Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Douglas Messerli | "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Stone" (on Janet Malcolm's Two Lives)

by Douglas Messerli

Janet Malcolm Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Gertrude Stein Mrs. Reynolds (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995)

In the Fall of 2007 I taught a course in the MFA Program at Otis College of Art + Design on Gertrude Stein. Despite the difficulties I had had in teaching Stein to undergraduates some 21 years earlier, my writing students took to the work quite readily, and we not only devoured many of the commonly-taught writings—Three Lives, Tender Buttons, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, etc.—but read large portions of The Making of Americans, spent one evening listening to Stein’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, and read a wide range of her shorter plays and performative works, the students themselves staging a number of them at the end of the semester. It clearly was not just the differences of undergraduate and graduate viewpoints or the geographical differences between Philadelphia and Los Angeles that accounted for the more ready acceptance of Stein’s work, but the changes in the way people read literature itself. Stein had gradually become more readable, and more importantly, was now a figure whose work was easier to enjoy.

Given that fact, it puzzled me that several of the better students in the class had been reading Janet Malcolm’s biographical study of Stein and Toklas, Two Lives, each of them highly recommending it. In late December of that year, lunching with my former typesetter, Kim Silva—who had studied Stein with Lyn Hejinian at the University of California-Berkeley and who had become a Stein aficionado—I was also recommended to read this book! The New York Times Book Review had written of the book: “a journalist of the highest order, Malcolm approaches her subjects with a rare combination of qualities—a respect for the unknowable, the mysterious, at the center of lives, combined with a serious effort to get closer to the truth. …If Two Lives has a weakness, it is that one wishes, at the end, for more.”

My puzzlement stemmed from the fact that when I had read the work, previously published in The New Yorker, I had been appalled at the lack of Malcolm’s critical thinking, and had even wondered why a woman who was clearly so antithetical to Stein’s writing techniques would even want to write about Stein and her companion. Of course, one could wonder why Malcolm had necessarily chosen to write about an author’s sexual relationship; as Marjorie Perloff asked in her review of the book, “…And why include Alice in the first place, such equal time rarely being given to the wives or husbands of Stein’s heterosexual fellow Modernists?” One recognizes that in Malcolm’s choice there is clearly an element of titillation, an interest that comes less out of a concern for the literary aspects of Stein’s career than out of what many still see—and what Malcolm dredges up again for her audience—the so-called “unsavory” aspects of such a relationship. If I have to hear one more time about Ernest Hemingway’s prurient comments from A Moveable Feast about his visit to Stein at 27 rue de Fleurus, where he overhead a supposed sexual conversation between Toklas and Stein—Stein’s pleading voice crying out “Don’t pussy. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy”—I will simply throw away the book (and shame on me for even repeating this here!). Most critics have long been skeptical of this event. I have always imagined the two of them, after being told of Hemingway’s arrival, giggling together as they joyfully performed their little play before the puritanical “Pappa.” No matter what anyone might imagine about their relationship, however, it is of a very private realm that has no consequence on Stein’s writing. And frankly, it is none of our business. Imagine if one were to overhear any of our private homebound conversations what others might think!

The fact is that Malcolm does not only truck in these kinds of sexual innuendos—I presume we are to gather by her observations that their relationship involved sadomasochism, with Toklas playing the role of the sadist—but questions the women’s relationship to Judaism, and even, by again trotting out their friendship with Nazi sympathizer, Bernard Faÿ, hints that they were able to remain in France during the war because of Nazi connections. The fact is that these two older woman had little choice in the matter of staying in France or returning to America—if they had returned one can only imagine the hostility they both might have faced in the good old USA—and besides they had lived most of their lives in France. The fact that Faÿ, as Perloff observes had “genuinely admired Stein and recognized her genius,” allowed them an ally in an increasingly hostile world, seems to have no role in Malcolm’s muckraking observations. Stein, moreover, does very clearly detest the war, Hitler, and Stalin, the latter two portrayed in Mrs. Reynolds as Angel Harper and Joseph Lane, men who had transformed a more isolate United States from “being a part of a big flat land illimitably flat, the land against which Christopher Columbus bumped himself in 1492,” into being “part of the round world that goes around and around.”

That book (published in its first single-volume edition by my Sun & Moon Press), which is dismissed by Malcolm as being written in “Stein’s most cruelly boring experimental style,” quite clearly reveals Mrs. Reynolds’s fears and judgments about Hitler:

Angel Harper forty-nine, might almost come to be a crime,
not a crime in a crime story but a crime like crime, a crime that
does not rhyme….
It does not seem so it is true. Angel Harper was forty-nine, five
days, not five days at a time, but for that time he was forty-nine.
It is easy to be nervous and it is easy to be happy and it is easy
to be late and it is easy not to begin and it is easy to have nothing
happen. But when it does. Dear me when it does.

Later in the fiction, Stein writes about the moving masses of war:

It is very easy to watch other people moving about, when Angel
Harper was forty-nine they all began to have to move about, some
even came past the house of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds, and when
Mrs. Reynolds saw them she said she was sorry for them and she was.

Mrs. Reynolds, who did not previously dream, begins to have nightmares:

A man shooting or threatening to shoot with a gun, a man carrying a
lamb, a dog looking at a major, the dog black and large and major
small, a guinea-hen looking at the dog and a woman very cautious,
Mrs. Reynolds did not only dream of all these but when she did dream
of them it did not make her nervous but she knew what it meant. …
Naturally when they went to bed she did dream again but this time
she dreamed that she saw a half of a beef pass by and after that there
were soldiers and after that they went away.

As if almost predicting observations such as Malcolm’s and others—Laura Riding Jackson once wrote me that she could not participate in a press such as Sun & Moon which had published a Nazi sympathizer such as Gertrude Stein—Stein writes near the end of her fiction:

It is not confusing to be mistaken said Mrs. Reynolds, it is not
difficult to find it difficult said Mrs. Reynolds and here we all are
and every day we find it difficult and every day we are mistaken and
we all sit down.

Indeed, Mrs. Reynolds is filled with a sense of horror and foreboding, and the heroine has continual dreams that reveal the terrors of World War II, all expressed in a language that my students, at least, easily comprehended.

What most puzzles me about those Stein admirers who professed an appreciation of Malcolm’s book, however, was how they could possibly endure reading a work that in dozens and dozens of its pages dismisses Stein as a writer. As early in the book as page 10, Malcolm suggests that Stein “uses English words but in no other way resembles English as it is known.” Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation (another Sun & Moon Press publication) is “austerely impenetrable.” Soon after, Malcolm describes Stein’s texts as “unintelligible”; at times when Stein “finally finds her true voice…the book (Wars I Have Seen) retreats into silliness.” As Malcolm summarizes, Stein’s “real” writing (as opposed to what critics have described as “audience” writing) is “uncongenial” to her. And when she finally attempts to tackle reading The Making of Americans (for which I must commend her), she can do so only by tearing up the book into sections, reading it slowly over a long period of time. And as she continues the reading process, Malcolm suddenly breaks out in fit a despair that one rarely encounters in any supposedly objective, let alone “exhaustively researched” (the Houston Chronicle) study:

The anti-novel seems to be turning into a kind of nervous breakdown.
The author has regressed to a state where she evidently cannot differentiate
writing from shitting.

I wonder how long any serious reader of James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Samuel Beckett, or even Laurence Sterne might tolerate such attacks.

In short, it is clear that Malcolm cannot comprehend work that, at times, is certainly difficult, but no more impossible to read than any postmodern or experimental modernist work. Malcolm clearly has refused to see the Stein half full or even half-empty, but prefers to contemplate Stein as a stone that, completely impenetrable, has no possible entry.

Did my students enjoy Malcolm’s unsophisticated attacks of Stein, Toklas, and Stein’s writing, I wonder, because it made them feel even more aware of their intelligence, since they seemed to have little of the difficulty with her work and her life that the journalist had? Clearly, they found joy in Stein’s writing and person that Malcolm rarely encountered.

“Why,” reiterated poet and aphorist Nick Piombino this morning when I described Malcolm’s little grenade to him over the phone, “do critics who hate their subjects even bother to write?” Why, I wonder, does a university to whom Stein left all her manuscripts and who printed all of her previously unpublished writings, bother to publish such a whining complaint?

Los Angeles, June 23, 2008
Reprinted from Shadowtrain, No. 24 (July-August 2008).

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