Tuesday, October 6, 2015

an arduous and troubled life in Gertrude Stein's "Three Lives"

Anna led an arduous and troubled life.

Anna managed the whole little house for Miss Mathilda. [...] This one little house was always very full with Miss Mathilda, an under servant, stray dogs and cats and Anna's voice that scolded, managed, grumbled all day long.

"Sallie! can't I leave you alone a minute but you must run to the door to see the butcher boy come down the street and there is Miss Mathilda calling for her shoes. Can I do everything while you go around always thinking about nothing at all? If I ain't after you every minute you would be forgetting all the time, and I take all this pains, and when you come to me you was as ragged as a buzzard and as dirty as a dog. Go and find Miss Mathilda her shoes where you put them this morning."

"Peter!",--her voice rose higher,--"Peter!",--Peter was the youngest and the favorite dog,--"Peter, if you don't leave Baby alone,"--Baby was an old, blind terrier that Anna had loved for many years,--"Peter if you don't leave Baby alone, I take a rawhide to you, you bad dog."

The good Anna had high ideals for canine chastity and discipline. The three regular dogs [...] together with the [...] many stray ones that Anna always kept until she found them homes, were all under strict orders never to be bad one with the other.

A sad disgrace did once happen in the family. A little transient terrier for whom Anna had found a home suddenly produced a crop of pups. The new owners were certain that this Foxy had known no dog since she was in their care. The good Anna held to it stoutly that her Peter and her Rags were guiltless, and she made her statement with so much heat that Foxy's owners were at last convinced that these results were due to their neglect.

"You bad dog," Anna said to Peter that night, "you bad dog."

[...]Innocent blind old Baby was the only one who preserved the dignity becoming in a dog.

You see that Anna led an arduous and troubled life.
I'm reading Gertrude Stein's first novel, Three Lives, published in 1909 by a vanity press in America while Stein lived in Paris. The book's sideways Brothers Grimm sort of prose made the publisher think that English was not Stein's first language, and he vainly pressured her to have it professionally edited and rewritten into standard English prose. Stein's first publisher did not get what was going on, but he was a publisher of primarily books about genealogy and family histories, not a publisher of novels. All of the major publishing houses had passed on it and so Stein was forced to finance the book herself. She was lucky to have a large inheritance. It's amazing, really, that this book made it to market.

I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to get around to reading Stein. She's doing, in Three Lives anyway, the sort of thing I do in my own writing. There is no plot, no principle action of the story; the narrative is made up of events, surely, events that illustrate the psychology of the characters, and so things are constantly happening, but the only connectedness between those events are the characters. There's no real causation in the novel, no puzzle to solve, no goal to be reached. In other words, it's a lot like life. I'm really enjoying the book so far. Stein could clearly see the comedy of being human. Yes, yes, stereotypes of immigrants and minorities, and all of that. She had her prejudices and blind spots. But she could write, and she knew what she was about with her ideas of structure, of making everything in the narrative of equal importance, of writing about character rather than quest.

Before an unhappy romance drove her to flee to Paris, Stein was a medical student. I am constantly amazed at the link between physicians and novelists. Though perhaps there is a greater link between, say, taxi drivers or bricklayers and novelists. I have done no particular research into this.

I am reading the Penguin Classics edition of the book, which contains as back matter Stein's early unpublished attempt at a novel (QED). That's a nice touch, editors of Penguin Classics, but what the hell is going on with the layout of this book? The gutter is so tight that it is nearly impossible to read the text along the right-hand margin of the left-hand pages. I could become quite cross about this were I so inclined. Gertrude Stein gets none of the blame for this, I hasten to add.

4 comments:

  1. Fascinating! Stein, whom I have never been able to read (and enjoy), stands out as the guiding light for many other literary expatriates in Paris; I wonder, if it weren't for Stein, would we have Hemingway (or a different Hemingway)? Hmmmm.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't know enough about the Left Bank expatriate writers to say, but certainly they all owe a debt to Gertrude Stein and Sylvia Beach (especially James Joyce). I also have begun to think that the prose in A Farewell to Arms owes a debt to Stein's prose in the "Good Anna" section of Three Lives.

      Delete
  2. sylvia beach: a true humanitarian; all the starving artists she employed, whether they were crazy or not. "3 lives" sounds a lot like our house on an average day: "albert, get off the couch and don't eat uncle wiggley's food".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Those are some bad dogs, but Anna loves them anyway.

      Sylvia Beach was a great boon for literature, if you like Modernism. One of our pilgrimages in Paris was to Shakespeare & Co. They have a spinet in a tiny room upstairs and someone was playing Chopin etudes. That someone was pretty good, too. Hey, in fact I bought my copy of Three Lives at Shakespeare & Co., as well as the copy of Lady Chatterley that I just read. We bought a lot of books in Paris. My backpack weighed a ton on the return trip.

      I think it's possible (and maybe even useful) to draw a line from Stein's The Good Anna to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. I don't know who else would be caught on that line, but a lot of folks, I'll bet.

      Delete