"Wild Girls" by Diana Souhami - Nonfiction Review
Natalie Barney, wealthy and promiscuous American-borne socialite en résidence in Paris in the 1900's, spent her life creating a Sapphic salon of prolific writers and artists engaging in a number of lively lesbian relationships. An ostentatious poet, she strove to "make my life itself into a poem", and dove grandly from one venture to the next in a flurry of inspiration and seduction. Despite her numerous affairs, Natalie Barney spent 55 years cultivating a romantic relationship with the strange and illusive, often indifferent artist, Romaine Brooks, despite Romaine's insistence on solitude. A Sapphic Paris salon being the height of my interests, I immediately picked up the book from the recommended shelf of The Spiral Bookcase and began reading.
Raised wealthy and privileged, Natalie Barney practically stumbled upon relationships wherever she went. She traveled between Paris and America, writing and promoting the works of her various partners. By comparison, Romaine Brooks had a complicated relationship with her mentally ill mother and younger brother, and potentially inherited many of these traits later in life. She preferred to be isolated, and refused to see Natalie for the last few years of her life. Still, Natalie refused to let her go, and continued to send letters and the specific supplies that Romaine requested. While Natalie, nicknamed "the Amazone", attended endless celebrations, held her modernist salons in her Paris home, and danced naked save for a tinsel crown on the steps of the Doric-style temple in her backyard, Romaine declared her vehement hatred for Paris, moped around Capri, and painted strange figures in solitude. None of this prevented Natalie from doting on Romaine, or Romaine from doting on her "Nat-Nat", for most of their lives.
Natalie's idyllic salons were home to strange, modernist plays, and the incoming gems of French literary society. Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Colette, Rainer Marie Rilke being only some of the vast spread. On top of this, Natalie fostered relationships with Dolly Wilde (Oscar Wilde's niece), Liane de Pougy, Lily de Gramont, and fellow poet Renee Vivian. She published her own poetry collections and memoirs, and advocated heavily for the memoirs of Romaine Brooks. Natalie also featured as a character in the writings of Liane de Pougy (Idylle Saphique), Djuna Barnes (Ladies’ Almanack) and Lucie Delarue-Mardrus (L’Ange et les Pervers). To say that she inspired much of modernist French literary culture is an understatement.
Diana Souhami, the author of "Wild Girls" and a number of other era-specific novels about the lives and times of lesbian writers and artists, has created a truly incomparable narrative that walks the reader through the journeys of both Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, and the points at which their lives intersect. This is one of the few narratives I've read recently that is both academic and accessible to the average reader, written so as not to sacrifice the voice and personality while remaining factual and easy to follow. The narrative is also incredibly sex-positive and nonjudgmental in its tellings of the escapades of the salon. Some reviews have accused Souhami of "name-dropping", but the truth is that Natalie Barney was the key connection between a cast of highly important individuals in literary history, and Souhami is generous in including brief footnotes about every new introduction to the rotating troupe.
"Wild Girls" is evocative of an equally rebellious and bleak time in the recent past that inspired so much of the growth similar communities experience today, while refraining from romanticizing the unhealthy habits and relationships of many of its participants. Souhami intersperses her own narrative into the introductions of each chapter, adding texture to the text in a way that perhaps connects the autobiographical with the biographical, seeing oneself in the past. Natalie and Romaine are melodramatic, lavish, unpredictable, and often unreasonable, yet the audience is fascinated to the last with the stories that surround their own, illuminating the light, truth, and wildness in ones own life.