February 2012

Elizabeth Bachner


I Am Trying to Say Something But I Have Not Said It: Reading Ida

I’ve been thinking about obstacles. In the bookstore, I flip open a book and it talks about a moment when suddenly, 84,000 doors open, and you can see everything you’ve been looking for your whole life. That would be good. I have the thought, sometimes language is just a phantom that barricades us from the truth (whatever that is), that locks us in metaphors, right? I have the thought, is it seriously true that I’m going to not-get what I want? Again? Really? Why. I’m always looking for even one door to fly open. A literal door.

After I get home there’s a box waiting for me, not the usual manila envelopes full of books stuffed into my mailbox but a big cardboard box that looks like it would be a new modem, or a food gift from some distant relative, or medical supplies, only why would someone send me medical supplies -- but it’s Gertrude Stein books, black-covered paperbacks. Gertrude Stein was always cutting things open -- cadavers, stereotypes, sentences -- cutting open not only specific language, but the very problem of language as a (non)thing, cutting open the trap of language. Sometimes people mistake this for being experimental, but often, Gertrude Stein was not experimenting.

American writers alive today are expected to work as if Gertrude Stein never existed. Gertrude Stein, in her time, had that same problem. Maybe 2012 will be different, a moment when no one confuses breakthroughs with games or doors with words. Anyway, I was all desperate for a door to fly open, and now here are these books. In the box there’s Ida, a novel, and I just recently reread Lucy Church Amiably, and I don’t know if I can read another Gertrude Stein novel too soon. It always puts me in a strange place, like the time I went with my friend to pick up her lover in the long halls of a vast hospital, when other than that I hadn’t been to a hospital since I was born. And the hospital was in my own neighborhood, this huge hospital just a block away from me, and my neighborhood smells like coffee and spices and aromatherapy oils and sometimes, at night, human smells like trash or pee, and the hospital smelled like formaldehyde and chlorine and had no human smells and no windows, and for years I’d been walking past it every day and I’d never seen it. I hesitate to read Gertrude Stein novels, but then I read them.

The other book is called Stanzas in Meditation. The title makes me think about the etymology of “stanza” -- stand. A standing place, a stopping place, a place where you keep someone, you keep yourself, in the poem, in that one particular part of the poem. A stanza is like a breath, each one is so necessary, it can’t be traded out for a different breath, except it always is, every single time, until the last one. Stanzas, like novels, seem like a right form for Gertrude Stein to use. It’s hot and sunny in the apartment, mid-January, I think there was something wrong in last night’s Thai food, I have meetings later, the person I want to be with is not around. I read all the Stanzas, it’s quick. The stanzas are about stanzas, and, satisfyingly, the final stanza is about doors. The second-to-second to last stanza is the one line: “The whole of this last end is to say which of two,” and the second-to-last is, “Thank you for hurrying through.” Which is satisfying too, since I did hurry, since I read fast through all of them, except for the parts I read slowly.

I mark down pages where there’s a line I want to quote, and then I’ve ended up marking down all of the pages. I decide that I really don’t want to write about Gertrude Stein right now. Even though, right now I love her. I reread The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and The Making of Americans. I look up “stanza” again and it can also mean a division of an apartment building, a chamber, a room. Each one is supposed to have two lines or more than two lines. One of the Stanzas begins: “Now this is a long stanza…,” when it isn’t. It isn’t one of the short ones, either. I can’t get the parts of my own book to fit together, although I haven’t tried yet, they’re sitting in my lap like a pile of uranium filings. I want to cancel all my meetings. I want to end all my relationships except with the people I love most. I want the person I’m thinking about to walk through the door. I want to go outside. I want to resolve all of these issues entirely right at this moment.  

Obstacles. The Hindu god Ganesh, obstacle-breaker, was (is?) a giant elephant-headed creature who rode around on a tiny mouse, or in some accounts, a tiny rat -- it was a situation that was impossible for Ganesh and for the rodent. But it worked. I’m riding around on something too small or carrying something too big, or I am too small, or I am too big, or I am the exact impossible thing I’m riding, but here I am, writing or living all the time and then afterwards nothing is there, except everything is there, some split atoms, some shocks of electricity here or there, a parasympathetic nervous system, a fractured alphabet. Gertrude Stein: “If it can be done, why do it?” (And, “I do not want to begin again or go on with what was begun because after all I know I really do know that it can be done.”) Obstacle: to stand against. Ganesh was the god of removing obstacles, but also the god of creating obstacles. He was the god of writers.

I sleep. I don’t hear from the person I want to hear from. I get up in the morning and read Ida. Gertrude Stein once wrote, “I am writing for myself and strangers.” So she was writing for me, and maybe for you, writing Ida in the last years of the 1930s, writing for herself. “I am writing for myself and strangers. No one who knows me can like it.” And I like Ida so much. It doesn’t give me that hospital feeling, but it gives me a different still feeling, a feeling that I can’t articulate, and I’m glad to be a stranger to Gertrude Stein. Every time I hesitate to read a Gertrude Stein novel, I’m glad, and then I’m glad again every time I read one. I’m obsessed with Gertrude Stein’s revelation that repeating things is impossible. Maybe that’s why I keep rereading her books. In the black volume of Ida there are letters and essays, notes and details, questions and explanations, and then inside there’s the novel itself which I can’t talk about, with Ohio where Ida doesn’t love anyone, with lobster Newberg, with words and names, with fame, with days where “there was never any beginning or end, but every day came before or after another day. Every day did. Little by little circles were open and when they were open they were always closed.”

I am thinking about the introductory note to Gertrude Stein’s selected writings, 1948: “Then there was my first publisher who was commercial but who said he would print and he would publish even if he did not understand and if he did not make money, it sounds like a fairy tale but it is true, Bennett [Cerf] said, I will print a book of yours a year whatever it is and he has, and often I have worried but he always said there was nothing to worry about and there wasnt.” Ida sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s true. “Ida never said once upon a time. These words did not mean anything to Ida. This is what Ida said. Ida said yes, and then Ida said oh yes, and then Ida said, I said yes, and then Ida said, yes.”

After I’m finished reading Ida, I read the letters. First it was going to be a novel about Wallis Simpson, written for Thornton Wilder. Then she’s pleased with it. Then she wants to collaborate with Thornton. Then she’s “brimming with ideas,” but none of them quite work yet. Then she decides that Ida begins well, but then “it begins to get too funny and one must not be too funny.” It’s an American novel, she’s trying to get into the sadness of America, and its sweetness. And then she has an idea for rewriting it. And then Ida is “gently progressing but just now not so much.” Then she has “a scheme for Ida which will pull it together.” And then, by spring, “Ida has become an opera, and it is a beauty, really is, an opera about Faust, I am dying to show it to you, I have the first act done… some day she will be a novel, too, she is getting ready for that, but as an opera she is a wonder.” And a month later: “And now once more I am going to do the novel Ida, I am beginning all over again just as if it had never been done.” And then she writes that she’s “just begun a longish novel, simple,” and she hopes it will turn into an adventure story. Then she moves into “the throes of writing the great American novel.”

She writes to Bennett Cerf that Ida is three-quarters done, and was originally based on the Duchess of Windsor and the idea “what is publicity,” “and then it kind of is something else… I do not know what it is like, and it might easily not be anything.” Cerf writes her, “I really understood a lot of it, which, as you know, is a new record for me.” He wants it finished, and mentions that there are typographical errors that she’ll want to correct herself, and says he’ll publish it in the fall “in just as lovely a format as we can devise for it.” Stein is “as happy as happy as can be.” It does sound like a fairy tale, here in this world with no Gertrude Steins anywhere but also no Bennett Cerfs, or does it just seem like that in my hot apartment? Of course Bennett Cerf was a humorist. And Gertrude Stein was a joke, it was part of how he sold her, when he sold her. (Sometimes he didn’t -- the sales report from Random House while Stein was working on Ida indicates that Lucy Church Amiably had sold one copy.) Maybe it wasn’t a fairy tale, maybe it was just some other kind of story.

I’m in my hot apartment, thinking about reading but not reading, thinking about meditation but not meditating, thinking about stanzas and stagnating, thinking about writing and, yes, writing -- writing a novel for you. I’m thinking about Ida. I’m thinking about the person I want to be with, who’s not around, and about what an obstacle is. Then I reread p. 110 of Ida, which was written for strangers, written for me because I can like it. This page I read, in 2012 in my hot apartment standing against something, waiting for something to fly open:

One of the things Ida never liked was a door.
People should be there and not come through a door.
As much as possible Ida did not let herself know that they did come through a door….
The French say a door has to be open or shut but open or shut did not interest Ida what she really minded was that there was a door at all.
…Ida never took on yesterday or tomorrow… Why should she when she had always been the same, when whatever happened there she was, no doors and resting and everything happening… Really there was never anything happening although everybody knew everything was happening.

Then there is the section in the very last stanza, stanza LXXXIII:

I call carelessly that the door is open
Which if they may refuse to open
No one can rush to close.

I can’t find the stanza I like best, since I marked down all the pages. It starts, “I am trying to say something but I have not said it. Why.”

Why. I’m thinking again of that story in the bookstore, and about how people should be there, and about how everything is happening, and about how I do mind. Those 84,000 doors finally flew open for the Guatam Buddha when he gave up on it completely -- then they all opened at once on that very night. I will never, never, never give up, and so I guess my doors will stay words.