“I was born in San Francisco, California.”
Gertrude Stein was a Jewish-American writer who lived in France for over 40 years, becoming an intrinsic part of the Parisian art world in the early 1900s. Part of an avant garde artistic movement that thumbed its nose at past artistic structure, she was intimate with artists, both painters and writers, such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, George Braque, Guillaume Appolonaire, Henri Rousseau, Ernest Hemingway, Mildred Aldrich and many others, who were frequent visitors to her 27 rue de Fleurus location. She attempted her own literary movement, writing many works that were deemed “incomprehensible”, but received a small following. Her autobiography is perhaps a more gentle exposure to her “art”.
|Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906)
Although Stein presents this biography as being about her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, in fact it is Stein, speaking with the voice of Toklas about her own life and experiences. She briefly chronicles her early life, then moves directly to France, going into great detail about her life there, yet revealing little about herself. Her style is mostly observation and there is little depth to her words. It is a matter of, “this happened, and that happened, and this happened,” without there being much of an internal interaction with occurrences, or an outward reaction to them. The book was all about Stein, but on the other hand it wasn’t, and I never felt that I came to know much about the woman at all. Of course, I now know about all the important people she knew and all about her writings, but it’s more like skating on top of a lake instead of diving right into it; you see a reflection that has echoes of reality, but somehow reality itself escapes you.
Nevertheless the book had some interesting information on the artists living in Paris during Stein’s residence there:
“The Matisses had had a hard time. Matisse had come to Paris as a young man to study pharmacy. His people were small grain merchants in the north of France. He had become interested in painting, had begun copying the Poussins at the Louvre and become a painter fairly without the consent of his people who however continued to allow him the very small monthly sum he had had as a student …..”
And interesting things to say about different nationalities:
Americans and Spaniards
“Americans, so Gertrude Stein says, are like spaniards, they are abstract and cruel. They are not brutal, they are cruel. They have no close contact with the earth such as most europeans have. Their materialism is not the materialism of existence, of possession, it is the materialism of action and abstraction. And so cubism is spanish …..”
“Gertrude Stein used to get furious when the english all talked about german organization. She used to insist that the germans had no organisation, they had method but no organisation. Don’t you understand the difference, she used to say angrily, any two americans, any twenty americans, any millions of americans can organise themselves to do something but germans cannot organise themselves to do anything, they can formulate a method and this method can be put upon them but that isn’t organisation. The germans, she used to insist, are not modern, they are a backward people who have had a method of what we conceive as organisation, can’t you see. They cannot therefore possibly win this war because they are not modern.”
“The french are so accustomed to revolutions, they have had so many, that when anything happens they immediately think and say, revolution. Indeed Gertrude Stein once said rather impatiently to some french soldiers when they said something about a revolution, you are silly, you have had one perfectly good revolution and several not quite so good ones; for an intelligent people it seem to me foolish to be always thinking of repeating yourselves. They looked very sheepish and said, bien sur mademoiselle, in other words, sure you’re right….”
There is always an underlying humour touched with a seriousness in her narrative; although life is somber business, one must not take it too seriously.
|Stein with Ernest Hemingway’s son, Jack (1924)
Stein definitely has both fans and critics. One enthusiast, Mabel Dodge, an American art patron, wrote, “In Gertrude Stein’s writing every word lives, apart from concept, it is so rhythmical and cadenced that if we read it aloud and receive it as pure sound, it is like a kind of sensuous music.”
However, Stein’s brother, who apparently had the eye of an art connoisseur and amassed an impressive collection of paintings, called the biography “a farrago of lies,” Hemingway declared it, “a damned pitiful book,” and critic F.W. Dupree denounced “Steinese” as being “gnomic, repetitive, illogical, sparsely punctuated …… a scandal and a delight, lending itself equally to derisory parody and fierce denunciation.”
Perhaps the truth lies in the battlefield between the two factions, and American writer Sherwood Anderson, found the median between the two, saying, “As for Stein, I do not think her too important. I do think she had an important thing to do, not for the public, but for the artist who happens to work with words for his material.”