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Monday, September 1, 2014

"Not Real but Really There" (on "Stein at War" / Paris France)

stein at war
not real but really there

Gertrude Stein Paris France (New York: Liveright, 1940). The edition I own is from 1970; a new edition, with an Introduction of Adam Gopnik was published in 2013. Gertrude Stein’s 1940 “memoir” (a term I use with great caution), Paris France might be described as one of the most strange of works in what many would describe as her literary cabinet of curiosities. The very implication that this work, seemingly describing itself as evidenced by its title,  a work “about” the city of Paris, is belied by the fact when it was published, Stein had already moved to her and Toklas’ rented country home in Biliginin the Rhône-Alpes.

     Although the book begins with her earliest memories of Paris (“Paris, France is exciting and peaceful. / I was only four years old when I was first in Paris and talked French there and was photographed there and went to school there, and ate soup for early breakfast and had leg of mutton and spinach for lunch….”), most of the book—written, tellingly, just before Paris fell to the Germans—makes the broadest of conclusions about France in general, and is “located” in its focus on the outlying provinces rather than in the capitol city.

     The early pages of Paris, France may seem to suggest that the remainder of the work will be about her beloved Paris, but, in fact, Stein’s focus shifts from the city to the country as early as page 18 (of the book’s 120 pages) as she begins to speak in broader and broader terms of overall French values, particularly France’s “feeling about foreigners.”


After all to the French the difference between being a
foreigner and being an inhabitant is not very serious. There
are so many foreigners and all who are real to them are those
that inhabit Paris and France. In that they are different from
other people. Other people find foreigners more real to them
when they are in their own country but to the French foreigners
are only real to them when they are in France. Naturally
they come to France. What is more natural for them to do
than that.

     In this paragraph, Stein reveals much of the texture of the book at large. As Adam Gopnik has noted in a thoughtful introduction to the new 2013 edition of Paris France, “Understanding Steinese,” Stein’s language throughout is a purposedly stylized representation of everyday speech. As he makes clear, Stein removes nearly all the interconnections of associative thinking that her mentor, Henry James embraced, making her “subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and […letting] straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle.” Indeed, Stein’s commentaries—embedded in what sound like maxims, declarative observations, conversational asides, old wives’ tales, gossip, and, as Gopnik asserts, sometimes “disingenuous and morally obtuse…remarks”—may sometimes convince us, as Gopnik suggests, of “the truth of her observations,” but just as often, I would counter, seem ridiculously personal and hegemonic.

     One might almost be tempted to suggest that Stein’s observations are thrown out in a way that allows one simply to take them or leave them, perceiving that there are always vast differences in the ways things are perceived, particularly given not only one’s personal views, but the vast separation in time since Stein penned her comments. Take, for the example, Stein’s comments quoted above. Certainly, given the American (and other international citizen’s) invasion of Paris after World War I, we might be ready to grant Stein the acuity of her comments. Looking at it today, however, in a period of increasing French disparagement of Northern African, Gypsy, Albanian, and other minorities, and in its own wartime and ongoing attitudes to the Jews—both its own citizens and émigrés—one might “naturally” (to use Stein’s preemptive assumption) have to immediately disagree with Stein’s assertion.

      Stein’s heady considerations of the difference between British and French culture, for example, seem, to me at least. to be correct:

….France was so important in the period between 1900 and 1939,
it was a period when there really was a serious effort made by hu-
manity to be civilized, the world was round and there really were
not left any unknown on it and so everybody decided to be civilized.
England had the disadvantage of believing in progress, and progress
has really nothing to do with civilization, but France could be
civilized without having progress on her mind, she could believe
in civilization in and for itself, and so she was the natural back-
ground for this period.

But this is only a matter of my non-anglophile feeling. Elsewhere, Stein—who one must always remember, was, like so many progressive and experimental writers of her generation (Djuna Barnes was another example), a devout conservative when it came to social and political behavior—argues for the French nature being inherently conservative. Questioning the revolutionary rhetoric of Napoleon, for example, Stein attempts to associate the role of revolution to the period of human adolescence:

How could you be civilized if you had not passed through a period or
revolt, and then you had to return to your pre-revolt stage and there
and there you were you were civilized. All Frenchmen know that
you have to become civilized between eighteen and twenty-three
and that civilization comes upon you by contact with an older
woman, by revolution, by army discipline, by any escape or by any
subjection, and then you are civilized and life goes on normally in
a latin way, life is then peaceful and exciting, life is then civilized,
logical and fashionable in short life is life.

     In some senses you might almost think that Stein is arguing here for the life-changing possibilities of war as argued by the Futurists. But she follows up that paragraph by insisting that “War can not civilize, it takes life to civilize….” Taking this viewpoint even further, she contends, in an interesting aside, that such was the problem with the Surrealists:


That was really the trouble with the sur-realist crowd, they missed
their moment in becoming civlised, they used their revolt, not as
a private but as a public thing, they wanted publicity not civilization,
and so really they never succeeded in being peaceful and exciting,
they did not succeed in the real sense in being fashionable and
certainly not in being logical.

When one realizes that such commentary is being issued from one of the most noted self-publicists of the century, it gives pause to nearly anything Stein might be proclaiming in these kinds of comments throughout her book.

     Some of her assumptions, moreover, as Gopnik posits, are outright stupid and even morally reprehensible. “Well war does make one realize the march of centuries and the succession of generations.” Even if we grant the fact that in 1940, just six years before the end of her life, Stein had seen her share of war, and that for her, perhaps, the actions of “too many fathers” (Mussolini, Hitler, Trotsky, Stalin, and even Roosevelt) seemed to her more another bother than anything to be fearful of, or that, isolated as she was now from her Paris, war was not yet such a serious thing, nonetheless, the very fact that she and Toklas had had to transfer to the country in order to save their lives and that, as Jewish women, they were still very in danger of being sent to a concentration camp or killed outright, were realities that she would have had to daily face. While, throughout this work, Stein seems intent in arguing that the French continue to go on with normal life despite the war at hand, associating all wars, as being things of “isolation” (“Wars always take place in vacation time and in vacation weather, so one is not in Paris”) she, quite obviously knew that things had turned “bad.” As she muses at the near center-point of Paris France:


It could be a puzzle why the intellectuals in every country
are always wanting to form a government which inevitably
treat them badly, purge them so to speak before anybody
else is purged.  It has always happened from the French
revolution to to-day.

     Unlike Gopnik, who argues that being ironic “isn’t her way,” I would argue that irony is very much at the core of numerous of Stein’s commentaries in this and other works, including her outrageous Swiftian-like 1934 suggestion, in an interview, of Adolf Hitler for the Nobel Peace Prize. Even if she could not yet know of all the unimaginable horror that World War II would bring upon the world in which she was located, she surely sensed the tensions rising around her, that the world had, once more, turned “bad.”

      Many of the observations and conversations of Paris France, moreover, would be repeated in her war-time fiction, Mrs. Reynolds, in far poignant and absolutely terrifying contexts. The various questionings of her friends and neighbors that take place throughout Paris France become the pattern of Mrs. Reynolds’ encounters in the later book. If anything, one might argue, Paris France is a book in which the narrator is trying her hardest to forget everything going on around her. In its intense discussions of dogs, French cooking, the use of French loan-words in Shakespeare, remembrances of the quays of Paris—and perhaps even her rather homophobic insistence that in every French village there “is a man who has not married,” (who they [the local women] cannot take seriously and call “a hen, and most of the time he does go a little funny…and once in a while goes quite queer…[one] shot a woman just any woman as he saw her at a distance.”)—reiterates Stein’s determination to deflect the war-time world in which she has suddenly discovered herself.

     Yet again and again, despite all the seeming chatter of ordinary living, war rears its ugly face, often in the very moments when the narrator is thinking about the most mundane of subjects:


You talk to yourself about chestnuts and walnuts and hazelnuts
and beechnuts, you talk to yourself about how many you find and
whether they have worms in them. You talk to yourself about
apples and pears and grapes and which kind you like best. You
just go on talking to yourself in war-time. You talk to yourself
about spiders or lizards, you talk to yourself about dogs and cats
and rabbits but not about bats or mice or moths.


The worm, as she notes, is always a possibility in the isolated world she now inhabits. It is a world even populated by spiders or lizards, but she will not go so far as to focus, she suggests, on the even more frightening specters of “bats or mice or moths.” If the first two animals are obviously frightening, even moths, one might recall, help to unravel the fabric of the world they inhabit. As Mrs. Reynolds comes to perceive in Stein’s long fiction, despite the always welcoming presence of Mr. Reynolds, war creates so much empty space; as Stein writes in Paris France, “There are so many people who go away in war-time here there and everywhere.”

     Finally, I would argue, the reader of Paris France might be better off to see the book as less a gathering of Steinian “truisms” about French culture, than as a constantly shifting and very personal apologia for the author’s remaining in France during such difficult and morally abhorrent times. This is no memoir in the usual sense, but an impassioned plea for the reader to share or least comprehend Stein’s own commitment, despite her love of American culture, to all things French.

     France, for Stein, represents a kind of inner being, the core of self that is clearly not always rational (or as Stein would put it, “logical”) in its perception of things. From early on in her life, Stein ruminates, she came to realize that even as a young girl in San Francisco “there was more french””

After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested
in living inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two
countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they
live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from them-
selves, it is not real but it is really there.

This is perhaps one of the most important statements in understanding Stein’s
aesthetics and, particularly, her need to remain in France, despite whatever it
may have cost her and Alice, throughout the war. Even from afar, one
might empathetically comprehend why two lesbian women, having lived most
of their lives abroad, would find it nearly impossible to suddenly reassimilate
themselves to the far more parochial and unaccepting world that repatriation to
the US might have represented. Stein would simply no longer be the figure
she was if she had returned, let us imagine, to Baltimore! The six last years
of her life would have been lived in even greater isolation than that she
describes in the pages of Paris France. We have only to look at an example
such as the former expatriate Djuna Barnes—who in Paris was perceived as
one of the great wits of the age, a woman without whom no party could
be complete—who, upon returning to the US because of World War II,
quickly developed a life that has correctly been described as being life of a
hermit who scared away almost anyone who might have wanted to visit.
Yes, Barnes continued to live for several more decades and even wrote.
But she was no longer a joyful human being in touch with other human
lives. Perhaps Barnes was never a truly a joyful human being, but Stein was!
Stein desperately depended upon the social interrelationships with artists and
writers that she had had in Paris, even with the natives of village where she
hunkered down during the War, and, after, the hundreds of soldiers who
accepted her open visits to her dinner table.
      Stein’s France, moreover, as she makes clear in Paris France, was not
anybody else’s France. If at times it may seem to related to others’
perceptions of that country or, even, if, as Gopnik imagines, “we are
convinced by the truth of her observations”—something that, for all my
love of Stein, I seldom was—we recognize that Stein’s version is a
Romantic one, “not real,” but for her, alone,“really there.”

Los Angeles, August 31, 2014

Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (September 2014).

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