21 January 2008

Complicated lives

Since reading The Silent Woman and her defence of Franny and Zooey, I've had a great respect for Janet Malcolm, as controversial and imperfect as some her work may be perceived. Aside from her brilliant penchant for asking the questions behind the questions, her sensible, down-to-earth honesty is always refreshing to read. In her recent Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, she's completely open about her shortcomings as a reader:
All three [scholars] prefer Stein's "real" writing to the "audience" writing, and when I confessed--as I am often obliged to--that the "real" writing is not congenial to me, they looked at me pityingly. "Well, you're honest," [Ulla] Dydo said kindly on one of these occasions. On another, while talking about the Thornton Wilder-Gertrude Stein book, I said in passing that I liked Our Town, and Dydo gave me a dark look. "Is it too sentimental for you?" I asked. "Ugh," she said, and shuddered. At these times I feel like someone who has ordered a cheeseburger at Lutèce.
I was thrilled to finally get my hands on a copy. (The fact that it's designed to look like a book published ca. 1940 only added to my glee.) Despite the rigorous questioning that goes on regarding how Stein and Toklas survived WWII, she seems to have (for the lay reader, at least) a wonderful grasp of Stein's writerly intentions ("She refuses to see things clearly that can only be seen darkly. She would rather groan and beat her breast than impose a false order on disorderly complexity."). She also does a good job of demonstrating why Stein's work is especially relevant now (while dicussing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas):
For forty years Stein has been working as a twentieth-century modernist innovator. But now she is obliged to consider the possibility that the nineteenth century did not end when she and everyone else thought it did, but is only ending now, with the arrival of barbarism. "Realism was the last thing the nineteenth century did completely. Anybody can understand that there is no point in being realistic about here and now . . . it is not the nineteenth but the twentieth century, there is no realism now, life is not real it is not earnest, it is strange which is an entirely different matter." And yet, paradoxically, something tells Stein that there is great point in being realistic now, that life is indeed real and earnest and that she must try to rouse herself. "The horrors the fears everybody's fears the helplessness of everybody's fears, so different from other wars makes this war like Shakespeare's plays." Stein knows better than to try to write like Shakespeare, but she also senses that the occasion demands that she not try to write like herself, either. Modernist experimentalism will not express what she wants (and doesn't want) to express.
I believe the allusion to Longfellow is intentional (with the unspoken hint that perhaps the grave is its goal), and that life necessitates a both/and approach to art, as opposed to an either/or. I would think that "modernist experimentalism" would be the perfectly precise mode of expression for the times, but it seems that one thing shouldn't always be excluded at the expense of the other.

Yet there was one unaddressed issue that left me deeply curious. Stein sympathized with Franco, but was friends with Picasso ("she loved the Republican Party, she hated Roosevelt, and she actually supported Franco."). Picasso doesn't figure into Malcolm's book very much--I supposed that if he did, it would be a whole other book. It just left me wondering how that relationship worked. (How did they discuss Guernica? What could she have even said?)

As it is--all historical and biographical musings aside--Malcolm's thoughts on Stein's writing was the part I enjoyed the most (like this bit on The Making of Americans):
Stein's vocabulary is small and monotonous. When she uses a new word it is like the entrance of a new character. It is thrilling. "Every word I am ever using in writing has for me very existing being," she writes. "Using a word I have not yet been using in my writing is to me very difficult and a peculiar feeling. . . . There are only a few words and with these mostly always I am writing that have for me completely entirely existing being, in talking I use many more of them of words I am not living but talking is another thing, in talking one can be saying mostly anything, often then I am using many words I never could be using in writing."

Stein seems to be transcribing rather than transforming thought as she writes, making a kind of literal translation of what is going on in her mind. The alacrity with which she catches her thoughts before they turn into stale standard expressions may be the most singular of her accomplishments. Her influence on twentieth-century writing is nebulous. No school of Stein ever came into being. But every writer who lingers over Stein's sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.
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