Saturday, September 6, 2014

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for the third time, I once again took joy in having reprinted this book (from the Yale edition of her works left unpublished at the time of her death) on my Sun & Moon Press imprint in 1988 and again in 1995.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
                     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?      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. 


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.   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, 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.

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