What We Have Here Is a Failure To Communicate

Gertrude Stein’s fascinating mistakes.

Writings 1903-1932: Q.E.D.; Three Lives; Portraits and Other Short Works; The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Writings 1932-1946: Stanzas in Meditation; Lectures in America; The Geographical History of America; Ida; Brewsie and Willie; Other Works

By Gertrude Stein

Library of America; 941 and 844 pages respectively; $40 each

Few writers enjoy wider name recognition, or a smaller core readership, than Gertrude Stein. Even avid readers tend to know only the two easiest of her 20-odd books, the experimental but accessible Three Lives (1908) and the gossipy Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). After that, she’s remembered as the queen scene maker of Modernist Paris, the friend and patron of Picasso and Matisse and later Hemingway who turned out cryptic, quotable phrases such as “a rose is a rose is a rose” and “there’s no there there.” Her celebrity image is both frivolous and terrifying: Imagine the souls of Fran Lebowitz and Yogi Berra mingling in a woman who looked like an ancient statue, with a huge, flat face and dark little dots for eyes.

Of course, that image underestimates what an amazingly innovative writer Stein was. Luckily, or so you’d think, the Library of America has galloped to the rescue with a gigantic new edition to tout her worth. The editors, New York University’s Catharine Stimpson and independent scholar Harriet Chessman, have done a perfectly fresh job assembling both canonical and neglected pieces to trace the evolution of this oddest of minds. Most of Stein’s phases are here: the pioneering “continuous present” tense she invented in Three Lives; the abstract sketches of friends; the barely performable plays that she compared to landscapes; the difficult holistic theory of literature that made her a surprising star on the American lecture circuit late in life. All very magisterial–but, at the daunting two-volume length of 1,900 pages, something of a backhanded compliment. Other prolific writers such as Henry James and Mark Twain usually get their stuff sorted into early period and late period and released in dribbles. The way the library has handled Stein may make a statement about her importance, but it certainly doesn’t help in the reader-friendliness department.

There are some neat things here, starting with the novella Q.E.D., which Stein wrote when she was 29. (It was never published in her lifetime.) This was in 1903, shortly before she moved to bohemian Paris and not too long after she studied psychology at Radcliffe with William James (the subject of her thesis, still relevant as ever, was how undergraduates experience fatigue during final exams). The style is naturalistic; the plot is your basic love triangle, with a lesbian twist: Adele, whose butch forthrightness makes her an obvious stand-in for Stein, falls for a frustrating coquette, Helen, who returns her love but can’t commit because she’s already beholden to Mabel, a rich, withered-spinster type.

Since Stein’s fans tend to fetishize all things experimental, this straightforward, painfully autobiographical book (Stein was hurt by a failed love affair the summer she wrote it) has generally been dismissed as wooden, of interest only for its lesbian subject matter. But its hyperintelligence is underrated. It is proof that Stein started out writing with perfect clarity, which means that her later bizarre style was a choice, not the natural expression of a loon. Also, the angry portrait of Helen shows that, all feminist claims on Stein notwithstanding, she was as capable of misogyny as any man. (Biographies tell us she was fascinated at the time by the ideas of Otto Weininger, a morbid Viennese philosopher who believed women were stupid and corrupt banshees. Ludwig Wittgenstein was another fan.)

Dominance in relationships, the question of who has the upper hand and why, turns out to be one of Stein’s favorite themes. “In friendship, power always has its downward curve,” she writes in Three Lives, her famous portrait of three servant women. Readers have been conditioned to study this groundbreaking work for its pioneering technique–still beautifully readable, but eerie and fractured. Each sketch is also a cool study of leaders and weak, grasping followers in love. (Click here for an excerpt.) Stein is shamelessly fascinated by power, and in Three Lives she begins to dictate the terms by which we read her, even today. Since two of the three portraits in Three Lives were based on women she actually knew and the celebrated middle section “Melanctha” is a rehash (brilliant, daring, but a rehash nevertheless) of the same love affair that Q.E.D. was based on, you could even argue that Stein invented a revolutionary new literary technique in order to disguise a weakness–her own inability to make up a story.

What imagination she had was almost entirely theoretical. Watching young Cubists bring the techniques of painting to the forefront, she assigned herself to write “portraits” of her friends that did the same thing for literature. Soon she’d forgotten all about her subjects and begun inquiring into the very nature of composition. Deciding that the normal rules of punctuation and grammar promoted old-fashioned sentiment, she came up with new rules of her own (question marks and exclamation points verboten; evocative nouns and adjectives dangerous; adverbs excellent, because they’re about nothing more than the relationship between words). She believed you could repeat the same word over and over without risking boredom, because each time it appeared it was like new. She even tried to work out a literature without fake beginnings, middles, and ends–a literature that enters directly into the flow of experience. (From an alleged essay, “Acquaintance With Description”: “If it and this is wild from this to the neatness of there being larger left and with it could it might if it not if it as lead it lead it there and incorrectly which is at this time.”)

All this exploration makes for some heavy going, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone read these volumes straight through, as I had to for review. Taking in too much Stein too fast can provoke a numb panic, a clog in the head. At times, I felt as if I’d inhaled highly caloric food and, just when the sugar coma hit, entered a long line at the department of motor vehicles. Stein is far more amusing when she forgets her rules and gets drunk on the music of words. (Click here for an excerpt from “Lifting Belly,” a witty unpublished love poem she wrote to Alice B. Toklas.) She’s much more stimulating when she remembers that she’s first and foremost a thinker. (Click here for her arbitrary, brilliant take on literary history.) In fact, much of her imaginative writing seems to me a mere preparatory sketch for her real work of genius, which is the self-promoting–but undeniably original–criticism that explicates it.

As for the rest, her idea about starting over and over–halting a phrase before it evokes an image, God forbid, or reaches the dead end of clarity–is a fascinating mistake. Starting over and over again doesn’t mean you’ve entered the flow of experience. It means you’re starting over and over again, with all the stop-and-go frustration this implies. There’s just no way around it: Writing deals in meaning, images, false renderings of time, and devices to hold the reader’s attention. Stein’s attempt to show otherwise is a landmark in literature, a unique episode in the history of thought. Whether you’ll want a keep a copy by your bedside to thumb through lovingly year after year is a choice best left to the individual. My guess is a regretful no.

If you missed the links within the review, click to read a passage from Three Lives, another from “Lifting Belly,” or an explanation of Stein’s take on literary history.