Friday, September 19, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "Two Fragmentary Fictions" (on Gerhard Roth and Eva Sjödin)


two fragmentary fictions

       How did Kalb endure the inconclusive events in his brain? The word-fragments

    that were caught incessantly by his ear, his absorption of idiosyncratic time, bits

    of incidents, snippets of events? What made him suffer through this uninterrupted

    series of fragments? What made him experience these agonizing circumstances as

    normal?
               —Gerhard Roth, The Will to Sickness

 
Gerhard Roth Die Wille zur Krankheit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1973). Translated by

    from the German by Tristram Wolff as The Will to Sickness (Providence, Rhode Island:

    Burning Deck, 2006).

Eva Sjödin Det inre av Kina (Stockholm: Norstedts Förlag, 2002). Translated from the Swedish

     by Jennifer Hayashida as Inner China (Brooklyn: Litmus Press, 2005)
 

Made up of 99 paragraphs and a short section of 34 “notes,” The Will to Sickness tells the story—if you can describe this as a “story”—of a man named Kalb who wanders about an unnamed city encountering various visual and visceral sensations that, in their ability to set off a series of reactions in his brain, are ultimately painful, and lead to his recognition that he is undergoing the “symptoms” of some strange sickness. The astute reader recognizes the “symptoms” quite easily as those of a man of the edge of despair, a man whose connection with others is limited primarily to unsatisfactory meetings with prostitutes, waitresses, barkeeps and others he accidentally encounters on the streets, in restaurants and offices.

     The financially and emotionally impoverished Kalb spends most of his time alone in his room or simply wandering, like the hero of Hamsun’s Hunger, following various individuals and, occasionally, even attempting some vague sort of communication with them—all to no avail. Kalb’s most daring interchanges include an occasion in a restaurant where he approaches a man at another table, asking for his glass; when the puzzled man nonetheless reaches for it, Kalb “boxes he ears” and is dragged to the door by the waiter.  In another restaurant a middle-aged woman nods to him, and as Kalb sits down at her table she puts her hand upon his knee. Later, while drinking cognac on a sofa, the two suddenly undress each other and engage in sex.

     By this time in Roth’s surrealist-like tale, however, we recognize that what seems to be happening may in fact be a hallucination, for as the narrator has told us, “Kalb hallucinates reality.” By the end of this short fiction, what we formerly thought might be a mimetic description has slipped into utter fantasy:

 

            Through the telescope of his isolation he examined the image of the street.

            Today’s dream came in green and red. The elderly lady hauled a jug of milk

            along the sidewalk, overtook and tread upon her own shadow, which ac-

            companied her anew immediately thereafter, on the other side of her body.

            THE MOST TEDIOUS DETAILS ARE THE MOST LIKE DREAMS.

            Two flies buzzed about angrily. He engaged them in psychic congress….

 

Combined with Roth’s medical-like examination of Kalb’s surroundings and the author’s inclusion in the text of various scientific terms, The Will to Sickness presents, in fact, a dream-like reality that may suggest a complex subtext, but also self-mockingly recognizes itself to be the delusions of a fláneur, an aimless intellectual trifler.

     Accordingly, any great significance we seek in these 99 paragraphs, given its completely fragmentary structure, is of our own making. But that is exactly why this fiction is so compelling. For we cannot help ourselves: it is almost impossible not to attempt to connect the pieces with which one is presented and discern a significance in their whole. Of course, that is exactly what we do in every day of our living experiences; we make meaning often where there is none. Is that a sickness? Yes, the symptoms are clear; as with Kalb “the physiognomy of objects [touch] us” just as the safe societally-condoned distances at which we remove ourselves from others equally draws us toward them, for it is only through our connection with the world and one another than we can comprehend who, what and where we are.  Man not only desires meaning, he demands it, must have it in order to survive. It is a grand sickness, and living life is to accept that one is willingly infected with the disease.

       

http://bilder.panorstedt.se/bilder/person/160/Sjödin_Eva_1.jpgSwedish author Eva Sjödin’s Inner China may at first appear to be a short narrative poem. The publishers, however, describe it as a “tale,” and I am inclined, despite the work’s obvious poetic aspirations, to agree with them. Like Austrian-born Roth’s The Will to Sickness, Sjödin’s work is a fragmentary fiction. The two works are similar in other ways as well. As in Roth’s work, Inner China is a story of sickness, different kinds of sickness. The central narrator is a young girl whose sister Edith is obviously retarded. The mother, evidently, is a alcoholic (or suffering some other drug or drugs) who spends most of her life in bed, coming only to life when she can bed a passing lover. Forced to be the caretaker of her sister, the young narrator creates a world outside of the home—in the forest, fields, deer and other habitats around their troubled house—a world apart from the emptiness within her supposed domicile. Creating a fantastical world of lost children amid dangers of kidnap and death, the young girl “plays” the game of Tehseng and Laiseng, two imaginary Chinese children subject to various rules and regulations of her creative imagination.

     Like Kalb, these two explore a world of visual and physical sensuality as among the rocks and fir trees they eat dirt, dog biscuits, worms and other debris. Although the two are never sexually accosted, they are approached by a man and sense sexual danger everywhere in the rural world they inhabit. Neighboring children mock Edith, and in one instance, as they attend a village festival, an old woman appears to attempt to lure Edith away, but just in time her protector-sister steers her in another direction, warning her never to trust anyone in the town.

      Ultimately, welfare workers, recognizing that the often sick child is not being properly cared for, take her from the home. Almost at the same moment, the young girl’s dog grows ill, and she if forced to carry it to the village veterinarian, who recognizing it is beyond saving, mercifully kills it. The girl takes the body home, forcing her unwilling mother out of bed to watch her bury it.

     The fiction ends with the young girl caring for her own now child-like mother almost as she has previously had to care for Edith, forcing a bit of porridge into her Mother’s mouth while the older woman whimpers: “I-do-not-want-to-I-do-not-want-to.” She too has become another being who the young girl must take into her the unknown terrain of “inner china.”

     I should qualify my statements above, however, by saying that this summary represents my reading. Others will take these same poetically fragmentary paragraphs and weave the tale together in another pattern, willing these evocative germs of meaning into another kind of “sickness unto death.”

 
Los Angeles, January 21, 2008

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Eleanor Antin | "The Third Act," Chapter 7 of An Artist's Life by Eleanora Antinova


The following selection is from a new work by artist Eleanor Antin from the An Artist’s Life by Eleanora Antinova . Some of these pieces were published decades ago, others are currently being written. “The Third Act” represents one of the most recently written pieces in the book.



Chapter 7    



“The Third Act”
By Eleanor Antin


I danced with Diagheliv for 10 years. Where did they go, those years? Here. In my head. They are all in my head. And when I’m gone – phsaw… They were my family. Sergei Pavlovitch was our father. We were sisters, brothers. We slept four to a bed. It was cheaper. Two bargained for the room while the others sneaked up the back stairs. And took the best places. You should remember the friends who share your bed. But the nights blend into one night. Sometimes I can’t remember any night…I’m ashamed to confess this – I hope you won’t misunderstand – I can’t help it – to this day – I am partial to Russians. I feel friendly to them. Maybe not friendly, but familiar. A Russian is a Russian, even a bad one. I remember St. Petersberg better than London or Paris and I was never even there. By my time, most of the Russian girls hadn’t been there either. Paris rats. The last they saw of Mother Russia was racing through the ice fields of Finland on a sled. But there is no St. Petersberg anymore. What’s the new name? A ridiculous name, very likely. I always get it mixed up with Moscow but it isn’t. Moscow was always there. Stanislavsky was from Moscow. Chaliapin, too, I think. Leningrad. That’s the new name. A stupid name. Tanks, not white nights. Am I a snob? It’s hard to live with Russians and not be a snob. Even Lenin was part of the family. There’s no getting around it. A Russian is a Russian.


 I knew the girl he lived with in Paris. She found him in a café. He was starving. She took him in and fed him like a stray cat. They say she was very beautiful, one of the famous artists’ models. All the girls in those days were from Martinique, Jamaica, Haiti. She was from Martinique. I was the little girl from America. They felt sorry for me. They looked at me like I was a savage. But that was later. I came later. By the time I knew her, she was over the hill. Absinthe. Syphilis. People didn’t know about health then. Later, when Lenin made a name for himself, they wrote to him for help, but he wouldn’t answer their letters. They say he had a hard heart. But why should he remember those days? What was there to remember? That he was poor and wretched? Now he was an important person. He lived in Kschessinska’s palace and made revolutions. I think Kschessinska was secretly proud that he chose her palace. They made the revolution from that palace. And it was only a little palace, new, not very important. So look at Eiffel. That was only a tower.



Indeed, she was a great ballerina, Mathilde Kschessinska, but narrow in her outlook. A terrible snob. We were all terrible snobs. Not a penny in our pockets but we sailed through the doors of the Ritz as if we owned the place. We did. Kschessinska’s Grand Dukes were the doormen. Grand Duke Andrei formally pinched our bottoms. It was an honor. Wasn’t he the Tsar’s brother? “Go little flowers,” he would say. “There are two counts from Alsace. They are old and ugly but their pockets burn with gold.” Our stomachs rumbled. We lived on piroschkas and café au lait. Dounia adjusted the veil of her red hat. That afternoon we lunched on oysters and frog’s legs and escargot and salmon roe and wines from the private cellars. Everything fell before Dounia’s delicious red hat. It had a spirit, that hat. And why not? It came from a corpse.


Though she wasn’t always a corpse – the tall skinny lady who crept close to the walls of the pension and never smiled. “Opium!” Dounia announced. “She is rich but will not last long.” Dounia had spies everywhere. She gave the maid some extra francs. When the poor lady died in her sleep, the maid knocked on our door. Later Dounia showed up with a red hat. A Chanel dress. Silk underthings. She gave me a pink chemise. She was furious. “That whore Katya. We fought over every piece. What does a slut like her need with a Paul Poiret dress.” We were shocked. A Paul Poiret dress! What couldn’t we conquer with a Paul Poiret dress?


 For who knew how the day would end. Fortune came and went. There was no reason. No cause and effect. Things happened. Fortune came or it didn’t. By not coming, it didn’t. So much of the time, it didn’t… I never did what I should do. I always did what I wanted to do. In the end that’s what I did. What I wanted to do. And the dances I made. I made the ones I wanted to make… Did it matter? I don’t know. In the end it’s all the same, isn’t it? Gone every one, except here in my head. Was that what it was all for? For some pictures in my head? A couple of phrases, an embarrassment or two? Yes, I still cringe when I remember some of the things I said and did…I’m so ashamed… In life things come out wrong…as in the theatre – events cross, mix up, mask, pretend – like life… But it all works out in the third act. There was a ballet I wanted to do, nobody would produce it. If there is nobody to produce it, there is nobody to dance it. I called this ballet “Act 3” All ensembles. No solos. The corps de ballet working in perfect harmony… I loved third acts… You are happy in the third act… I never even got to the third act……

 
When Diaghilev died there was nothing for me in Europe and I came home. To a desert. America was a desert. The roads were empty then. And the nights. The skies were black. The lights weren’t on all over the country yet. You saw the stars. How many moons did I see over Kansas? The country was silent. It was waiting for cars. The diners waited. The filling stations. We rode the buses down those empty roads to one nighters in church halls and movie houses. Sometimes we did 3, 4 shows a day. Between Carole Lombard and Ronald Coleman. Ballet was a foreign word. What was an American dance? The people were harvesting the wheat, rolling steel, making cars to ride the empty roads. America was singing. I heard her. I was a native, after all.


Europe was decadent. I came home to find my roots. The intelligentsia was in a ferment. They were searching for an American idiom. A new culture was at hand. We had high hopes…but it was not meant to be. The Great Depression. Those were terrible times.


Theatres were closing left and right. Bookings were very hard to come by. People were on breadlines. Jumping out of windows. I worked up some lighter numbers. I had to eat. I heard the Ballets Russes was starting up again in Paris under the Count de Basil. I had hopes. There was talk. But it was a new generation. The baby ballerinas were in demand. Still things were looking up. I did a number in the Greenwich Village Follies which was well received. The young Martha Graham was on the bill. A couple of shows. A safari number with an elephant. He was dropped in New Haven.


America was a Corsica. What did she know of the dance? So many unemployed dancers. Though I was fortunate. The American girls were all running off to have babies. But after 10, 12 years of training, a Russian girl does not run off to have babies without a good return on her investment. That was how I met Orlando. In Madame Albierti’s studio where I taught the beginning classes in exchange for attending the advanced classes. His last girl…pfft…off to have babies. “I have lost 3 in one year,” he wept. “I am a doomed man.” I had been living off of a snappy little diamond but the proceeds were running out. “I have no babies,” I said. “They all say that,” he shouted. “It is a plot to kill me before my time.” I looked at him closely. This man was no spring chicken despite his powdered face and darkened hair. “I do not know of what time you are speaking,” I said. ”But I have no use for midgets.” We went on that night. It may not have been Swan Lake but it was an honest job. The theatre had a real dressing room. And the manager did not run off with the money. 


We took to the road. Did a lot of touring over the next couple of years. They were very lonely those tours.  For years I lived in trains and hotel rooms. I was always cold. I used to wear a coat even in June. And after spending so many years with Russians, Americans said I talked funny. “I am from Azerbaijan, Bessarabia, Kazmestan, Shirvan, Karabagh,” I said. “Take your pick.” It was safe to say the name of a rug. They were less worried about my dark skin, which wasn’t exotic here like it was in Paris.


At first we danced acrobatic ballroom numbers. It was the vaudeville circuit, after all. But maybe we should try something classier. Perhaps dance for a better element. Orlando had ballet training. We worked up some interesting numbers. Audiences seemed to like them. We would try them out on the road, then hit L.A., New York. We dreamed of the big time again.


For a while, I had a friend who was like a daughter to me.  A little soprano with a sweet voice. She sang old mountain songs about her home in Tennessee. Later, I told her  about Paris and the Russian dancers. The dear little soprano hugged me. “How lucky you are, Eleanora.” Her nasty husband sneered. He was a pirate, that one. Kept pinching me under my coat. But maybe he was right. Maybe it was a fairy tale. The snow was falling all around us. It fell in my heart, my soul. In the morning it stopped. A white blanket covered the windows. We heard the whistle. We kissed. Promised to look each other up. We knew we wouldn’t. But it warmed the heart to say it. The camaraderie of the road. The family of artists. And who could tell? The next week you could hit it big. We had some good club gigs. A show here and there. A couple of films. We started a school but nobody came. I still dreamed. A letter would come. A phone call. “Eleanora, return to us. We are starting a new ballet company.” But everywhere there are spies. Toumanova’s mother spies in Los Angeles. Slavenska’s sister in Houston. They will say terrible things about me. They are not to be trusted. I have danced with the Russian Ballet. I know what’s what. There will be no letter.


The hotels are such nasty places. Evil smelling closets. Often there is no window. It is the custom here to give the show people the first floor rooms. They are over the kitchen. We are always awakened before the sun rises. We are lower than the salesman on the second or third floor. He appears for breakfast smiling, rested, hungry. He rubs his hands with vigor. Let the day begin. He will sell many bibles today. We look at him. Our eyes are red. Our hair is wild. How ugly we look. “The hotel is empty,” I protest. “There are only three salesmen in the dining room. Give us rooms upstairs. We must sleep.” Is there a species lower than the hotel clerk? “This is a fancy establishment,” he shouts. “Every room is spoken for.” He jumps up and down. He is indignant. “We don’t want your kind here.” Rita, our strong lady,  comes to my aid. “Leave her alone, you two-bit jerk.” She makes a fist at him. The muscles ripple up her arms. The clerk is respectful. He drops back. “That is how they treat us,” she says. “Stinking cowards!”


At night, after the last show, I come back to the hotel. My trunk waits at the door.


“You are mistaken, ”I say. “I am not leaving till the end of the week.”


He is jumping up and down again. “Your room is rented.”


“You are very nervous for one so young,” I advise him. “You will get apoplexy. You will die of a stroke.”


 ”’You people always cause trouble,” he says.


 “I do not want to cause trouble,” I say. “I am tired. I want to sleep.”


He pounds the bell on the counter. Two men come out of the back office, One is chewing on a greasy turkey leg. They are old but there are two of them.


“Call the sheriff. One more colored down there cain’t make no difference.”


My companions are not robust. Even my friend Rita, the strong lady, turns away. After holding up 500 pounds of chairs and wriggling bodies over her head 4 times a day, her muscles are weary. Her soul droops. She does not want to be noticed. She wants to sleep.


Greasy fingers reach for me. “I am an American citizen. I have done nothing.”


“Yeah, well,” he sneers. “I thought you was a princess from India. This is a free country. We got no princesses here.”


I turn away. I’m bored with the whole business. I’m not even angry anymore. Just tired.


But the bastard won’t let up.


“You aint nothin’ but a dirty nigga, aint ya. Comin’ in here tellin’ lies. False pretenses, that’s what it is. False pretenses.”


“Yeah,” the senile one grunts, waving his turkey leg in the air. “False pretenses. That’s a crime, surely.”


‘Go to hell, “ I say, while Rita hoists my trunk onto her shoulders and walks me back to the theatre. “I’m sorry,” she says. Her eyes avoid mine. We kiss and she goes back to the hotel. The old super lets me into my miniscule dressing room. I make a place for myself on the floor and wrap myself in my old fur coat. I am comforted, But first I take some crumbs from my pocket and place them neatly on the floor in the shape of a heart.


A little boy, an acrobat, used to perform here. They say he was tops. His father had big plans. He wouldn’t let him eat. ”Later you can eat,” he would say. “When you are a star in the big time.” He wasted away. But he was beautiful. He flew through the air like a glittering bird. He tried to hold on until the big time. He dreamed of chocolates and lollypops. But he grew weaker. The show people slipped food to him when his father wasn’t looking. It only made him sadder. “I must become a star first,” he would say. ”Then I will eat and eat and eat.” On Christmas Eve there was a party. The little acrobat sat up on the ropes. The smell of chocolate maddened him. His friend, Dainty June, waved a chocolate angel. “Finish up honey. Its Christmas.” With a cry of pain the little acrobat offered her his shaking hands. The old super is a hundred years old. He saw him fall. He just broke, he said.  They could hear him crack. And to this day you must leave food for his ghost or he will keep you up crying into the night.





But vaudeville is dying. Old timers work for $10. a day. My friend Rita, the Strong Lady, tears telephone books in half. It goes over big with the yokels. But this is a 4-a-day house. She must tear up four telephone books a day. A book costs 50 cents. That’s $4 a day. $14 a week. “I have to steal them”, she confesses. “I am so ashamed.” She even saves the nails she bends. She just bends them back before the next show. These are terrible times. I must get out of this business. I am looking into the nightclubs. They are patronized by gangsters. Gangsters can be very generous. I know a singer in Chicago who did very well with a gangster. A handsome fellow with satin lapels and Derby hats. They put on the dog together. When the bookies shot him, she wore white fox to the funeral. She looked stunning. Now she has a new gangster. Not so handsome perhaps, but generous. There is no shortage of them, it seems. I am not so snobbish as I was. One gets older. There are setbacks. A girl must look out for herself.


Time is irresistible. In Seattle, I remember a singer, Sylvia Froos. “The Little Princess of Song.” When she skipped out on stage shaking her Shirley Temple curls, the band played “My Heart belongs to Daddy.” Once she was a class act in the big time. And she still dresses like one – pink frocks, petticoats – long white gloves with rhinestones. Once I saw her without gloves. When she saw me she hid her hands behind her back. But I saw how wrinkled those hands were. Like an old woman’s. She cries in her dressing room. Drinks.


Life is short. Memory is longer. I think sometimes of “Before the Revolution”, my most famous, perhaps my least understood work. It was the only ballet that was mine all the way. It was produced during what turned out to be our final season, since Diaghilev died soon after in Venice. He always knew he would die on the water and he did though I don’t believe he ever dreamed it would be Venice. He loved it so much. Maybe that should have been a clue. They say all men kill the thing they love. But maybe its the other way around. 


We were at a real low point that spring and money was scarce. Besides the old man seemed to lose all interest in the company. Perhaps it was his way of saying goodby. So I had little trouble convincing them to let me dance the role of the white queen.


Marie Antoinette was the first, and as it turned out, the only role I ever danced that fit my own skin. She was my balletic swan song. The White Queen dancing through the empty streets of peasant villages and dairy farms was the spirit of ballet…as the flightless white swans gliding swiftly over the little pond in the Bois de Bologne was its soul. She neither touched history nor was touched by it. The revolution erupts in her dream and kills everybody with a fountain pen. Like ballet she had the innocence of childhood…and its cunning. Her dance was as lovely and futile as swans on the royal pond. …I wonder if there are still swans in Paris….My friends are gone, of course. They’re all dead except for the ones who are still dying. Pascin too died a long time ago though he was still a young man. How generous he had been, how kind. But he painted in an unfashionable manner. Later he killed himself. Art is not generous to her children. A young man asked me recently how one knows that a work of art will last. Nothing lasts! All those years I worked and dreamed. Some mornings I woke up famous. I don’t think I ever woke up feeling understood…Sometimes I wake up in the dead of night and can’t remember where I am….


Copyright ©2014 by Eleanor Antin.

Douglas Messerl | "A Fiction Requiring History and Faith" (on Stein's Mrs. Reynolds)


a fiction requiring history and faith


Gertrude Stein Mrs. Reynolds (Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1995).

 

Front Cover Recently rereading Gertrude Stein’s wartime novel, Mrs. Reynolds, for the third time, I once again took joy in having reprinted this book (from the Yale edition of her works left unpublished at the time of her death) on my Sun & Moon Press imprint in 1988 and again in 1995. It was the very first volume in my ongoing Sun & Moon Classics series, with more than 150 volumes published before the press ceased publishing around 2000. I was equally pleased again by the collage I had created for the cover of that book (under the pseudonym of my hyperactive designer, Katie Messborn), a Matisse painting of a woman surrounded by geraniums and a floral patterned swathe of cloth, witnessing from a large, American-like picture window, a meeting of Hitler and Stalin (cut from National Geographic) with an image of a small plane pasted above their heads. The purple from which I cut the exaggeratedly looping drapes was almost the exact purple Matisse had used in other elements of his domestic scape. I still think it perfectly catches the feeling of Stein’s work, with its mix of everyday living, fading fashion (the swathe of cloth seems to be falling from where it has been pinned above a painting), and the menacing figures in profile in seeming walking distance from the faceless woman entrapped within.

      Mrs. Reynolds, the “heroine” of the novel was indeed a very plain but pretty woman, like the figure in the Matisse painting, who loves flowers for what they are as opposed to what they might symbolize or represent: “Mrs. Reynolds liked roses to be roses. This is the way she felt about roses.” The character, in fact, is a very practical woman, who “had never been unwell,” a woman who may cry, but does not—at least at first in this fiction—hint at or outwardly demonstrate something hidden within; “Mrs. Reynolds never sighed.” Things, Stein suggests, what they appear to be in this work: “[Mrs. Reynolds’ husband] was a nice man he looked nice and he was nice.”  “Mrs. Reynolds was quiet and easy, when she said, well, she meant well. She did” (Mrs. Reynolds, p. 9).

     But from the very beginning of the fiction, Stein also warns us to be careful upon what we focus. Although the language and events of this book may be very straight-forward, almost transparent, the real concerns of both the character Mrs. Reynolds and the fiction Mrs. Reynolds relate to something far abstract. “Mrs. Reynolds is not all about roses, it is more about Tuesdays than about roses” (9) The work functions, so Stein straight-forwardly states, is more about dates, the days of the week and, as we shall soon see, the years of events, than it is about Mrs. and Mrs. Reynolds’ domestic life.

       “Tuesday was when Mrs. Reynolds was born.” More importantly, Stein continues, Tuesday “was the day they made peace from war and that was the day they made war from peace.”* And already in the few first paragraphs Stein briefly shifts attention from her comments about the book’s central character to memories of World War I, speaking of Mrs. Reynold’s nephew and his friend, who together “went to be soldiers and they were both killed by a bomb on the same day.” (10). The intelligent reader perceives, in another words, that although a great part of this fiction might be superficially concerned with talk about “bread in soup,” “eggs and butter,” and “guinea hens and geese” (10), the book’s true subject is a far more profound one.

       The next few pages, devoted to the process of the young baby growing up to become Mrs. Reynolds, may seem, like almost anyone’s adolescence, to be very uneventful, with the major subjects being things such as strawberries, box-hedges, and the girl’s youthful friendships—innocuous events that might even lull the reader into the believing that Stein’s fiction will be a strange kind biographical telling of her heroine, a kind of bildungsroman. Already by page 20, however, when Mrs. Reynolds turns 22, she suddenly begins to notice the clouds in the sky:


            Then the clouds began to come that is she began to see the clouds there
            were in the sky, rosy clouds and dark clouds and white clouds and silver
            clouds. Whichever clouds there were, she noticed them and she looked
            at them.

 

The discussion of clouds continues for two more pages until Mrs. Reynolds finally becomes Mrs. Reynolds at the age of 23: “And now Mrs. Reynolds was twenty-three and this year she was to be Mrs. Reynolds.” Events, accordingly, are linked up with the years of being, and the years of being are associated with larger events in the world.

      Mrs. Reynolds coming of age also hints at another major structural element of the book, that of predictions and foretellings. The first prediction of a this tale very much centered around one major prophesy, that of Saint Odile, is uttered by a distant cousin’s brother’s son when the future Mrs. Reynolds is just seventeen, predicting that at the age of 23 she will become Mrs. Reynolds. And indeed, through the machinations of another couple, Epie and Leonardo, the young heroine is introduced to her future husband. The same morning Mrs. Reynolds dreams that “there were five artichokes blooming in the garden,” a reference, possibly, to James Joyce’s Ulysses, where Bloom recounts his memory of the evening in Matt Dillon’s garden with Dillon’s bevy of six daughters (Tiny, Atty, Floey, Maimy, Lou, Hetty) who with the seventh, Molly, create a kind of floral landscape: “Open like flowers, know their hours, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes. In ballrooms, chandeliers, avenues under the lamps.”** Just as this passage calls up Bloom’s marriage to Molly, so does it presage the young 23-year old girl’s encountering of her life-time companion, Mr. Reynolds.

     Mr. Reynolds has also been affected by war; “He had lost two brothers in the war. …Very much later and in another war [presumably the war of which Stein’s novel is concerned] he lost his only nephew.

     Over the next couple of pages Stein recounts the marriage and the relatives that attend the ceremony, but suddenly, with the introduction of Mr. Reynolds’ younger brother William, who lives next door with his wife Hope, everything changes. For William, quite obviously a very different kind of man than his elder brother, has two friends who quickly become the foreboding figures who consume the days and nights of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds’ life.

 

                 The parents of the wife [Hope} sometimes came and stayed with them
                 [William and his wife] but mostly they had other kind of people with
                 them.
                     The ones they knew best were two men.
                     The one was Angel Harper. He became very well known but they [Mr.
                 and Mrs. Reynolds] did not know him any more then.
                     The other was older he was Joseph Lane. He had bushy eyebrows and
                 was older than any of them and it did not make any difference to him
                 how young he was or how old he was. (24)

 

     Stein goes out of her way to dissociate the central couple of her story from William and Hope, describing William as a man who stays in bed when anything happens, which did happen very much that winter. Although Hope, a teacher, does go out and even encounters others, she too has very little to do with Mrs. Reynolds and her husband. Stein goes even further in insisting upon the dissociation of the two families:

 

                 She [Mrs. Reynolds] and her sister-in-law were neighbors but would
                 not be very likely that they would be either going out or coming in at
                 the same time.
                     Anyway neither the brothers nor the sisters-in-law met, they really
                 never met.

 

     Why, one might well ask, does Stein make it so evident that Mrs. Reynolds has no relationship with her in-laws and, as she later reports several times, never met either Angel Harper or Joseph Lane? Even more importantly, why does she associate these two figures—whom readers quickly discern represent Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin (only four pages later Stein writes “Angel Harper later was a dictator.”)—with a relative of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds?

http://www.danielpontius.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/basket.jpg      As the fiction progresses, the reader naturally associates Mrs. Reynolds more and more with Stein herself. As Steven Gould Axelrod correctly notes in his intelligent essay on the fiction, “Mrs. Reynolds: Stein’s Anti-Nazi Novel,” “the novel reflects the perspective of a woman whose experiences closely resemble Stein’s own. Held hostage in Vichy, France, she is frightened for her life, horrified by the violence occurring around her, and clear in her loathing for Hitler.”   

     Even in these few early pages, Stein has associated Mrs. Reynolds—through the character’s desire for “roses to be roses”—with Stein’s own famed maxim, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” from 1913, later restated as “A rose is a rose is a rose” her version of Williams’ later, 1927 dictum, “No ideas but in things.”  And. if Mrs. Reynolds’dream is actually reference to Joyce, she has connected her heroine with the Jewish figure of Leopold Blum, aligning her character to her own religious beliefs. As the work moves forward, moreover, we cannot help but feel this woman, walking the streets of a small, provincial French village, where she regularly speaks with the inhabitants, is extremely similar to the Stein we come to know in Bilignin as described in her Paris France.

     Recognizing that some of those neighbors, even somewhat distant friends such Stein’s admirer and, some argue, protector, Bernard Faÿ, may be Nazi-sympathizes (people who knew Angel Harper), Stein goes out of her way to dissociate herself from them, insisting not only that Mrs. Reynolds has never meet Angel Harper (that she had no knowledge of him and his ideas), but that she goes out of her way not even engage with those who do know of him, including a consorting with her brother and sister in-law.

     Soon after his early friendship with William, Angel Harper leaves: “he went away and they never saw him again” (37). But William Reynolds and his wife Hope continue to be tainted by their former relationship to him. Later, he and his wife are visited by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Madden-Henry, obviously a British pair, who are admirers of Angel Harper: “Mr. and Mrs. Madden-Henry admired Angel Harper because he never coughed.” (96) Hope also expresses her admiration of Harper, in a strange way, by suggesting the dual meaning of the word “bat”: “Bat is a word that has two meanings, one that flies by night and one that hits a ball.”

     Possibly in this passage Stein is simply satirizing the situation by playing with the satirical notion, held by many and particularly apparent in Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator, that Hitler’s rants often sounded very much like coughing fits; his name in the film, Adenoid Hynkel, reiterates that fact. Not only is Harper a “bat,” a frightening, vampire-like figure, but like the little tramp in The Great Dictator, “hits” the ball, which Chaplin represents in the form of a giant globe of the world, around the room.***

     Others, such as Mrs. Coates, immediately begin to think very badly about the Madden-Henrys, and, more importantly, Mrs. Reynolds—who has already prophesized that Angel Harper would be drowned (“She never knew Angel Harper which was just as well because she would have said of him that he would be drowned dead….”) (62)—a short while later determines and tells her husband that she “really never wanted to see or hear William again” (p. 138). Soon after William and Hope thankfully move away.

    

      If Mrs. Reynolds and most of her neighbors at first know little about Angel Harper, once his name is invoked, the fiction is soon overwhelmed with mentions of him and, to a far lesser degree, of Joseph Lane. After the early naming of Harper, his moniker crops up throughout the rest of the fiction on nearly every page and, at times, in nearly every paragraph. In short, as Stein notes, even if Mrs. Reynolds and most of the others in her village had never “known” him before he “went away,” it hardly matters: “…Ten years after, it made no difference, because everybody knew about him and might he might be afraid enough” (37-38).

     The fiction itself becomes, just as Angel Harper is described, more and more gloomy. A hoot-owl hoots “terrifically” (38), the winters seem colder, it rains for “twenty-eight days in the daytime and in the evening and at night….” (81). The link between these events and Hitler are made quite clear, as in the very next paragraph Stein repeats: “By this time Angel Harper was very well known, so well known that everybody knew about him.” 

     Already by page 50, the woman who begin the work as one who “never sighed,” begins to sigh quite often, an act in  which she continues to engage throughout most of the rest of the fiction.

      Gradually, perhaps in imitation of Hitler’s autobiographical Mein Kampf, we began to get glimpses of Angel Harper as a child, a young boy, and a teenager:

 

               When Angel Harper was a little boy he did not drill other little boys
               and make them march. Some do. He did not. He sat and when he sat,
               he sat. Enough said.

               ….
              He talked to himself and he said, all the same. And when said all the
              same he meant it. (68)

 

Although these brief memories have no common thread, they generally show Angel Harper at a distance others and removed from the rest of world events. He often acts alone, watching, focusing on his own inner thoughts. Many of them show a person not knowing how to relate to others around him:

 

               Angel Harper was bitter he was where he was and he was bitter, he
               ate what he ate and he was bitter, nobody saw him just then and he
               was bitter and little by little it was as much worse and he water bitter. 
               (90)

 

This passage, in particular, reminds one of Hitler’s anger with his father who stood against his desire to become an artist, described in Mein Kampf.

     As Axelrod makes clear in his essay, Mrs. Reynolds not only recognizes Angel Harper as evil (“Angel Harper is annoysome, he is dangerous, he is painful, he is owned and is annoysome…”), but she would have him dead “. “And I would be pleased if they killed him (98).” Mrs. Reynolds truly wishes that he might become an “angel harper,” a dead man harping in some vague depiction of an afterlife. In this case, as Axelrod has argued, I think we have to think of the “angel” as a fallen one, as a satanic force rather than a creature of paradise.

     As the wartime situation grows in its horrors, Mrs. Reynolds becomes more and more sad (282). She has bad dreams and fears for the future. What begins as a wish for Angel’s death is transformed into hate: “If I knew about him I would hate him, and I do know about him and I do hate him” (298).

     Before long what began as descriptions of simple feelings, emotional responses to Angel Harper that alternate with the very ordinary and uneventful days of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds’—as they rise each morning, leave the house for periods of time, eat dinner, and, ritualistically, go back to bed—begin to be overshadowed by longer units of time which designate the dictator’s years of his life.

     This begins with a brief mention of Hitler being thirty-eight (“Angel Harper was now thirty-eight and it was not at all too late.” (108). And in the next line Stein warns the reader to pay attention: “Listen here,” she insists. Something is about the change, she hints, as if warning us that a new element of narrative structure is about to be introduced.

     On the very next page (109), Angel Harper is described as being forty-three. A couple of pages later he becomes forty-four, which takes us through a great many further pages. Narrative time in Mrs. Reynolds shifts as the Hitler figure grows older. The numerous figures of the earlier pages begin to disappear; life becomes more difficult as people aimlessly pass by the Reynolds’ window. Food becomes scarce. The small daily events that were so crucial to the narrative pattern of the fiction, becomes more and more vague as Mrs. Reynolds increasingly fears to even leave the house.

     To understand this shift, I argue, one has to further make sense of Mrs. Reynolds’ increasing fixation with Angel Harper’s age, particularly since, we quickly perceive, more and more pages are devoted to each passing year. Stein hints at the key to comprehending this shift by noting that in the year 1942 one naturally thinks of Columbus’ voyage of 1492, a voyage which her husband links to wider world events that embrace even the distant USA:

 

                        Mr. Reynolds came in, he did not meditate but he told Mrs.
                        Reynolds what every one said. They said that suddenly in
                        September 1940 the United States of America instead of being
                        a big flat land illimitably flat, the land against which Christopher
                        Columbus bumped himself in 1492 became a part of the round
                        world that goes around and around.****

 

     In another words, through the Columbus simile, the reader is asked to see the very flat world, where hardly anything happens, as a multi-dimensional reality, as a world in real time and space; the sympathetic reader is asked to infuse the flat narrative of Stein’s Mrs. Reynolds with events in the real world to make sense of the emotional responses of Mrs. Reynolds and others described in the book in order to make it, too, part the “round world that goes around and around.” If, as Stein claims in her final “Epilogue,” “There is nothing historical about this book except the state of mind,” she asks that the reader bring with him that “state of mind,” that impose historicity upon her flat fiction to comprehend the significance of the author’s and character’s observations.

     When Angel Harper/Hitler was 44, for example, the year would have been (given Hitler’s birth year of 1889), 1933, an important year for Hitler: for in that year he was named Chancellor of the Reich, which, in turn, allowed him to gain control over the German police. On February 27 that same year, The Reichstag was set afire, after which, with Hindenberg’s support, led to the suspension of basic rights and permitted detention without trial. In March of that year, Hitler’s German National People’s Party acquired the largest number of seats in parliament, and with the “Enabling Act” transformed Hitler’s government into a legal dictatorship.

     An even longer chapter is devoted to Angel Harper at age forty-six (128), when the people of the Saarland voted to unite with Germany and Hitler expanded the Wehrmacht to 600,000. At forty-seven (133), Hitler reoccupied the Saarland, breaking the Versailles Treaty of World War I. He sent troops to Spain to support General Franco.

     As events get worse and worse, as I said, more and more time is given over to each year of Angel Harper’s life. Quite clearly, Stein is paralleling her character’s increasing fears with the flurry of events surrounding Hitler and his Third Reich. By the time he becomes fifty-one (1940), the year Germany attacked France, conquered Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Belgium, nearly everything in Mrs. Reynolds life has stopped:

 

                       …in every way it was a day in which Angel Harper was more
                       fifty-one than he had been then it was time that trains stopped
                       puffing and that chairs were not there to sit in and that hens
                       stopped laying eggs and when cows saw snow it excited them
                       and they jumped around and perhaps some of them broke their
                       leg. Angel Harper was fifty-on and there was no longing no
                       longing for anything.

 

The world in motion has become almost dead, a world of stasis.

      Contrary to the forces of Angel Harper, however, are two major dynamisms. The first is the vague and distant (he is after all, as Mrs. Reynolds notes, “a foreigner”) presence of Joseph Lane. As Axelrod has observed, if one supposed, given Stein’s “sometimes conservative personal politics,” Stein might focus on Lane/Stalin’s evil capacities, she surprisingly, through Mrs. Reynolds, sees him to be in opposition to Harper, arguing at one point, “It is very nice and quiet of him to go on…and Mrs. Reynolds gave a sigh of relief” (237)—passages, which Axelrod points out, clearly “refer to Soviet successes on the eastern front beginning in late 1941.”

     The second opposing force to Harper/Hitler comes from Mrs. Reynolds’ belief in predictions and prophesies, in particular the somewhat surprising prognostication of the seventh century Saint Odile. It is clear that, as she says of her heroine, Stein was not so interested in the Catholic convictions of Saint Odile and others, but found their holiness to lie in their faith expressed through their visions of the future, their commitment to the future through the evidence of their predictions:

 

                      To prophesy for years is more difficult than to prophesy for months.
                      This is perfectly well known. She said spiders can exaggerate but
                      months and days. She was fairly fortunate because after all prophecies
                      do come true yes they do.

 

As world events grow more and more dire throughout the book, the years of Harper’s life growing into longer and longer events which outweigh the daily comings and goings of the Reynolds’, Mrs. Reynolds belief in the saint’s seventh-century prediction permits her to grow stronger in the face of current events.

 

                      Saint Odile had said, listen to me my brother, I have seen the terror
                      in forests and mountains where the Germans shall be called the most
                      war-like people of the earth.
                          It will happen that the time will come when a war the most terrible
                      war in the world will happen and mothers will weep for their children
                      and will not be consoled.
                         From the Danube the war will commence and will be a horrible war
                      on earth, on the sea and even in the air, and warriors will rise in the
                      air to seize stars to throw them down upon cities and make them the
                      cities burst into flames.

 

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0b/Alsace_Mont_Sainte-Odile_24.JPG/220px-Alsace_Mont_Sainte-Odile_24.JPG   The patron saint of the blind, Odile of Alsace was born c. 662-c.730 at Monte Sainte-Odile. Born blind, she was rejected by her father Etichon and sent away from her family’s wealthy home to be raised in Burgundy by peasants. At a nearby monastery, an angel appeared to her, baptizing her Odile, whereupon she recovered her sight. When her younger brother, Hughes, heard of her recovery, brought her home again, so enrageding his father that the elder killed his son. Odile revived her brother, and escaped, hiding from her father, chasing after her, in a cave. When he attempted to follow her flight, the cliff face gave way, injuring him and forcing him to turn away, thus establishing her as a kind of proto-feminist figure in church history.

     Odile evidently made several prophesies, mostly about local events; but the one referred to by Mrs. Reynolds,  is believed to speak of the German’s defeat in 1941, when the eternal city of Rome will burn, and the Huns will be forced to fight a new army that will come from across an ocean (55).*****

     By the end of Mrs. Reynolds, although still unsure of the precise date in which the terrible events will end, the heroine is so convinced of the Saint’s predictions that she serves almost as a proselytizer for Odile’s predictions of the future, sharing her knowledge with nearly everyone with whom she meets. By the year in which Angel Harper is fifty-two. Mrs. Reynolds, convinced in Odile’s prediction, is certain that “he is nearly through.”

     Accordingly, Stein asks that just as the reader has infused the book with an historical reality, so too must he bring to it a faith that might justify Mrs. Reynolds’ belief in what lies ahead in order to make certain that Harper, like Hitler, is not “fifty-five” alive.*****

  

As Axelrod’s and my own readings make quite clear, finally, is that attending to Mrs. Reynolds helps one to perceive a Gertrude Stein who—far different from the one hazily described by writers such as Janet Malcolm in her rather scurrilous study Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007) and who stands apart from the even more disparaging attack on Stein by Barbara Will in Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (2011), as well as behaving far differently from the figure described by numerous other rumor-mongers—empathically expressed a strong hatred for Nazism in her writing of the period, values that are just as apparent in her sensitive dialogue with American soldiers in her Brewsie and Willie that followed. If in Paris France Stein seems to be attempting to keep her mind off of the horrible realities hovering over her, in Mrs. Reynolds she and her heroine squarely face those horrors of what she admits has tragically resulted in “so many deaths.” 

    

Los Angeles, September 4-5, 2014



*Presumably the “peace” of which Stein is writing is the end of World War I. In actuality, the armistice that ended that War was on Monday (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”), but we can forgive Stein’s carrying it over until the next day, perhaps the day when she first heard the news. The same war, however, is generally cited as having begun on a Tuesday, July 28, 1914, just as she claims in Mrs. Reynolds.

**”Blooming artichokes,” in fact, are thistles, and have little to do with Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRGgqvqdwgZNOuDEKVqf0LG5wjfy525MjJOSrxruxO_BleohNALQNm_6Qtuberosus), which are the roots of plants related to Sunflowers. The name bears no relationship to the city of Jerusalem, but derives instead from the Italian word girasole because of the plants’ similarity to the garden sunflower (the word literally meaning “sunflower artichoke”), which somehow became corrupted in English to the word “Jerusalem.” Yet the dream of Mrs. Reynolds bears a great deal of resemblance to the Ulysses passage. However, one might observe that if it is a literary reference, it would be one a very few in all of Stein’s writing.

***As far-fetched as this may sound, such an allusion to cinema would have again tied Stein to the Jewish issues very much at the center of that film. Similarly, only a few pages later (121), a guest in Mrs. Reynold’s house, Valerie Harland, jokes “To be or not to be Angel Harper,” in response to which everyone laughs. This may simply be a joke based on the Hamlet speech, but it might also refer to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 satire To Be or Not to Be, in which Jack Benny portrays Hitler. Clearly, both of my statements are pure speculation. There is no evidence of which I am aware that Stein saw either of these movies or even heard of them. It does not change Stein’s heroine’s clear abhorrence of Mr. Reynolds’ brother, William, his wife, and others like him.  

****Throughout the quiet and patient Mr. Reynolds is associated with the US in his numerous comments about what Stein calls “the romance of America.” See pages 58-59.

*****A translation of the Odile prophesy I found on the internet reads:

     "There will come a time when war will break out, more terrible than all other wars combined, which have ever visited mankind. A horrible warrior will unleash it, and his adversaries will call him Antichrist. All nations of the earth will fight each other in this war. The fighters will rise up to the heavens to take the stars and throw them on the cities, to set ablaze the buildings and to cause immense devastations. Oceans will lie between the great warriors, and the monsters of the sea, terrified by everything that happens on or under the sea, will flee to the deep. Battles of the past will only be skirmishes compared to the battles that will take place, since blood will flow in all directions.

      The earth will shake from the violent fighting. Famine and pestilence will join the war. The nations will then cry "Peace, peace", but there will be no peace. Thrice will the sun rise over the heads of the combatants, without having been seen by them. But afterwards there will be peace, and all who have broken peace will have lost their lives. On a single day more men will have been killed than the catacombs of Rome have ever held. Pyres will be erected greater than the greatest city, and people will ascend the highest mountains to praise God, and nobody will want to make war anymore. Strange signs will appear in the skies: both horns of the moon will join the cross. Happy will be those who will have survived the war, since the pleasures of life will begin again, and the sun will have a new brilliance...

      "Woe to those who, in those days, do not fear the Antichrist, for he is the father of those who are not repelled by crime. He will arouse more homicides and many people will shed tears over his evil customs. Men will set themselves one against the other and at the end will want to re-establish order. Some will try to do so, but this will not succeed and thus will end up even worse off than before! But if things will have reached the summit and if the hand of man can no longer do anything, it will be put in the hands of Him, who can send down a punishment so terrible that it will not have been seen before. God has already sent the Flood, but he has sworn never to send one again. What he will do will be something unexpected and terrible."

******Although Stein scholars (Ulla Dydo and others) report that Stein completed Mrs. Reynolds in 1942, if you follow the years of Angel Harper’s life which the fiction describes, the work indeed does end, as did the real war, in 1945, with Harper/Hitler’s death. Perhaps Stein went back and revised these sections later.