on 16 April 2011
American, twenty something, Gertrude Stein wrote these 3 short ground breaking stories, based on painter styles, in 1905-1909 following an extended period in France meeting Picasso. She strikes me as being a very interesting person and the detailed introduction describes her, her writing and stylistic approach to the stories. Like all artists forging new fashions she had clearly demonstrated her `formal' literary talents, a la Henry James her contemporary, earlier (see QED later). Though she had trouble convincing publishers of the merits of her work eventually people appreciated the innovation. Her basic stories are about an individual woman and her relationships; the women would be relatively minor characters in other people's works and it would be fair to say her own lesbian relationship problems contributed to the value of her dialogue. Being Jewish Gertrude, presumably would have had a handle on prejudice, and this, to good or ill, is a clear discussion point on the first story as the `N' word is often used (though I feel the word was used fairly in context) with not infrequent relatively racist stereotype descriptions of the black and mixed race characters is obvious; however overall I'd say this doesn't detract from the writing's value and more to the point adds a certain `of its time' authenticity.
All the stories are based in Bridgepoint USA within the mainly German community. As they are quite short I won't say too much.
`The Good Anna' - Cezanne
Anna Federner, single in her twenties, is a forthright thinking housekeeper for Miss Matilda. Her friend is widow Mrs Lehntman who helps out women in trouble. Anna bounces between other families, eg Dr Shonjen, and friends as she tries to impose her will on them. Anna'a pet dogs seem to be the only constant but are equally controlled. Is she ever happy? The style is mainly plain narrative but with some non-linear retrospectiveness.
Quote "She worked away her appetite, her health and strength, and always for the sake of those who begged her not to work so hard. To her thinking, in her stubborn, faithful, german soul, this was the right way for a girl to do"
Melanctha - Picasso
Melanctha Herbert is a mixed race, young, vibrant girl; a typical teenager finding out about the world, her passions and men. Her friend/boss is Rose Johnson, a black woman; her social teacher is Jane Harden. Melanctha learns about boys and meets later Jeff Campbell the doctor who looked after her dying mother. The dialogue and why the fall out is hidden. The prose is sparse and often double backs on itself, so has a deja-vu quality. The introduction assures us that this is Gertrude's masterpiece. The prose style is the most distinctive and captivating.
Quote "Jeff never, even now, knew what it was that moved him. He never, even now, was ever sure, he really knew Melanctha was, when she was real herself, and honest. He thought he knew, and then there came to him some moment, just like this one, when she really woke up strong in him. Then he really knew he could know nothing. He knew then, he never could never know what it was she really wanted with him"
The Gentle Lena - Matisse
Lena Mainz is a young german innocent passive yet decent maid brought to the US by her cousin Mrs Haydon. She is pressured into marrying into the somewhat grubby german Kreder family, her reluctant subordinate husband (though not directly stated strikes me a being gay - I hope this isn't a modernist view out of context?) is more interested in being with other guys and is equally bullied into marriage. The couple are then bullied. What happens when babies arrive?
Quote "He liked to go out with other men, but he never wanted that there should be any women with them. The men all teased him about getting married. Herman did not mind the teasing but he did not like very well the getting married and having a girl always with him"
The appendix to the book has a 3 part short story called `QED' and each are titled Adele, Sophie Neathe and Helen respectively. This is basically a lesbian love triangle written by Gertrude in 1903 prior to the "Three Lives". This is apparently very autobiographical but was published much later in 1950 posthumously. This is a lot more typical literature with detailed character and dialogue as the three girls fall in and out of love with each other. A quote that summaries the style completely different to three lives is the opening sentence to Sophie" Sophie Neathe's room fully met the habit of many hours of un-aggressive lounging".
This is a very interesting set of stories, though each has distinctive manner one couldn't really guess which painter style they are; any more than McCarthy's Road is Picasso's `grey' period or Joyce wrote in Dali style. They are entertaining and I would agree Melancthe is the best. Read and enjoy but don't expect too much colour paint, the words are still black and white.
The trouble with the avant-garde is that they set themselves up to say that anyone who doesn't like what they do is, well, totally square. At the same time, those who convince themselves that they appreciate it in the correct way can lord it over the rest of us naifs.
After having heard about this book for years from a dear Stein-devotee pal, I gave it a try. I must say that, not only was I disappointed in the so-called language experimentation, but I was just plain bored. I did not find the characters interesting; I did not get taken into their world view by the stream-of-consciousness writing style that is Stein's trademark; I did not feel like I learned anything. What truly convinced my pal that I am an artistic philistine - and I guess I am in her measure - is that I vastly preferred The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, which was written for a popular audience (this is, clearly written and not with all the obscure and in my view idioitic word play).
Oh well, this review will no doubt get many "unhelpful" votes, but then, at least I looked at it honestly and and naively and gave it the effort an avant-garde classic deserves. NOT RECOMMENDED.