THE GERTRUDE STEIN READER
THE GREAT AMERICAN PIONEER OF AVANT-GARDE LETTERS
(Cooper Square Press, $29.95)
BECAUSE PEOPLE GENERALLY like to read things that contain characters, conflict, and punctuation, people don't generally like to read things written by Gertrude Stein. The exception is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, for which she finally achieved celebrity in America right near the end of her life. Cleverly conceived (told in the voice of Stein's lover, it's actually all about Stein), Toklas is widely read but unexciting. It's a linear narrative driven by short sentences, populated with characters who have names, involving logical and timely conflicts, delineated with a sense of historical place, and carried out with a fair amount of punctuation and a deadening dearth of flair. (It even begins at the beginning, the way Melville might: "I was born in San Francisco, California.") Tender Buttons, a masterpiece of bold experimentation, appeared 20 years earlier, in 1914; Toklas suggests Stein lost her nerve.
A new collection of her more esoteric short-form writing, The Gertrude Stein Reader, advances the cause for an appreciation of Stein at her most avant-garde and unpopular. (It includes a selection from Tender Buttons.) Edited and introduced by Richard Kostelanetz (Stein is a writer who still needs introduction: I asked five educated friends to name one thing she's written, and no one could), The Gertrude Stein Reader not only collects Stein's most exciting experimental writing but also provides a context for understanding it.
Kostelanetz's lucid, precise, and unpretentious introduction is particularly useful because, unlike much of what has been written about her, it does not dwell on Stein's position as a cultural icon (she was a feminist, a lesbian, and a Jew), nor does it wax obsequious over her prowess for collecting art or hosting dinner parties (many of which were attended by artist-contemporaries like Picasso and Hemingway). The introduction includes a few shocking personal statistics ("though only five feet two inches tall, she reportedly weighed over two hundred pounds"), but Kostelanetz sticks mainly to the task of making the collection accessible—the arduous job of explaining what Stein had hoped wouldn't have to be explained: that repetition of a single dominant element can replace comprehensive description; that she usually means to capture not what has happened but what is happening; that her "scrambling of syntax could be considered an appropriate literary analogy for painterly cubism." (Kostelanetz concludes, on that final point, that "As cubism brought the reorganization of visual space, so Stein revised the frame of literature").
IN MOST of her experimental work, Stein resists the representation and definition of nouns in favor of abstraction—aiming "to describe something," as Toklas once said, "without mentioning it." Kostelanetz reveals that her method, particularly when she wrote essays, was to concentrate on a given subject and then write whatever flashed into her head, recording the subject's attendant images and sounds—so that the atmosphere of peripheral nouns, confusingly, complicates the issue. The result is sentences like "In Baltimore there are the ferns the miles the pears the cellars and the coins," from "Business in Baltimore"; or "The grass, the grass is a tall sudden calendar with oats with means, only with cages, only with colors and mounds and little blooms and countless happy eggs to stay away and eat, eat that," from "Old and Old." The sentences are obscure, even oblique, but they apprehend your senses and your instinct for associations— you may feel what she is talking about, even though you can't explain it. Maybe it can't be explained.
Her sentences seem reckless, but they are not accidents. Take the two quoted above, both of them taut, patterned, and confidently wrought. The sentence from "Business in Baltimore" epitomizes a spirit of tension in Baltimore by alternating object nouns (ferns, pears, coins) with nouns that describe dimension and room (miles, cellars). The tension that arises from the juxtaposition of these various qualities of Baltimore is resolved with the last noun in the line, the coins: There is, ultimately, money in Baltimore, and that is its reason for being. The sentence from "Old and Old" is basically beyond me, but something is going on with the antagonism between objects of abundance and life (grass, oats, blooms, eggs) and objects of coldness and restriction (calendars, cages, means). Notice, also, the way the sentence begins ("The grass, the grass . . . ") and the way it ends (" . . . and eat, eat that"). The tone of antagonism and the swift rhythmic structure achieve a complex and concise confluence of sound and meaning.
Stein admired sound, and found meaning in it. Her experiments with sound are discursive and playful, so it's easy (and common) to overlook their significance. "She is laying word against word," Sherwood Anderson observed, "relating sound to sound, feeling for the taste, the smell, the rhythm of the individual word." From "Advertisements": "The hope there is is that we will hear the news." (Aside from the obvious, but not superfluous, repetition—more about repetition later—notice the play on the word "hear," a homophone of "here," which means the opposite of "there.") From "Objects Lie on a Table": "How lovelily the wall how lovelily all of the wall and we do not necessarily hesitate he did not, he found it thin." ("Lovelily" is, I propose, a combination of "loveliness" and "lovely.") From, again, "Business in Baltimore": "Who finds minds and who lines shines and two kinds finds and two kinds minds. Minds it." These sentences may fall into Kostelanetz's category of nonrepresentational prose, which Stein did a lot of and which, according to Kostelanetz, "makes no pretense about referring to any reality beyond itself" and is "intended to be appreciated simply as language, apart from anything else." Kostelanetz concludes that such passages "need not be 'interpreted.' What you read is all there is." This is a remarkably liberating assertion for the reader: Never mind the question, What is she trying to say? What if she isn't trying to say anything at all?
KOSTELANETZ IDENTIFIES her direct influence on Ernest Hemingway ("in his use of a mundane vocabulary, his outright repetitions, and his syntactical shifts"), the "excessively long sentences" of William Faulkner, and the "uninflected prose" of Samuel Beckett. And he suggests that Stein may be the only author to have had a technical influence on musical composers: Kostelanetz hears her innovations in the modular compositions of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, and Meredith Monk, where fixed motifs are "repeated through a succession of otherwise changing relationships."
As for the issue of repetition, for which she is famous, yes, it's here it's here it's here. And it's mesmerizing, as when she writes:
He was doing something and he certainly did it for sometime and it was certainly something he should then be doing. Some one might be thinking that he might be more successfully than doing some other thing but really not any one thought he should not be doing the thing he was doing when he was doing the thing and certainly he was very steadily doing the thing, the thing he was doing when he was doing that thing. In a way he had been doing a number of things, in a way he was always doing the same thing.
"It's not all repetition," Stein once told a reporter. "I always change the words a little." And in an essay toward the end of the book, "How Writing Is Written," in which she addresses her own work, she writes, "The question of repetition is very important. It is important because there is no such thing as repetition. . . . You will see that when I kept on saying something was something or somebody was somebody, I changed it just a little bit until I got a whole portrait." She once explained her most famous perseveration—"A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." She said, "I think in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years." She is right.