SMOKE: And Other Early Stories • Djuna Barnes
Sun & Moon Press / 1982
Hardcover / 180 pages / First Edition - 10th printing

In Djuna Barnes’s posthumously collected Smoke and Other Early Stories, the world never stops playing its malevolent tricks. Barnes learned as much during a childhood of emotional and sexual abuse, and she visits this disillusionment upon her characters in a rollicking mix of suspense and humor and plot twists, while extracting material from her life in bohemian Greenwich Village. First published in newspapers in the 1910s, Smoke's playful slice-of-life stories retaliate against life's sudden shifts through a frank voice disguising irony and formal play. Smoke holds life culpable for the inexplicable, and Barnes's plots force us to recognize the rules (and roles) that limit a person's potential.

Although Barnes was heralded in her time, her reputation has suffered a cruel trick of fate. Modernist writers, including James Joyce and T.S. Eliot, praised her novels Ryder (1928) and Nightwood (1936), but the work of other modernist writers tends to overshadow Barnes's essential contributions not just to literature, but also to discussions of feminism, sexual identity, and morality. This is certainly to our detriment, as Barnes undermines literary conventions to countermand the negative stereotypes on these topics, which have currently overwhelmed American political discourse.

Djuna Barnes's journey, though, began with the newspaper stories collected in Smoke. Though she dismissed these tales as “juvenilia,” these stories reveal a young writer's inquiring mind and developing awareness of her world.

︎ Condition note: Near Fine