Saturday, April 25, 2020

Paris France by Gertrude Stein is infuriating, simplistic and ... a lot of fun!

Gertude Stein's Paris France is infuriating, arrogant, simplistic, and ... a lot of fun to read. Her style, bare and repetitive like a song, is not as stylized as in some of her other books. The sentence patterns, loose but not too loose, are repetitive without driving you to distraction. Combined with the humor and the wit, the style makes for a more pleasant read than say A rose is a rose is a rose, and actually succeeds in courting musicality.

Stein muses about what France is at its essence, and this is the distillation of her analysis, if you can call it that:
"So there are two sides to a Frenchman, logic and fashion and that is the reason why French people are exciting and peaceful."

This sentence appears in modified versions on nearly every page, as a necessary conclusion. The question is, who the hell did Gertrude Stein think she was to be able to resume France in the 1900-1940s in a sentence? An arrogant prick, that's who. But a sympathique prick, no doubt.

Below she argues the French perceive themselves as Latin because they are logical. Ok. Maybe. Then she states logical people do not want to go to war, and certainly Stein proves by that deduction that sheis not French and logical, because in fact the logical Romans really had a thing about going to war all the time.
"When you first really get to know the French one of the first things that puzzles you is the insistence upon their latinity. They do not consider Italians or Spaniards latin, but they the french are latin, they insist upon being Gauls but all the same they are latin. Finally I realised that what they meant was that the spirit of latinity was kept purer by them the Gallo-romans than  it was in Italy which lost its latinity when they were overcome by barbarians and never recreated it, they might take on the forms and symbols of Rome but essentially the latin culture went out of Italy and it never existed in Spain so its true home has been France. And there is a good deal of truth  in it all. At first I did not know what they were talking about but gradually I did begin to feel what they meant by their latinity.
    They meant of course logic, the only people who were interested in logic were the Romans, logic because logical people are never brutal, they are never sentimental, they are never careless, they are never intimate, in short they are peaceful and exciting, that is to say they are French. The French understand war because they are logical, they do not care to go to war because they are logical, and to be logical is to be latin. That is what I was gradually understanding. It took me a long time to really understand it."

She assembles paragraphs of sweeping judgments, some of which are intriguing, others simplistic, often both. These ramblings, which are not actually rambling in the sense of over loquacious but in their lack of depth, are intercut with stories and anecdotes whose importance seem to originate from having been witnessed by Madame Stein, or have happened to people known by her, Dukes for example.
Stein and Toklas at their most stylish

Stein feels quite confident in answering the question of how come France was the cultural capital of the world, or at least of the Western world in the late 19th century/early 20th century. This bygone era has become history, as the French capital has lost this title to New York City, and Beijing, and Berlin, and Kinshasa, and Singapore, and Delhi. Despite her ironical, distanced tone, Stein's excitement at having been a part of the Parisian scene is still palpable:

"So the 20th Century did need France as a background. France might play with the idea of the destruction of the family as the beginning and end of everything but it could never convince any Frenchman and so France was a background for beginning of the 20th Century, it had had its one real effort to believe that the family and the things the family holds in its hands and walks on and eats and drinks and which belong to that family, they had their try-out of trying not to believe and that’s it the beginning of 19 century in the first french revolution, but it really was not interesting. Wars yes and excitement yes, but really not interesting. There is no logic to it, no civilization to it and no fashion.       So when the 20th Century was going to start in to try it out all over again, the Frenchmen were very content to be in it but not of it." I guess her writing teacher did not tell her about getting rid of "so" in her texts.

Some of her judgments do not apply to modern France, and it raises the question of whether France has changed, or Stein was wrong. She states that the French do not punish their children. Now, the French punish their children much more than Americans, even corporeal punishment is common in all classes of society.

Despite the book being called Paris France, it's full of anecdotes about Stein's neighbors in the countryside, and these stories do work as a windows on France before WWII. The content seems to have been the result of the following process: Stein and Toklas take a walk with their dogs close to their countryside home. They run into people and have a nice little chat with them. Stein the genius extracts a great insight about France from the meeting, and a relevant anecdote.

The book is short, written in an easy tone, fun, and not a bad read for anyone interested in that period of French history. Personally, I have sympathy for Stein, because she was a woman, a lesbian, and made no mystery about it. In the vein of the self aggrandizing, flamboyant, vociferous celebrity, she gets my vote over Hemingway, even if he had a hell of a sharp pen. And below, as a parting gift, is a story with a nice narrative, and striking images, such as these small boys on oversized bicycles because the French were not rich enough to give bicycles to their children. Children bikes probably didn't exist. Here's this sweet piece:

"Helen Button was her name and she lived in war-time. She lived somewhere but the thing that is important is that she lived during war-time.
There is a great deal of war-time in history and Helen Button lived in it. (...)
   Of course children do go in and out as they like a great deal more in war-time than in peace-time for there is not much use in just staying at home while it is war-time. 
   Helen Button started out with her dog William. As they were walking along suddenly William stopped and was very nervous. He saw something on the road and so did Helen. They neither of them knew what it was at first and at last as they approached very carefully they saw it was a bottle, a bottle standing up right in the middle of the road. There had been something in the bottle but what, it looked dark green or may be blue or black, and the bottle was standing up in the middle of the road not lying on its side the way a bottle on the road usually is.
   William the dog and Helen the little girl went on. They did not look back at the bootle. But of course it was still there because they had not touched it.
   That is war-time.
   When Helen went out there were a great many little boys on the large bicycles about. The bicycles were so tall that they cannot get on the seat at all but they were all over the country wriggling from side to side to have their ride and when they saw water and some of the roads were under water they went forward and back through the water to make it splash. That was because their big brothers and their fathers were gone away and that made so many more little boys able to play. 
   Then Helen did know it was war-time. 
   Helen and her dog William were out every day and almost every evening and they always saw someone. They knew a boy named Emil who was a big boy with very large eyes and a dog named Ellen. Ellen the dog had been born in the country against which they were fighting. Emil looked at his dog and wondered if he could love him. The dog loved Emil but could Emil love him.
   As Helen and her dog William came along Emil's dog Ellen sniffing along the side of the road in the sand and finally went sniffing up the bank. Helen's dog William went sniffing too. Perhaps there was game there, very likely because in war-time men did not go shooting nobody hunted anything only dogs and cats hunted in war-time, Emil the boy with large eyes sighed about this. He said dogs hunt in war-time but they do not get much, anybody could see two or three dogs going together to hunt and waiting to see if anybody saw them because in peace-time of course they can not go hunting. Then Emil said but cats in peace-time or in war-time, they sit and watch and prey. (...)
   Helen had a grandmother and when she had been the age of Helen there had been war-time. She told Helen how one day she had a slice of bread and there was very little bread to be had, but she did have a good big slice and she was just commencing eating it. A soldier came along an enemy soldier on a horse, he stopped and got off this horse and not roughly but he did, he took the slice of bread out of her hand, she had just had one bite and he gave it to his horse who ate it and he went away on his horse and he did not say anything."

Please note: I have tried to reproduce the text's random capitalization. For Stein, all French people seem to be men, and a dog named Ellen is a he. In the story of Helen, the characters all have English names or English spelling of French names. My guess is that Stein could not be bothered to find out the real names or relevant spellings. Or she invented the whole thing. Which is still pretty gracious.

Stein's famous portrait by Picasso

And finally an anecdote, but that illustrates how injustice could affect a woman, and a lesbian's life. Stein left her art collection as a trust to her partner Toklas. When the collection became extremely valuable in the early 60s, the Stein family had it seized while Toklas was away from France, on the pretext she was not taking care of it properly. Toklas was never able to recover it, despite legal action. It's also distressing that Stein did not leave the collection to Toklas as an inheritance. Selling one piece would have saved her from her poverty in her late years. 

Published and written by  - - Arabella von Arx