restricted access Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H. D.'s Fiction, and: Silence and Power: A Revaluation of Djuna Barnes (review)
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Reviewed by
Susan Stanford Friedman. Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H. D.'s Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 451 pp. $39.50.
Mary Lynn Broe, ed. Silence and Power: A Revaluation of Djuna Barnes. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. 424 pp. $29.95 cloth; pb. $13.95.

Like many other female modernists, H. D. and Djuna Barnes are being rediscovered outside the context of the period's dominating male figures. In common with Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, they share an ambiguous sexuality, the fact that many early works were published in relative obscurity, that many others were not published, and still others were published in forms not intended by their authors; they share an obsessive concern with personal identity, and they often use a coded language and specific personal details lifted directly from their own lives. As their reputations grow, it seems clear that Barnes and, especially, H. D. have emerged as major American writers.

The allusion to Odysseus's wife in Susan Stanford Friedman's Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H. D.'s Fiction refers to the way Penelope wove and unwove her tapestry every day in order not to complete it before her husband's return. Friedman claims that the image corresponds to H. D.'s practice of telling and retelling, constructing and deconstructing the narrative of her life to create a tapestry [End Page 470] of her own identity. As in Psyche Reborn, her book on H. D.'s poetry, Friedman relies heavily on Freud, claiming that H. D. compulsively repeated her story until an analysis with Freud himself freed her to create her most significantly modernist works.

Friedman speaks of H. D.'s prose as embodying "plenitude" and "excess" as well as "discontinuity" and "gap," thus prefiguring poststructuralism and l'critureécriture feminine. Her prose has the playfulness and disorder that Hélène Cixous sees as indigenous to modernism, and that contrasts to H. D.'s highly ordered imagist poetry. "H. D's prose is outré. Its shape is outside the patterns of conventional readability. Its confessional excesses stutter, start, and stop, often caught in the cycles of repetition, hesitation, and incompletion instead of the developmental pattern of conflict, resolution, and progression." When they go over the same material in fiction (for example, HERmione) or in a later autobiographical version (End of Torment), H. D.'s various narratives are like palimpsests (as in her 1926 novel of that name). It is as if they were written on top of one another, and the earlier thought exists as a trace in the subsequent version.

The most extreme example of this is the quasi-trilogy Bid Me to Live (A Madrigal), Asphodel, and Paint It To-Day, of which only the first has been published in its entirety, the second is about to be published, and the third has seen only its first four chapters published posthumously in a scholarly journal. These three narratives "contain overlapping time frames and dramatis personae, whose names are different, but whose biographical referents are predominantly the same. Each novel records the rise and fall of a marriage as it reflects the rise and fall of history. Each text flowed into the other, becoming what H. D. frequently called simply 'the novel.' " Fixated on both her love affair with Ezra Pound and her unhappy marriage to Richard Aldington, unable to decide conclusively on a sexual orientation or give herself to being a mother, H. D. circled incessantly around the flame of her own life, taking on a series of identities that are reflected in her many authorial pseudonyms: H. D., D. A. Hill, Rhoda Peter, J. Beran, John Helforth, and Delia Alton.

Friedman's sense of authority reminds me of Leon Edel's on Henry James, and her use of Freud is complex and appropriate. Although not as rich in discovery as Psyche Reborn, there is a weightiness to Penelope's Web that comes from its scholarship and from Friedman's knowledge of modernism. She convinces me that H. D.'s remaining manuscripts must be published (and some like The Gift published in their entirety). Because this book contains so much biographical information and analysis, I hope that...