Paris France


Well. This is not what I expected. I did not expect to love Gertrude Stein.

Stein and I have met before, but our meetings have never been very successful. I read Ida in high school and attempted The Making of Americans then as well, and both experiences left me veering between bemusement and annoyance. I did not understand what Stein was getting at with her odd, choppy style; she seemed arrogant and possibly insane. And although I've reevaluated many of my high school opinions on literature, I somehow never got around to giving Stein the benefit of a more mature reading, until now.

I must admit, it really paid off. Not that I would exactly reverse my former verdict of arrogance and possible insanity. No, Stein still does and says plenty of things in her 1940 essay-memoir Paris France that I normally find off-putting or flat-out disagree with: her habit, for example, of making sweeping statements about what she considers to be the defining characteristics of a group of people, based sometimes on a single anecdote. In this passage, she's discussing Frenchmen who never marry:

recently in a village not far from here, one day he was about fifty-five and he never had been married, he shot a woman just any woman as he saw her at a distance. No man who had ever been married could have done that, manifestly not.

I mean, what rot: married men aren't immune from psychotic breaks any more than the rest of us. Similarly Stein declares, in defense of her theory that dogs from a given country are similar in temperament to the people from that country, that dachshunds and other German dogs are "rather timid gentle friendly and obedient." As much as I love dachshunds, none of those descriptors are words I would think of applying to the breed, which are in my experience near-fearless, fiercely territorial, hostile toward strangers, and only prone to obedience when there is an immediate culinary reward.

Two things, though. The first is that, as much as Stein's habit of over-enthusiastic extrapolation from insufficient data sometimes generates statements that seem bizarrely wrong, they perhaps oftener result in passages that seem oddly and intriguingly right. One of my favorite sections, and one that would earn the book a five-star rating all on its own were I to give star ratings, is one in which Stein critiques the figure of speech "Familiarity breeds contempt." She argues, on the contrary, that "the more familiar it is the more rare and beautiful it is":

I remember once hearing a conversation on the street in Paris and it ended up, and so there it was there was nothing for them to do, they had to leave the quarter. There it was, there was nothing else to do they had to leave the most wonderful place in the world, wonderful because it was there where they had always lived.

[ ... ]

Familiarity does not breed contempt, anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful. And that is all as it should be.

As difficult as it is for me to remember when I am moaning about preparing for yet another 7am committee meeting featuring stale bagels and "lite" cream cheese, I deeply believe in this idea: that doing something day after day, or living in a place day after day, bestows upon that activity or place the beauty and interest of one's own life. It is easy to take the petty way out here, retorting that this is easy for Stein to say because where she lived every day was Paris, and what she did every day was write and collect art and hang out with Picasso and Hemingway, but I think there's a deeper truth here as well, and it's one of which I am glad to have expressed so succinctly and well.

I'm reminded of the Harvey Keitel character in the Wayne Wang/Paul Auster film Smoke: Keitel plays a smoke shop proprietor who takes a photograph of the same street corner at the exact same time every morning for decades. His profession is not glamorous and his photographs are not, individually, great artworks, but his years of practice of this activity lend it an unexpected depth and beauty, create a connection between him and the changing neighborhood (or quarter) in which he lives. Yet outwardly there's nothing special about his smoke shop over any other smoke shop, which is just what Stein is writing about here: the very act of living imparts life to one's actions and to the place where one lives.

The second mitigating circumstance that struck me about Stein's oft-bizarre extrapolations, is that she is sometimes coming to wrong conclusions willfully, almost as an act of magical thinking. Paris France was written in 1939 and is profoundly concerned with the recent outbreak of the Second World War. Stein had been in France during the carnage of the first World War, and is terrified and grief-stricken at the idea that the experience is about to be repeated—or worse, that from now on there will be a constant state of "general European war." So when she claims, for example, that dachshunds are timid and gentle and so German people must be timid and gentle too, or when she asserts that the French are logical and "logical people are never brutal, they are never sentimental, they are never careless," she does not so much believe these things as that she desires them—desperately—to be true, and perhaps half-believes that by asserting them she can bring them into being. At certain points in her narrative this doubt and desperation leak through to the surface in a way I found quite poignant:

I thought poodles were french but the french breed always has to be refreshed by the german one, and the german pincher is so much more gentle than our Chichuachua little dog which it resembles, and so everything would be a puzzle if it were not certain that logic is right, and is stronger than the will of man. We will see.
      The characteristic art product of a country is the pulse of the country, France did produce better hats and fashions than ever these last two years and is therefore very alive and Germany's music and musicians have been dead and gone these last two years and so Germany is dead well we will see, it is so, of course as all these things are necessarily true.

Stein's circling syntax here is very much that of a person vacillating between trying to reassure herself, and wishing to express her doubt to someone else who will reassure her. It would be a puzzle; it is certain; we will see. We will see, it is so, of course.

In a similarly poignant way, Stein is attempting here to tell the story of the early 20th century and the art community that began then in Paris, but that is not the story that currently preoccupies her. She says at one point, in a sentence which is its own paragraph and which mimics the rhythm of a sigh:

It is difficult to go back to 1901 now that it is 1939 and war-time.

And so 1939 keeps intruding on her points about 1901, and she must resort to long, discursive tangents to talk herself back to a point where 1901 is visible to her once more. After the line above, for example, she tells an anecdote that begins at the intersection of war (her true preoccupation) and food; she then writes for six pages about the French and their relationship with food through history, finally arriving at the statement: "and that brings me to the Paris I first knew when the Café Anglais still existed." This exercise in historical imagination enables Stein to access 1901 again for a time, although eventually 1939 seeps back again into the stream of her thoughts.

My motivation to read Paris France came from the fact that David and I are traveling to Paris in May, but the book turned out to have more insight about the 1939 psychology of Gertrude Stein than about Paris or the French people. Still, that psychology was both moving and fascinating, and Stein's keen ability to relate a well-observed anecdote had me marveling on a number of occasions. Some of these anecdotes, in fact, are almost like free-standing miniatures, and I wonder if Stein has been an inspiration for Lydia Davis. I'll leave you with one of these which particularly struck me:

So one day there I saw a boy about thirteen years of age a stout well-set up and comfortably dressed boy sitting by the water-side, next to him was a woman evidently not his mother but a relation and there they sat. Large tears were rolling down his cheeks. What is it, I asked her, oh she said sorrow, but it will pass. He has failed in his examinations, but it will pass. And quite impersonally she sat by and indeed it was sorrow but as she said, sorrow passes.

I read Paris France as part of the Classics Circuit Lost Generation tour. Check out the excellent ladies at Things Mean a Lot and Rebecca Reads for today's other tour stops.


  • Very bizarre about the dogs, although I remember when I went to Germany being absolutely astounded that the dogs could understand German! Maybe that means I too am meant to write a book....

    • LOL, go for it, Jill! We were laughing the other day about all the different onomotopaeic animal sounds from various countries. Mr. Bingley was excited to learn that French dogs say "ouah ouah" and Russian dogs say "hav hav."

  • Heh, I took a Stein seminar in grad school long, long ago and was both attracted and repelled by her but ended up liking her more than I expected. Of course it could have just been due to a desire to make the class worthwhile instead of a semester of torture. Stein is definitely arrogant and egotistical. Even her biography of Alice B. Toklas is about herself. Insane? Probably not. Probably. This is one of hers I have not read and I enjoyed your write up about it.

    • Ha, duly noted: arrogant, probably not crazy. I like your formulation of attraction, repulsion, and more affection than you were expecting. That pretty much sums up my reaction too.

  • tu ne me donnes pas envie de lire Gertrude Stein. Pendant mes études j'en ai évidemment entendu parler, mais n'ai rien lu d'elle. Mais j'ai dévoré Hemingway et Fitzgerald! D'après tes exemples, je la trouve plutôt expéditive dans ses conclusions. Mais je ne suis pas d'accord avec toi quand tu trouves, comme elle, que la familiarité avec une tâche peut lui conférer une certaine beauté (si je te comprends bien). Demande aux bonnes espagnoles qui vivent sous les toits des beaux quartiers de Paris si elles trouvent de la beauté dans leurs chambres et dans le ménage qu'elles vont faire chez les bourgeois des étages inférieurs! Je te donne cet exemple car je viens de discuter du film "les femmes du 6e étage" avec une cousine. Si le film passe à portland, va le voir; c'est très amusant et très bien joué.

    • Je crois que ce livre serait particulièrement ennuyeux pour un(e) français(e) parce que beaucoup des conclusions douteuses sont au sujet de France et des français, et Stein était américaine. Agaçant. Qu'est-ce qu'elle savait? Mais si je la lis sans attendre à être d'accord avec tous ses points, il y a des morceaux que j'aime.

      Et je ne voulais pas suggérer que les endroits sont tous aussi beaux ou acceptable pour habiter - pas du tout! C'est seulement qu'une mansarde où j'ai habité est plus belle et plus importante à moi, qu'une mansarde que je n'ai jamais vue. La première chambre que j'ai louée comme adulte était dans une maison qu'était, objectivement, completement laide, dans un mauvais quartier, et avec des problèmes avec l'éléctricité et la ventilation, mais je l'aimais parce que c'était la mienne.

      Je chercherai Les femmes du 6e étage - merci!

  • Aw, I've always wanted a dachshund, I didn't know they were difficult!

    I like the 'familiarity does not breed contempt' idea.

    • Dachshunds are awesome! Don't let me put you off them. They're super affectionate and loyal, and love to go adventuring with you, and they're very smart even if not exactly attached to using their intelligence in ways that benefit humans. And they're HILARIOUS. They're just not all that friendly with strangers, or obedient compared to, for example, a Golden Retriever. You can call them a bad dog and instead of cowering in shame they're basically like "Yeah, ok, I don't really care what you think." Which personally, I kind of respect in them! :-)

      Glad you relate to the "familiarity does not breed contempt" idea.

  • je dois être atteinte de je ne sais quel désordre mental car je suis incapable de trouver quelque chose de beau et d'attachant dans les maisons où j'ai vécu, et quand tu vas voir notre maison à toulouse tu vas dire que j'exagère!!!! Peut être qu'inconsciemment je me "blinde" pour ne pas être désespérée le jour où je dois déménager.
    Par contre je suis viscéralement attachée à notre petite maison de l'Aubépin malgré la vétusté, le manque de confort, les crottes de mouches et les souris parce qu'elle est dans la famille depuis 1825, et quand j'y suis, je retrouve tous mes ancêtres!
    Quant à la familiarité avec les tâches répétitives, ça dépend: faire la vaisselle tous les jours c'est une corvée détestable, faire du tissage plusieurs heures par jour ce n'est que du bonheur!
    Donc pour moi la familiarité ne change rien.

    Pour les clichés vis-à vis des Français, je suis sûre qu'il y a pire que Stein: l'Anglais Peter Mayle (qui s'est installé en Provence).

    • Haha, "la familiarité ne change rien" est probablement la façon la plus salutaire de voir la vie! Pour moi, c'est actrocement difficile d'abandonner les maisons où j'ai vécu quand je dois déménager. :-P

  • HA, I laughed out loud at that description of dachshunds. So, so, so untrue, unless the dachshunds that hang out in America are temperamentally completely different to European ones. :p

  • Hey, at least you have flippin' bagels in your country. Enjoyed your thoughts as usual.

  • She did what she was doing while she did it. When she did it, it was done. Or something.

  • Given my visceral dislike for Stein's stilted prose, Emily, at least you and I will never have to fight over her books if there's only one copy left in the bookstore! I did enjoy your post, though, and thinking about the flick Smoke again after all these years was quite a nice stroll down memory lane. Harvey Keitel, what an amusing weirdo as an actor, to borrow your lovely phrase!

    • Haha, talk about Memory Lane: David & I just revisited Keitel (& a bunch of other amusing weirdos) in Pulp Fiction. Just, wow. High school nostalgia, big-time.

      I often find Stein's prose stilted and annoying as well, but somehow despite everything going against it this book ended up working for me.

  • Emily, I have so missed your wonderful reviews. I have been swamped, but I must find more time. I loved your observation of Stein's point about the beauty of doing something day after day. And that last moment just sitting with sorrow...

  • Not that I would exactly reverse my former verdict of arrogance and possible insanity.

    Indeed, that would be a big mistake. There's no question at all about the arrogance, at least!

    Stein's habit of over-enthusiastic extrapolation from insufficient data sometimes generates statements that seem bizarrely wrong

    I sometimes wonder, thinking of her most avant-garde work, if statements like the ones you cite are not somehow doing the same thing as the nonsense texts. She's throwing sounds and words and sentences against a wall and seeing what sticks...I think your statement that "she is sometimes coming to wrong conclusions willfully, almost as an act of magical thinking" supports that in my mind. (And I do think, based on what I read of her in Janet Malcolm's Two Lives, that she was prone to magical thinking.)

    • Ah, I like your suggestion about the parallel between those odd-seeming conclusions and her more obviously disconcerting, avant-garde work, Nicole. I hadn't formulated it to myself in exactly that way. And your reference to Malcolm's bio now makes me curious to what extent she was conscious of / acknowledged her own magical-thinking tendencies. There were points in Paris France when she definitely seemed to be pointing to the doubt that underlay her supposed certainty, while at other times she seemed to convince herself more successfully.

  • I love your point about place and practice -- I love the fact that I ride the same roads over and over through all four seasons, so I've come to know them intimately. That hasn't bred contempt at all! Your sense of Stein's desperately wanting things to be true and trying to talk herself into it somehow strikes me as true based on what I read in Janet Malcolm's book on her. Malcolm captured that same sense of obstinate desperation.

    • I love your cycling example, Dorothy! For me personally an intimate knowledge of a certain place, building, road, etc. generally only increases my appreciation of and love for it. Not that I am married to the litter or lack of weekend-night parking in my neighborhood, but there are many things that make it dear to me. And glad to hear that the magical-thinking comment strikes both you & Nicole as plausible based on Malcolm's book.

  • The only thing I have read by Gertrude Stein is 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas', and I can't say that it made me want to read more. But at the same time, despite the arrogance and stangely choppy prose as you say she can draw you in and offers some great passages. There were some great scenes in 'The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas', even as it is hard to get over the arrogance of writing an 'autobiography' of your partner and making it mostly about you.

    Anyway, I guess this review pretty much encapsulates that experience of reading Gertrude Stein, because I am now curious about the book but not really sure if it's something I want to read. :)

    • Catie, I can relate so much to the experience you describe. There's a lot that's bothersome in Stein's writing, and I'm not sure I'll be diving back into her oeuvre very soon, but at the same time I ended up finding her strangely compelling. Liking her more than disliking her.

  • I must admit you have made me even more curious about Stein. Enjoy you're trip to Paris! For us, it was BEA/BBC in NYC instead. Someday we'll make it to Paris!

    • I'm sure you'll have an amazing time in NYC, Rebecca! Are you going to the Cloisters (medieval museum in Washington Heights)? It was a huge highlight for me & I know you love really old classics so I'm betting the atmosphere & art would be right up your alley.

  • June 2012

    Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
              1 2
    3 4 5 6 7 8 9
    10 11 12 13 14 15 16
    17 18 19 20 21 22 23
    24 25 26 27 28 29 30


    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography