Thursday, January 28, 2016

"There are lots of cats in Paris and in France and they can do what they like"

I was very pleased one day when the wife of the local doctor, he and she are fond of digging a bit and here when you dig a bit, beside making things grow, there is Roman, and Gallo-Roman, and even earlier things to be found. Well one day we were out in the car and she said one day when the work men were first cutting this road through there on that ledge were the ancestors, lots of their bones. It is always there life and death death and life and the earth and it is never anything to be remembered or even talked about, and that is the reason the French do not make much lyrical poetry. They do not get away from the earth enough to look at it, they paint it, but they do not poetise it.
Stein, in her short book Paris France says very little about Paris, and speaks mostly of France in terms of difference, how the French are unlike anyone else, or--more accurately--seemed to be like or unlike Gertrude Stein. Sometimes Stein talks about how much the French are like everyone else, though.
It could be a puzzle why the intellectuals in every country are always wanting a form of government which would inevitably treat them badly, purge them so to speak before anybody else is purged. It has always happened from the French revolution to to-day. It would be a puzzle this if it were not that it is true that the world is round and that space is illimitable unlimited. I suppose it is that that makes the intellectual so anxious for a regimenting government which they could so ill endure.
Stein is writing during WW II, which she and her companion Alice spent in the French countryside, away from Paris. Paris France is mostly a book about rural France during the early years of WW II.
Helen and her dog William were out every day and almost every evening and they always saw some one. They knew a boy named Emil who was a big boy with very large eyes and a dog named Ellen. Ellen the dog had been born in the country against which they were fighting. Emil looked at his dog and wondered if he could love him. The dog loved Emil but could Emil love him.

As Helen and her dog William came along Emil's dog Ellen was sniffing along the side of the road in the sand and finally went sniffing up the bank. Helen's dog William went sniffing too. Perhaps there was game there, very likely because in war time men did not go shooting nobody hunted any thing only dogs and cats hunted in war-time, Emil the boy with large eyes sighed about this. He said dogs hunt in war-time but they do not get much, anybody could see two or three dogs going together to hunt and waiting to see if anybody saw them because in peace-time of course they could not go hunting. Then Emil said but cats in peace-time or in war-time, they sit and watch and prey. It was getting darker and beginning to rain and Helen went one way and Emil went another way and each one of their dogs went with the one who owned him.
Paris France is not much like Hemingway's A Movable Feast. Stein's France is not a movable feast, it is an art exhibit with a distracted but chatty curator. It is not filling, but it does make one hungry.


A French cat, outside Giverny, September 2015. Photo: Mighty Reader

33 comments:

  1. "the French do not make much lyrical poetry" - !!! What on earth could Stein mean by that?

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    1. I know! This book is full of odd pronouncements like that. Her formal education was mostly in the sciences, so Paris France is a sort of reportage, an odd book of observations and odder conclusions. Highly entertaining stuff. Stein seemed to believe that the natural art of France was either painting, cooking, or hat-making.

      Now that I think about it, the novel Three Lives is also a sort of reportage, with commentary along the way. I'll have to read The Autobiography of Alice B Tolkas, which is supposed to be a lot more about Paris than this book.

      It's also possible that Stein was referring particularly to the French of the 1930s.

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  2. So. Do you think she's onto something about intellectuals? (You don't have to answer, of course, and maybe shouldn't.)

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    1. I'm less sure than ever that I know what an "intellectual" is!

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    2. Agreed. And a good way to change the subject. Though you wade in elsewhere!

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  3. that's a cogent point, what she said about intellectualism; she takes a broad view which is well brought out in the above quotes. she's also right, i think about the lyrical poetry bit; french artists were under the hand of the academy until the mid 18th c. and only gradually started to surface out of that classical attitude when moliere began poking fun at them, among others. and even then, the most famous poets, verlaine, baudelaire etc., were not lyrical, but socialistic, one might say, not in the sense that wordsworth and co. were, anyway. modern french poetry, in the 30's, was leading up to dadaism, cocteau, and farther out into extremist deconstructural philosophies(although, come to think of it, jongleur poetry before the 12 c. was nicely lyrical). anyhoo, i'll have to read some of her; i like the way she thinks...

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    1. I don't know anything about French poetry, really, so I'll let others argue that point. Most of the poetry I know (aside from, say, The Divine Comedy) was writ in English.

      I will say that when I was in college, cutting a youthful revolutionary figure, my revolutionary friends and I were all attracted to the sort of rigid and dogmatic government forms that would have crushed us. We also didn't see at the time that a stable government based on liberty cannot coexist with revolutionaries. When ma femme and I were in Paris last fall, walking through the Musee Carnavalet--the museum of the French Revolution--we saw proof all around that revolutionaries rarely survive even successful revolutions. The Musee Carnavalet is a blood-chilling experience, once you get past the "history of Paris" rooms and Proust's bedroom set.

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  4. That is a great museum.

    I have no idea what M. means by "socialistic." Baudelaire, Verlaine, etc. (a large and varied etc.) were, by ordinary definition, lyric poets. They are among the world's greatest lyric poets. And then there is Victor Hugo.

    The point about intellectual support for tyranny is appalling in context. "[F]rom the French Revolution to " - no, not to "to-day." This time, the French were conquered by Nazis, which is not what the "intellectuals" wanted. Perhaps Stein is speaking for herself there.

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    1. I think Stein had only a vague idea of what fascism was. Her idea of a bad government, if one takes her at her word in this book, is one that taxes you too much or fails to protect you from an outside enemy. Nothing else about a government matters much. She says late in the book that the third republic seems an okay thing.

      I get the feeling that the whole of Paris France is an impression, a put-on, a bit of Browning-like ventriloquism, Stein doing a character who looks past any particular individual suffering and sees only abstractions and millinery. I think that was one of the things she was working on in her art.

      Baudelaire, what little I've read of him, strikes me as sort of Gothic and Victorian, actually. Or Germanic Sturm und Drang, even. But I do mean that "little." I am really ignorant of French poetry.

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    2. I also think Stein didn't believe, when she was writing Paris France, that the Germans would actually make it all the way to Paris, that France would fall to the Nazis. She ends the book with a declaration that England and France "will do what they must do" to protect civilization, and she wants them "to do what they're going to do." I am unsure how much of her naivete is affectation.

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    3. it's been my understanding that "lyricism" has an element of natural transcendentalism in it; most descriptions of 19. c. to 20 c. french poetry describe it as "decadent" which take to indicate a kind of fatalistic egoism. no??

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  5. Oh I see, the book is from much earlier than I had thought. From the first year of the war. Published the day Paris fell, no kidding.

    Baudelaire definitely has a Gothic side, with his vampires and corpses and so on.

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  6. I do not use "lyrical" in that way. I mean "song-like," "emotionally expressive," something like that. Lyrical as opposed to epic or dramatic, for example. Verlaine was a Decadent who wrote lyric poems. I mean, Debussy set 'em to music.

    I guess I don't know what "natural transcendentalism" means, either. Do you have a critic in mind who uses this language? "[M]ost descriptions" seems impossibly strong. Again - Victor Hugo.

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    1. Yes, approaching song, usually first person and tinged with feeling. But it's curious that what we refer to as lyric poetry now is often not a bit songlike (and is in fact usually strongly prosaic and commonplace), nor does it often show feeling. And yet we're still caught in the net of the short poem, for the most part.

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    2. Oh so true. And whenever I see a reviewer describe a novel's prose as "lyrical," I think "Sing a few bars for me, will ya?"

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    3. hard for me to adopt a lawyerly approach to literature. i've read a lot and my comments reflect an overview rather than specific details. sorry if this is not acceptable...

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    4. Not remotely lawyerly but rather an attempt to use common vocabulary so we can understand each other.

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  7. I have no idea if this link really works for anyone else, but this section of Christopher Prendergast's Nineteenth-century French Poetry (the section headed "Voice") gives a good idea of how I use the terms "lyric" and "lyricism."

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  8. Everything I've read by Stein (not much) and about Stein (a bit more) leads me to the half-baked conclusion that people tend to make much too much of dear Gertrude; perhaps only her influence upon and friendship with (?) Ernest Hemingway matters. In another 100 years, Stein will be little more than a footnote in literary history, but Hemingway will remain as a shining star. Of course, I could be quite wrong. Still, I've enjoyed reading your posting and the comments, and I wish I could have added something more sensible to the conversation.

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    1. I'm not sure who is "making too much" of Stein. Certainly Paris France was less about Paris than I wanted it to be; I was hoping for something like Hemingway's A Movable Feast, but that was my fault, not Stein's. I'm not going to claim that Hemingway was "better" than Stein, either, because I don't believe those sorts of comparisons have any worth. Everything I've read by Stein has been well worth reading. In Movable Feast, Hemingway goes to some lengths to express his admiration of Stein's writing, his debt to her as a writer, and his thanks for the help she gave him with his career. Maybe implying that Hemingway is more important than Stein is like saying that your skin is more important than your spine, because nobody ever looks at your spine.

      Hemingway's books are full of crackpotted and self-absorbed ideas about humanity, you know. "Here is how people are not me," he would say. And then he'd say it again. He could be quite mean-spirited. So they are both flawed shining stars, both Ernie and Gertie. Her writing certainly matters. I plan on reading a lot more of it. I know that you aren't attracted to high modernism the way I am, though. Which is fine.

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    2. I am even less attracted to cant. Stein's writing, to my mind, is just that. But so are the words of so many others.

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    3. Happily, none of us is bounded by the tastes of others, so you are of course free to dislike Stein's work while I am free to like it. So it all works out for all of us.

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  9. personally, hemingway is a bit objectionable. he liked to kill things and had weird ideas about being real. plus i thought it was kind of cowardly to shoot himself and leave his family in the lurch. don't think much of his writing, either...

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    1. I like Hemingway's books and stories. I almost never think of writers as real people, so how they lived rarely influences my opinion of their work. He may have been an absolute monster (I don't know), but A Farewell to Arms is a beautiful masterpiece. I'm okay with both things being true.

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    2. i don't believe an author can write without including himself in his work. that's why i said the book represents the writer in a rather intimate way. style conveys personality just like music indicates the inner nature of the composer. compare poe with gibbon, for instance, or steinbeck with faulkner. each has his/her own road to travel as we all do and detours are not possible...

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    3. I mostly agree since writing is a human act performed by distinct humans, but I don't think I want to try believing that I can "know" an artist through his art in any meaningful sense. At the end of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin writes like a man terrified of the future, but whas he a man terrified of the future, or was he working out an idea, an idea he thought was important but did not necessarily frighten him, and the fear was a rhetorical device? I don't know. The book is what matters, and the "author" is just another fiction, part of the book. In my opinion you can't really reverse-engineer an author from a book with much more success than you can reverse-engineer an architect from a building. It seems like you can, because a novel or a poem is a form of speech, but so is acting on stage. A novelist pretends to be a person who writes novels, and then sits down and performs the act of writing a novel. Not all novels are written like that, certainly, but I don't really believe that art is a direct lens into the soul of the artist or anything like that. I don't really believe that Hemingway believed all his claims about the world, nor did Wolfe, nor Chaucer, nor Shakespeare, nor Nabokov, nor Tolstoy. No, I don't believe that. I also know that I'm not really talking about the author being part of the book the way you are. I guess really what I'm saying is that there are books I like and books I don't like, and the opinions and personality of the author are beside the point if it's a good book, a well-written book, even if the book is filled with ideas I can't stand. We live in the fallen world and everyone's a sinner. What can you do?

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    4. i don't know about engineering, but the little ruskin i've read has indicated to me, even before i knew it, that he was disturbed in some way about something and it was not much of a surprise to learn that he became relatively insane in his later years. "knowing" is not an accurate term except in the sciences; i learned certain things about you by reading the first page of your book; it was a bit too bloodthirsty for me, so i couldn't continue with it, but it gave me an indication of the scope of your awareness, one might say. i'm not judging it, i'm just saying that i "know" something about you that i didn't know before i read that page...

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    5. Interesting, but I'm thinking of your "tower of Babel" comment on RT's blog. In writing my novel, then, I didn't know what I was trying to say nor how to say it, and you reading it didn't know what I meant. A typically comic Beckettian experience. I actually find that scenario to be fairly attractive because I think it's mostly true.

      The first page of The Astrologer:

      Gustavus had lost a great deal of blood. The spots and trails of crimson that stained the surface of the frozen lake all came from his wounds and he was now sluggish and dragged his left foot. Even I could see that he would not survive the contest, that his heart would soon beat its last. Gustavus’s opponent—Christian son of Rorik, king of Denmark—was unharmed. He laughed and swung his great sword as if it weighed no more than the leg of a roasted goose, as if the last hour of bashing and being bashed had taken no toll on him whatever. This was most vexing to me. I had cast the king’s horoscope the night before and the heavens had declared some great misfortune was his destiny on this day. I looked for a lucky turn for Gustavus; it was not too late for the Earl of Jutland to strike a fatal blow against the king.

      I let my eyes be drawn down to the patterns formed by the blood on the ice. It is a star chart, I thought. The king stands in Orion while Gustavus drags his wounded foot through Cassiopeia and spits a mouthful of blood onto the Pleiades. I wondered if Gustavus had any regrets. If he did, he did not have time to think of them. Christian son of Rorik swung his sword in a bright, deadly arc that Gustavus could barely arrest. The king’s blade rebounded at a sharp angle and struck a glancing blow against Gustavus’s right shoulder.
      Something came spinning across the ice, hitting my left boot. It was one of the buckles from Gustavus’s cuirass, fashioned from steel and brass in the shape of a rampant bear. The bear’s head had been struck off.


      SPOILERS: I haven't looked at the text for a couple of years. I'm struck by how I worked the main themes and images into this scene: the novel begins and ends with a violent man-to-man battle, this first one surrounded by ice and the final one surrounded by fire. I love that sort of bookending of events. The ease with which the king kills Gustavus is echoed later by the ease with which the astrologer assassinates the king. The battle takes place atop the narrator's imagined star chart, the warriors blind to it, the constellations pure fancy in the astrologer's mind. The bear-shaped buckle is echoed in a later scene where the king kills a bear. Good stuff.

      "too bloodthirsty"? Have you never seen Shakespeare?

      The original first page of the novel was all about the Elba River. My agent called it "immobile" or something.

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    6. you're right: maybe i shouldn't be reading literature. all i can say is that with age i've gotten more and more inimical to egregious cruelty, violence and, yes, blood. maybe i should go live in a cave somewhere away from humans. except that many good ethical traits are still to be found in humanity; jane austen isn't very bloody; she's only one quite a number of authors who've manage to convey sometimes quite complex messages in a calm, peaceful manner about the saving qualities in people and the things that raise them above, granted, the tooth and claw of nature. still, if humanity is to survive as a race, i think they will have to become a bit meeker than they are... and smarter!

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    7. I agree with quite a bit of that, but I don't know about "saving qualities." I'm writing more along the lines of Chekhov, telling the reader that he is living badly, and should stop.

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    8. Did I say you shouldn't be reading literature? Everyone's so tetchy today.

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    9. no, i said it, being self critical to a degree...

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  10. funny how things change. in my twenties i read most of e.h. and apparently with approval, although i remember even then he seemed kind of butch. as i aged, though, i began to see that his view was a limited one and in directions that turned me off. i tried again in my forties and found whatever story it was unpleasant. i have to say i know he worked hard at writing and stuck to his principles, but that time i was out of sympathy with him. maybe i'll try him in my eighties, in a couple of years; who knows(what evil lurks...).

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