Saturday, November 22, 2014

Douglas Messerli | "A Time Gone Mad" (on Gertrude Stein's Wars I Have Seen)

a time gone mad

Gertrude Stein Wars I Have Seen (New York: Random House, 1945; London: Brillance Books, 1984).

After finishing her “fiction” Mrs. Reynolds in 1942, at the house in which she was living in Biliginin—although it is also evident that she later revised that fiction to include the end of the war in 1945—Stein, having moved to Culoz, turned, in 1943, to writing a book that at first seems to be a kind of continuation of her earlier, Paris France—the latter seemingly a larger discussion of not just the current war, but about all the other wars she had experienced, Wars I Have Seen.

     Like Paris France the work once again begins with her birth and events in her early childhood, as she recounts her fascination with the U.S. Civil War (Ulysses S. Grant being one of her favorite figures throughout her life), with childhood legends of battling knights, and her youthful reactions to the Boer War, the Spanish-American War, and other battles. Much of this, including some of her recounting of World War I, is, like the earlier book, filled with abstract generalities and gnomic-like pronouncements, representing maxim-like, somewhat comical observations (“It is funny about wars, they ought to be different but they are not,” this despite the fact that by the end of the book she reveals most emphatically that World War II is utterly different from any of the wars that came before it;” “In the nineteenth century, there was reading, there was evolution, there was war and antiwar which was the same thing, and there was eating. Even now I always resent when in a book they say they sat down to a hearty meal and they do not tell just what it was they ate. In the nineteenth century they often did.”), and long, heavy-weighted musings (including a long discussion of the relationship of being “between babyhood and fourteen” to legend and coincidence and a new realization at age fifteen that she describes as very disconcerting: “So at fifteen there comes to be a realization of what living was in mediaeval times and as a pioneer. It is very near. And now in 1943 it is here.”)
     At times it seems that these maxims, pronouncements, and musings will, in fact, overwhelm any coherent narrative about her World War II experiences. One almost cringes, at moments, for example, when Stein attempts to differentiate the current War from World War I, which she declares was a nineteenth century war which its veterans remember as something they “liked”: “it was a nice war, a real war a regular war, a commenced war. It was a war, and veterans like a war to be a war.” Tell that to the over nine million soldiers and seven million civilians who died during World War I. Had Stein even seen a trench? I am tempted to try to ameliorate such ridiculous statements by simply describing them as the blind spots of an old woman—until I remind myself that at 69 in 1943, Stein was only a couple of years older than I am today. 
     But what we must also recognize is that not everything Stein writes in this book, as in Paris France, represents her own point of view. As in that earlier book, what Stein often creates is not a work which, instead of personally commenting on history, serves as  a kind of expression of the panoply of voices and their accompanying points of view that living in a small French village during 1943 and 1944 would naturally produce. And, in that sense, her Wars I Have Seen is less a personal memoir about war than, like Mrs. Reynolds, an attempt to demonstrate “the way anybody could feel these years.” Perhaps we cannot go so far as to say that, as she does in the Epilogue of her “fiction,” “There is nothing historical about this book except the state of mind,” but we can argue that the history she tells is not merely a personal one. And if, at times, it appears that Stein is somewhat impervious to the feelings anyone might have during this tense period in French history, it is because it is not a history about any one person—even though those events are represented through her point of view and she very much stands out as the central figure within the book.
     One need only to observe the basic structure of most of this work to realize that it is unlike nearly any other Stein creation. Although a great many of Stein works are conversational in tone, here the very patterns of the book suggest a kind of narrative structure that is not only oral but is based on way human beings converse with one another. 
    Consider, for example, the quote I so objected to above: “It was a nice war.” That statement appears on page 75 in the 1984 British edition of the original 1945 Random House publication. Given Stein’s usual predilection for outright pronouncements and generalizations, we may not, at first, even question her description of a war—any war—as being “nice.” But Stein quite clearly knows in saying this that she has made a rather strange comment. And two pages later, after ambulating through a great many other issues, including the appearance in 1918 of a vision to two children of the Virgin who predicts “a much worse war,” Stein returns to her comment to explain:
                   The 1914-1918 war was must like our civil war, it was that kind of a
                   war and that made it possible for Elmer Harden to make Pierre Caous
                   admit that it was a nice war. A nice war is a war where everybody who 
                   is heroic is a hero, and everybody more or less is a hero in a nice war.

This quite clearly alters what at first seems to be a personal observation. Elmer Harden is a figure, also appearing in Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, who Stein and Toklas met and shared with them his experiences in World War I. I quote below the entire passage from the 1933 work:

                  Before the war we had known a young fellow, not known him much 
                  but a little; Elmer Harden, who was in Paris studying music. During 
                  the war we heard that Elmer Harden had joined the french army and 
                  had been badly wounded. It was rather an amazing story. Elmer 
                  Harden had been nursing french wounded in the american hospital 
                  and one of his patients, a captain with an arm fairly disabled, was 
                  going back to the front. Elmer Harden could not content himself any 
                  longer nursing. He said to Captain Peter, I am going with you. But
                  it is impossible, said Captain Peter. But I am, said Elmer stubborn.
                  So they took a taxi and they went to the war office and to a dentist 
                  and I don’t know where else, but by the end of the week Captain Peter 
                  had rejoined and Elmer Harden was in his regiment as a soldier. He 
                  fought well and was wounded. After the war we met him again 
                  and then we met often. He and the lovely flowers he used to send 
                  us were a great comfort in those days just after the peace. He and I 
                  always say that he and I will be the last people of our generation 
                  to remember the war. I am afraid we both of us have already 
                  forgotten it a little. Only the other day though Elmer announced 
                  that he had had a great triumph, he had made Captain Peter and 
                  Captain Peter is a breton admit that it was a nice war. Up to this 
                  time when he had said to Captain Peter, it was a nice war, Captain 
                  Peter had not answered, but this time when Elmer said, it was a 
                  nice war, Captain Peter said, yes Elmer, it was a nice war.

    Obviously Captain Peter is Pierre Caous, the man he convinced to allow him to nurse the French wounded in the American hospital. And his seemingly outrageous comments are not meant as a commentary on the horrors of the war, issues which he brilliantly explored in his own writing,* but are merely a generality on the values of those who fought in the war, the individuals who saw themselves and others as heroes. For Stein, World II was much more of a medieval experience, a far more brutal world, which, she argued, made it a 20th century war instead of a 19th century one, a war in which the people no longer believed in progress or that personal invention might still somehow save them. In short, Stein’s casual way of approaching her subjects should not obscure her more serious consideration of the issues she brings up, which reveal not always her own points of view, but those of the past and those around her.
     Stein brings these issues up, one might also say, as tantalizing questions which she later answers in various ways that are not always personal. As Stein puts it another way, “Anybody can ask a question and anybody can answer a question, and during war-time they ask questions more than ever particularly in war-time like this one of 1943.” The seeming triviality of some of these questions is humorously revealed in her next comments:

                Who said Christine aged six of her mother who is the Italians, Italians
                being in occupation it was a natural question, why the Germans said her
                mother, and who are friends of the Germans, why the Italians said her
                mother, and who are friends of the English said Christine, why the
                Americans said her mother, and is Stalin friends with the Germans said
                Christine, no with the English said her mother, and who are the French
                friends of, said Christine, why no one said the mother.

     The incessant child-like questions, many of which Stein posits, creates a kind of chatter than reveals more than its speakers sometimes perceive. “So if you ask questions and there is an answer it is not nevertheless any less illuminating,” Stein concludes, arguing for her approach.
     Not all of these questions are as significant as her discussions of the differences between wars or even the issue of which country sides with which. As the reader of Mrs. Reynolds will remember, Saint Odilie’s predictions were of enormous importance to the character in that book, and in this work that obscure saint remains of interest to Stein, if for no other reason than because she made predictions whose coincidence with current events help her (as it did for Mrs. Reynolds) to have faith in the future.** Similar to the pattern I describe above, Stein begins with a simple, strange outcry: “Saint Odile, oh yes Saint Odile. (p. 57)” The following paragraph on the farmers of Bilignin has nothing to do with her saint. But a paragraph later, she mentions the subject once more, “And now about Saint Odilie,” without really picking up the strand again until page 59, while still refusing to finish her story. Once again on page 69, she brings up the theme, “So Saint Odile did prophesy.” But she does not pick up the subject again until page 192, in talking about the liberation of Rome, and Stein withholds her major statement on Odile’s predictions until page 239.
    Similarly (as early as page 31) Stein applies her reading of Shakespeare’s plays to the war: “There are so many enemies in Shakespeare,” which unleashes a somewhat long discussion of enemies. But it is not until page 37 that she again brings up Shakespeare as a subject in relationship to his play, Henry VI. On page 59 Shakespeare returns and reappears from time to time throughout the rest of the book. In short, Stein uses such subjects sometimes almost as leitmotivs, mentioning them and then withholding the information before furthering the discussion at later points along the way when it becomes appropriate, often in different contexts. She does the same in her several mentions, throughout the text, of James Fennimore Cooper’s novel, The Spy.
     One might perceive this structural device, in fact, as a purposeful clue to the reader that what Stein has to say on the aforementioned subject will be returned to from various perspectives, from the viewpoints of many in the context of sometimes conflicting ideas. Certainly, she applies this approach to the most sensitive issues that she brings up, including her often clashing viewpoints that she and her neighbors have about the Vichy government and its nefarious leader, Philippe Petain. On page 83 she writes: “But to tell about Petain and all the things one could I could think about him.” Immediately after, however, she jumps to a long passage about eating honey in the war, a replacement for sugar that one at first misses, but gradually realizes is every bit as good as sugar. Clearly one might read this as a kind of metaphor for her relationship to Petain and the Vichy government, particularly since it was her acquaintance Bernard Faÿ’s interference that allowed her and Alice to remain in France during the war. In 1941 she was even asked to translate some of Petain’s writings. But when she does finally proceed into her discussion of what we now recognize as a villainous figure who sent thousands of French Jews to their deaths, it is with the removed restraint of a biographical story about his life (p. 86), explaining how this retired World War I figure was brought back to head the French German-sponsored government. Even in that discussion, Stein expresses a great many doubts about Petain’s positions, particularly with regard to the French consensus that they as a people “getting slack.” Stein even appears to mock Faÿ and others in describing what Petain and many of the French sought, “a sort of heroic rotarianism in every walk of life. I used to hear Bernard Faÿ talk about this and mixed up with it all was a desire to have back a king, they thought that kings suit France, most Frenchman prefer a republic but everybody has to think as they like about that.” Stein clearly questions Petain’s position while he served as ambassador to Spain:
                       …he hoped Franco would do what he thought should done but
                        did he does he….

Even when she finally sums up his achievements, it is clear that Stein, like many in the French population is quite conflicted in her feelings about Petain:

                        Well anyway there was the armistice Petain made it and we were
                        all very glad in a way and completely sad in a way and we had so
                        many opinions. I did not like his way of saying I Philippe Petain,
                        that bothered me and we were in the unoccupied area and that was
                        a comfort.

    Despite the fact that others had suggested to her that there was no difference between the occupied and unoccupied zones, Stein argues convincingly that “there was a difference all right. One might not be very free in the unoccupied but we were pretty free and in the occupied they were not free, the difference between being pretty free and not free at all is considerable.” Her mixed views, moreover, were similar to a great many French Jews, as Caroline Moorehad has made clear in her Village of Secrets. In the beginning a large portion of the population supported Petain, changing their viewpoints as they grew more and more aware of his roundup of the Jews and his other capitulations to the Germans.     Strangely, in that same paragraph, Stein suddenly rushes ahead of her story, as she explains that the difference between the two French regions is now not so significant (German soldiers were now occupying the unoccupied territory as well***), but that she still feels the armistice was right because “it was an important element in the ultimate defeat of the Germans.” In fact, it would play a major role in permitting the Allies access to Italy and France, and, perhaps equally importantly, as I recently perceived in reading Village of Secrets, in saving numerous Jewish children and adults hidden through Vichy France, particularly in the not so distant Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.**** Stein, however, has drawn her conclusions not merely from her feelings in 1943, the year in which she contextualizes these observations, but from another perspective that comes from 1944 or even if after the end of the War, the kind of leap ahead in narrative that she used in The Autobiography (see My Year 2008). Moreover, they are not just Stein’s feelings but those of many around her in a community filled with everyday men and women, some of whom are heroes, others of whom are collaborators, surrounded by Germans with whom few, including Stein, choose to communicate. In the hills about, moreover, were the young French maquis, some of whom, if Stein is to be believed, snuck home on weekends, and about whom there are a wide-range of reactions among the town’s citizenry.
    Several pages later, after some stories that help to prove her point, Stein humorously summarizes her and her neighbors’ attitudes, “And all the time there is Petain, an old man a very old man and mostly nowadays everyone has forgotten all about him” (p. 92).

     One has to be careful, accordingly, in how one reads the viewpoints Stein expresses. For in her conversational, answer-and-question like structures, she often put statements in contradiction with others, or delays information that amends and even changes the initial statement. Despite Stein’s lifetime conviction, for example, that people do not basically change but continue to repeat each themselves—a view reconfirmed by her constant repetition of her memory of the young doughboys she has seen in San Francisco as being representative of the American forces—by work’s end Stein arrives at a complete about face, recognizing that just like differences between World War I and World War II, the new American soldiers she encounters in 1944 are very different in their ability to speak and in their thinking processes than were the soldiers of World War I. 
      In other words, Stein uses the tactics of communal thinking to proffer and explore unanswerable questions with which she is faced by having, as she and her neighbors were, “an enemy in the house” (p. 67), an enemy, one must always remember, that would have surely arrested her had they been able to read her impossible-to-interpret handwriting. It almost a shock when late in the book (page 229) that Stein writes:

                       Alice Toklas has just commenced typewriting this book, as long as
                       there were German around we left it in manuscript as my hand-
                       writing is so bad it was not likely that any German would be able
                       to read it, but now ell if they are not gone they area so to speak not
                       here, we can leave our windows open and the light burning, dear 
                       me such little things but they do amount to a lot, and it is.

    For suddenly we realize just how precarious Stein’s and her neighbor’s situations have been all along. And because of these purposeful expressions of communal sufferings I would argue strongly against Djuna Barnes caustic dismissal of the book, “You do not feel that she [Stein] is ever really worried about the sorrows of the people. Her concerns at its highest pitch is a well-fed apprehension.”
     In fact, despite Stein’s attempts to situate her commentary within the voice of the community as a whole, which successfully cloaks her writing within a public commentary that suggests a kind of guarded neutrality about many of the issues facing her and her neighbors, Stein’s personal feelings and emotions, nonetheless, quite often come to the surface in a manner similar to what I just observed about her relief that Toklas had now been able to commence typing up her manuscript. If these emotional responses, like the questions and answers she expresses of those around her, remain rather muted, that has as much to do with the wartime situation—the natural fears of drawing attention to oneself or each other simply out of a sense of self-protection. As historian Moorehead makes clear in Village of Secrets, after the German entry into Vichy France, “orders went out to mayors and police to report every incident,…even those taking place at night and on holidays. Posters, propaganda, suspicious people, sounds of aeroplanes, suggestions of discontents: all and everything was to be noted and reported. …Under a new edict, law number 979, Jews were no longer allowed to leave their residences without special papers” (VoS, p. 155).
      True, Stein is not an idealist hero like the Protestant and Catholic church figures and community leaders in the Vivarais-Lignon region. Like even these remarkable figures, her behavior was sometimes filled with contradictions. While there may have have been dashing purists living in enemy territory like Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, their exploits were certainly better suited to the cinema fiction. 
    Despite the German edicts and restrictions, however, Stein remained an active member of Culoz, beloved clearly by many, sharing her townspeople worries, fears, and hate of the Nazis, desperately awaiting the arrival of the Americans. Young men forced to travel to Germany to work in factories—a euphemism for what Stein well realized meant that they were being sent North “as hostages, to be put in a pen” (pp. 85-86), stopped by to see her before they left for advice and encouragement, leaving her, at least in Stein’s perception, “cheered,” she kissing each of them. Her reaction is one of her many gems of intense understatement: “Oh, dear me one cannot sleep very well.”  In her nightly and daily walks through the countryside, Stein often came upon young soldiers, who she very clearly recognized as maquis, part of the guerilla bands of the French Resistance. Even while still in Bilignin, Stein makes clear she recognized what was going on around her:

                         I go out in the village of Bilignin there I see all your young
                         men whatever is happening they are still there and that is 
                         everything that they are not gone. But now they are gone and
                         going. Some of them betake themselves to the mountains others
                         are conspiring, the son of our dentist a boy of eighteen has just
                         been taken because he was helping and will he be shot or not.
                         Oh dear. We all cry.

    The connection between the visitation of the young men about to travel to Germany and her statement that “some of them betake themselves to the mountains” are meaningful. If a few youths had previously escaped from the often German-filled villages, such as Culoz, after the Vichy government issued, in February 1943, the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO)—requiring all men born in the years 1920-1922 be obliged to serve as workers in Germany—the Maquis groups grew commensurably. As Moorhead summarizes: “With the STO came the beginnings of a Marquis.
     As a Jewish homosexual American, Stein had three identities which might and should have doomed her, and she was, one must always remember, equally responsible for her companion, Alice.***** Yet nonetheless, she moved about on long walks throughout the region, joined Alice on train journeys to other cities, including Belley, Aix-les-Bains, Lyons, and Chambery, cities and villages in which she would (and in some instances did) certainly face possibly hostile Nazi troops. Stein makes it clear that she and Alice always updated their papers, obtaining the proper passes before starting out on such journeys.
     Despite whatever agreements she had made with Faÿ and others to insure the protection of her Paris apartment with its art noted collection of art, the Gestapo reportedly did break into Stein’s apartment on Rue Christine, threatening to cut up and burn the Picassos. As Janet Malcolm reported (in one of her few truly informing moments among her numerous open attacks on Stein):

                 A resourceful neighbor called the French police, who were able 
                 to dispatch the Gestapo men by asking them for requisition 
                 orders that they did not have. (When the police arrived, the 
                 Gestapo men were in Stein’s bedroom trying on her Chinese 
                 coats.) A longer-term reprieve for the paintings was achieved 
                 by Bernard Faÿ, the collaborationist who protected Stein and 
                 Toklas during the war, and now used his influence to protected
                 the art.*****

Numerous other, “minor” “bibelots, linens, and utensils,” however, were looted.
     Stein, probably, had no idea about these dangers while living in Vichy France (although Faÿ or others may have written her about them), but she most certainly knew of the dangers of her situation, particularly after the couple were forced to move from Bilingnin to Culoz. Even that incident reveals both Stein’s and Toklas’ peril and bravery. When her lease on the Bilingnin house expired, the owners, despite the fact that, as Stein asserts, they did not need “it just then” (p. 49), insisted she and Toklas vacate. Stein sued, losing the case in court. Surely bringing up a court suit during that period was a fairly rash act. I do not know what lay behind Stein’s thinking; it may be that the owners had wanted her and Alice out of the house because of their fears of having Jewish-homosexual-American tenants, but obviously it might have, and may have called attention to Stein’s and Toklas’ presence. Indeed when Toklas visited her lawyer to close the deal on the Culoz house, which they had found after their legal defeat, she was told what her lawyer describes as something “rather serious”

               …and now I have something rather serious to tell you. I was in Vichy
               yesterday, and I saw Maurice Sivain, Sivain had been sous-prefet at 
               Belley and had been most kind and helpful in extending our privileges
               and our occupation of our house, and Maurice Sivain said to me, tell
               those ladies that they must leave at once for Switzerland, to-morrow
               if possible otherwise they will be put into a concentration camp. (pp.

     Clearly shocked by his comments, Stein queries him about the difficulties of traveling into Switzerland, which the lawyer assures her “could be arranged.” 

              You mean pass by fraud I said. Yes he said, it could be arranged. I felt
              very funny.

    Some critics, such as Malcolm, have criticized that seemingly inappropriate word, “funny,” as demonstrating an insignificant response to the situation. But it is a word that Stein uses time and again throughout Wars I Have Seen, representing, it seems to me, not what my dictionary describes as the “simple, general term” meaning something that creates laughter or a sense of mirth, but as what is described as the “quaint” meaning, as something that “because of its strangeness” amuses one in a more thoughtful manner. In my larger Random House Unabridged Dictionary, the word “funny” also suggests something that “arouses suspicion,” a feeling of deceitfulness. For Stein it hints also of a sickening feeling that hits one in the pit of one’s stomach. Feeling “funny,” Stein rushes home to tell Alice what she has heard that they must now do, Stein repeating the phrase, as she arrives home, “I felt a little less funny but I still did feel funny, and Alice Toklas and Madame d’Aiguy were there, and I said we are not moving to-morrow we are going to Switzerland.” The women suffer they meal together, until Stein comes to a decision:

                   We both felt funny and then I said. No, I am not going we are
                   not going, it is better to go regularly wherever we are sent than
                   to go irregularly where nobody can help us if we are in trouble,
                   no I said, they are always trying to get us to leave France,
                   here we are and here we stay.

     If, within the context, this appears like a dangerously sudden decision, a Steinian-like bluff against what she describes as “realism,” by work’s end we see the wisdom of her determinedness to stay. But we also must somewhat qualify our feelings, with the suspicion that Stein, like most of those in France during this period, did not truly know what might have been her and Alice’s fates if they had been interred in a concentration camp; even as late as 1943 many French Jews still perceived themselves as protected by their citizenship. While a few had seen, first hand, the Vichy brutality expressed against the Jews in Vénissieux detention center in nearby Lyons, Stein and most of the region’s residents could have had no idea that conditions would have been so awful, and even fewer could have imagined what lay ahead in the Poland camps where by 1943 most of the Jews who had not changed their identities and were not in hiding had been sent. As Moorehead writes of the remaining French Jews in 1942:  “What exactly awaited them in Poland was still a matter of conjecture; many found it impossible to believe that it was mass murder. But what was clear was that with the German occupation of the whole of France, another step had been taken in the delivery of Jews for deportation. The little optimism that had remained among Vichy’s Jews now died” (VoS, p. 155).
     What is quite apparent is that Stein simply did not comprehend the dimensions and enormity of German and French anti-Semitism. A few pages later, when she lashes out against the French and German hatred of the Jews, she expresses it only in terms of a misunderstanding of Jewish wealth, suggesting that for her the issue appeared to be centered in the mistaken idea that the Jews represented an economic power that somehow threatened the lower and middle classes. If once international bankers such as the Rothchilds had gained financial wealth, she argues, by the time of industrialism, “the Jewish money in the world is only a drop in the bucket and all of it together could never buy anybody to make war or make peace, not a bit.”

                      …of course everybody must know it, the big names in industrial-
                      ism and in the financing of industrialism are not in any modern
                      country Jewish and everybody must know it but nobody wants
                      to know it, because everybody likes it to be as it was supposed to
                      be as for so many hundreds of years it was so course religion
                      does get mixed up with it…and so anti-semitism which has been
                      with us quite a few centuries is still something to cling to (p. 56).

Stein was attempting to be logical in a time that had gone mad.
      If nothing else, however, Stein again demonstrates her own views in a way that shows her to be not only outspoken but brave in a way that goes far beyond mere “apprehension,” and certainly demonstrates admirable convictions.
     Toklas and Stein, moreover, not only faced possible arrest and imprisonment, but even if left alone, were in some financial peril, particularly when monies from Paris no longer arrived. Throughout Wars I Have Seen Stein strongly attempts to cover up any shortages of food she and Alice were suffering, recognizing that in the Rhone farmland she was so much better off that those who had remained in the cities. The most significant difficulties regarding foodstuffs and other ingestibles are represented as minor issues of missing sugar (replaced by honey), cow milk (replaced by goat’s milk), and Toklas’ craving for cigarettes (purchased from the Italian soldiers and others). Stein’s biggest complaints have to do with their limited diet as opposed to any days of empty stomachs. She does, however, describe the effects of food shortages, as she does also Mrs. Reynolds, on men. Even in the camps, Moorehead suggests in Village of Secrets, the men wasted and died at a faster rate than the women. 
     The reason for Stein’s continued peregrinations throughout the territory are casually attributed to their need to obtain food. Throughout Wars I Have Seen Stein depicts a population forced to be on the move in order to trade dairy goods for meat, meat for fruit, etc. As she describes the situation: “You have to buy what you do not want to buy in order to buy what you do want to buy” (p. 115). Many grocers and other individuals, Stein makes clear, illegally sold goods. Grocers and farmers had been ordered to deliver a certain amount of their food to the German occupiers. And Stein admits how difficult it is to live on the rations one is allotted:

                  …a good many people had for a year consciously tried to live on their
                  rations, but now everybody finds that there is no use in doing it, no 
                  use at all and so nobody does, nobody does except funnily enough some
                  timid grocery storekeepers, who are afraid. I know one family of them
                  and they are the only ones around her who continue to be thin and to
                  get thinner. Nobody else is, nobody else is thin and nobody else con-
                  tinues to get thinner, nobody not unless they are awfully poor and
                  because of their situation in life unable to work. Nobody. (p. 106)


Rather than seeing this as an example of Stein’s dismissal of those going without, I perceive it simply as another instance of Stein’s understatement, a purposeful playing-down of the horrific elements of war- time living.

     Stein also downplays any true financial difficulties, only at one point admitting that she and Toklas were truly facing destitution. Without even hinting that she and Alice might have been in need of help, she suddenly (p. 111) begins a new story with the words “You never can tell who is going to help you….” Citing the French people’s thrifty ways, she nonetheless praises their willingness to “most unexpectedly” be helpful. “After we came into the war it began to get very difficult extremely difficult, and nobody among my old friends nobody asked me if we were in any trouble and it was getting a bit of a trouble….” Almost out of nowhere comes an offer from Paul Genin, a former Lyons silk manufacturer, who asked if she was having difficulty with money. Admitting that it had begun to “run pretty low,” Stein is amazed by his generosity of setting up an account for her and serving as her banker. Six months later, Stein was able to sell one of her Cezanne paintings, and to pay him back.
       In the latter half of Wars I Have Seen, we find more and more statements that reveal her opinions and attitudes. At several points she refers, dismissingly, to what describes as “callabo”: “that is one who wanted to collaborate with the Germans, there were quite a few of them and they are getting less and less but there still are some and he [the owner of the local drugstore] is one.” She quotes a German to underline her own hatred for collaborators: “They [the French] are either honest and intelligent, they are either collabo and intelligent or they are collabo and honest but I have never met one who was collabo honest and intelligent.”  She even seems to share the excitement of the villagers who in 1944, began to shave the heads of the girls who kept company with the Germans (p. 248). And as her narrative progresses she increasingly comes to describe the mountain maquis as Robin Hoods, despite the various opinions and fears of those around her. Later in the book, when finding herself and Alice sharing a taxi with a Maquis, Stein is absolutely delighted:

             To-day we were for the first time in company with a real live maquis, we
             were in a tax and he came along to go to Culoz, and we were delighted, he
             had the tricolor on his shoulder rand looked bronzed and capable….(p. 233).

In the next paragraph, she expresses herself even more clearly: “The maquis were pretty wonderful of course now they are armed and more or less superior in numbers to the Germans….”

      But her naivete and lack of inside knowledge continues to be apparent, even when, after the Germans have abandoned the railway center, and she and Alice share in the village celebrations. Told that a resistance fighter (the French Forces of the Interior, F. F. I) had been hiding in Culoz, she seems quite amazed. “Well honneur aux maquis, one cannot say it too often…,” she concludes (p. 243).                     

      What is most touching about Stein’s work, however, is her increasing impatience with the war and her growing desire to witness the American liberators. She even determines that she will end her work when she encounters her first American. When Stein does hear word of Americans in Belley, where she immediately rushes to a nearby hotel in which she is told they are gathered, her reaction so silly that she sounds almost like a schoolgirl writing in her diary “Oh happy day, that is all that I can say oh happy day” (p. 244). Such an utter expression of excitement hardly squares with Stein’s noted inability to care for those whom she encounters.  Fortunately, she does not end her book with her first meeting, but continues in an epilogue to describe her pleasure of talking to the soldiers, asking them from what state they hail, and discussing with them the many ideas they so readily and openly—as opposed to the soldiers of World War I—express.*******
     It is also fascinating that a great many of the soldiers she meets not only know who Stein is but claim to have read her poems in school. Given the quality of education these days, and the complete lack of any contemporary figures in most secondary educational programs, it seems almost miraculous that the military men of World War II would not only be so excited to be in her company and but would ask her to sign her name on the American dollars they handed her. Stein, herself, attempts to explore the reasons just why these soldiers are so different from the others she has previously met. Perhaps Stein had helped to bring about some of those changes by working so emphatically against the tropes of 19th century to create a 20th sensibility—despite some of horrors that came with that transformation. Even if Stein might be guilty of a bit of fictitious reporting here, it is so endearing that we desire to believe the fact that Stein once represented a figure that is now, in so many ways, maligned. Given Stein’s reconnoiter with the Americans in this volume, it is almost inevitable that her next war-time book, her final contribution to literature would be a dialogue between American soldiers, the intellectually challenging, while utterly patriotic Brewsie and Willie.
*Stein’s Elmer Harden, presumably, was the same author of one of the most acclaimed works on World War I. His An American Poilu (published by Little, Brown in 1919) attempted to describe the horrors of the war in terms of sound: “If the city of New York should topple in the sky and fall to the ground, the crash would be like a whisper to the racket of that dawn [June 10 or June 13, 1918]. I wonder that the entire regiment didn’t perish from the mere sound alone. Its fury turned Jehovah’s wrath into a shepherd’s piping and ten thousand Wagners, ‘ragging’ ten thousand orchestras, into the murmur of a parlor seashell. But what’s the use—I only amuse myself—you can’t hear it. I’ve already forgotten myself how monstrous it was. Memory cannot hold so much noise.” Clearly this young man, serving in the French army, did not see World War I as a trivial event or a “nice” war in the sense of its personal consequences. His observation, rather, had to do with the sense of heroism that its survivors brought home with them.
**Stein relates coincidences with superstition and faith (see page 18), which are particularly appealing to those “between babyhood and fourteen.” Yet coincidences and predictions obviously fascinate Stein throughout her writing and, in particular, in these war-time writings.
***Stein rightfully connects these issue with the struggles in North Africa, which some argue should have been at the center of the defeated French forces instead of the country’s agreement to an Armistice. In fact, the success of Free French, De Gaulle-led forces in areas of Africa, is part of the reason that German forces were introduced, in revenge, into Vichy France. The response to the November 8, 1942 attack by British and American forces in North Africa, three days the Germans entered Vichy France. The free garrison at Brazzaville, to where Louis Renault and Rick Blaine head at the end of 1942’s Casablanca, accordingly, is directly connected to the reasons why Stein and Toklas had to bear with Germans sleeping in the Culoz living room.
****Caroline Moorehead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (New York: HarperCollins, 2014). See my essay on this book below.
*****Marjorie Perloff has argued that, in Stein’s case, her lesbianism had nothing to do with the dangers her faced her. Simply being elderly Jewish women was “quite enough.” Perhaps this is true in Vichy, France, but once the Germans had entered into the form Vichy territory, Stein and Toklas would have been equally arrested for being homosexuals. I think it is important to remember, if nothing else, that gays were also arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis.
******Janet Malcolm, “Strangers in Paradise,” The New Yorker, November 13, 2006. Always on the lookout for another criticism or scandal she might hurl at Stein, Malcolm, in response to a letter mentioning a Gestapo raid and arrestment of 40 children in an orphanage near Culoz, in the village of Izieu—an incident in which there is no evidence at all that Stein knew anything about—wrote to Genin’s stepdaughter, Joan Chapman (on the suggestion of Stein critics Ulla Dydo and Edward Burns), in an attempt to discern whether or not Stein might have know of this event. Chapman wrote back, dismissing Stein’s knowledge about the Izieu raid:

              No, we had no idea that a group of Jewish children were hidden in a
              boarding school at Izieu, they were indeed deported, we only found
              out months later. I’m sure Gertrude and Alice had no idea of the
              incident at the time. Izieu is about 20 K from Belley and 30 K from
              Culoz. In those days the only way of getting to and fro was walking
              or on a bike, people were pretty isolated from each other. Anything
              confidential was never mentioned by phone.

Indeed, Stein describes herself was only walking or occasionally taking a train and never mentions Izieu in Wars I Have Seen. Chapman, however, also wrote Malcolm of another event, the arrival of two young boys, one, a five-year old Jewish-German orphan named Manfred Iudas. Caring for the children, Chapman and her mother evidently grew quite fond of the boy and had decided to adopt him. Consulting their friend Stein, the Chapmans apparently were warned against adopting him, with Stein insisting that he “must be adopted by a Jewish family.” Malcolm immediately jumps on this statement, which she presents almost as an “edict,” suggesting that, once again, “Stein did not behave well in the Second World War.” Malcolm melodramatically writes: “The story chills the blood….. To propose that a Jewish child be sent to a Jewish family at a time when everywhere in France Jews were being rounded up was an act of almost inconceivable callousness. Ulla Dydo and Edward Burns agreed that Stein’s advice was inexplicable and terrible.”
     In reality, it is soon revealed, when Malcolm later meets with Chapman, that when Stein had argued for Jewish adoption, had not at all put the child’s life at risk, and the child was, in fact,  adopted by a Jewish family only after liberation, “when Jews were no longer in danger.” The Izieu raid did not take place in 1943, as reported by the letter writer, but on April 6, 1944, four months before France was liberated. In short Stein had done absolutely nothing to suggest she was callous or thoughtless regarding the Jewish children. Moorehead, in her Village of Secrets, also describes this event, a shocking one since it came so close to liberation, and the school was located in an isolated region,  set atop a hill. The school was also said to be protected by “sympathetic Vichy officials.” The attack was directed by the notorious Klaus Barbie.
    That does not stop Malcolm, however, as she madly trudges forward trying to dredge a story out of her non-event. Why, she queries, would Stein, a non-practicing Jew, have argued for a Jewish position of “isolationism,”  the idea that a Jew should marry only a Jew? Her argument is a nearly pointless one as she searches the records vainly, quoting Toklas, who converted to Catholicism after Stein’s death, as saying that she and Stein ever thought of themselves as being among a religious minority.
      Forget the fact that Stein, as she demonstrates in Wars I Have Seen very much understood herself, practicing or non-practicing, as a homosexual Jew in danger of imprisonment, it seems absolutely ludicrous to try to explore an issue that seems to have very little to do with the theory of Jewish isolationism. Even I might have argued, had I been there, that a child—one of thousands, who had been suddenly torn from his Jewish family, beliefs, and roots—might benefit from being raised by a Jewish family, particularly after the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews had lost their lives. Given the intense values of family and tradition in Jewish culture, I would think that anybody who hadn’t suggested what Stein did, would have been the most insensitive of human beings. And clearly the Genins agreed, for they found a Jewish couple to adopt Manfred. Stein’s religious practices, or lack of them, I would argue, have absolutely nothing to do with her intelligent and sensitive suggestion—particularly given the fact that she might easily have been among the dead simply for being who she was.
     Finally, as Moorehead makes clear, “…There was a strong feeling in the French Jewish community that these children [those temporarily protected by Protestant and Catholic families] needed to rediscover their Jewishness, receive a Jewish upbringing, become, as they saw it, “un home Juif nouveau,” a new Jewish man.”
*******Some of her soldier friends, recognizing that they are different from their father’s generation, attribute it to the Depression, during which they or their parents were forced into fields of labor in which they did not take pleasure ; the new generation, they argue, are determined to find most satisfaction in their lives. Others argue that the rise of radio and its broadcasts made them a more intelligent and knowledgeable audience that their more isolated ancestors.

Los Angeles, November 18-19, 2014