“Reading Djuna Barnes is like reading a foreign language, which you understand,” said Marianne Moore about her friend and contemporary near the end of Barnes’s career. “The Perfect Murder,” printed by The Harvard Advocate in its 1942 75th Anniversary Issue, exemplifies the curious linguistic prowess that Moore praises. In fact, the study of “foreign [languages], which you understand” is the very occupation of Barnes’s protagonist, Professor Anatol Profax, a dialectologist (specialist of tongues). A crossbreed between Middlemarch’s intellectually stubborn Casaubon and Baudelaire’s voyeuristic flaneurs, Profax harbors his cherished work in the crook of his elbow as he haunts the streets with a removed aspect and attentive ears. He records the “figures of speech and preferred exclamations in all walks of life” in order to classify species of speakers. He bunch-indexes (Barnes’s term) the inarticulate of England, France, and America as “The Inveterates” and devises other groupings—among them “Excitable Spinsters” and “The Impulsive”—along lines of fanaticism, eloquence, and verbosity. Profax’s scrupulous science literalizes what Moore recognized as Barnes’s genius: she paid close attention to the subtleties of expression, and did not underestimate the potential of a single language to spawn multitudinous variations.
Djuna Barnes lived first in Greenwich Village, and then in Paris, during both cities’ bohemian heydays. It was in Paris that she became acquainted with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, like-minded contemporaries who together heralded the rise of the avant-garde. By the time “The Perfect Murder,” her last published story, appeared in The Harvard Advocate in 1942, Barnes was an established author. Her reputation at the time (at least within the Advocate) can be surmised from her inclusion in the anniversary issue, which the editors dedicated to “new material from the important figures in literature today.”