Stein, Gertrude Entries

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.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography