy Guggenheim, kept her provided for years, as well as the occasional call from publishers wanting to reprint her few books, and with whom she  invariably grew indignant. (She got indignant with Henry Miller too, whom she thought was a swine.) Sometimes she would work three or four eight-hour days just to produce two or three lines of verse, and the slightest noise would ruin her concentration for the rest of the day and plunge her into despair. According to one of her biographers, she spent more than fifteen thousand days, that is, more than forty years, in her apartment in Patchin Place. And we know that most of them. days and years, passed in total silence without her exchanging a single word with anyone. Just the noise of the typewriter and those lines still unread. In 1931, long before those forty years began, she had written: “I like my human experience served up with a little silence and restraint. Silence makes experience go further, and, when it does die, gives it that dignity common to a thing one had touched and not vanished.”

translated by Margaret Jull Costa

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