June 2013

Walter Biggins

nonfiction

Paris France by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein wrote radical prose -- a terse, flat stream of consciousness that eschewed punctuation, sentimentality, and clear delineations between narrator and speakers. She shook up literature by paring it down. As Adam Gopnik writes, in his otherwise useless and condescending introduction to Paris France, "Hemingway was in many ways the popularizer of a style she had invented. One could even say, to borrow Picasso's famous disparaging remark about his imitators, that Stein did it first and he, Hemingway, did it pretty."

So it's a surprise to find that, in one of her last books, Stein was a quiet conservative. Paris France -- no comma, kids; that's how she rolls -- is a paean to the traditions and preservation of French culture, right as World War II risked wiping them away. For all Stein's formal daring and literary experimentation, her Paris (and her France) comes through most fully in her evocations of family, traditional country community, home cooking, village gossip, the latest fashions, and good dogs.

Her Paris is one of the home hearth, of the particulars of everyday life as opposed to the abstractions of politics and philosophy. She slyly makes this clear, early on:

When I was first in Paris and for many years I had a servant, we were very good friends her name was Hélène. One day quite accidentally, I do not know how it happened because I was not at all interested, I said to her, Hélène what political party does your husband belong to. She always had told me everything even the most intimate troubles with her family and her husband but when I said that, what party does your husband belong to, her face grew rigid. She did not answer. What is the matter with you Hélène I said, is it a secret. No Mademoiselle she answered it is not a secret but one does not tell it. One does not tell the political party one belongs to. Even I have a political party but I do not tell it.

Despite the deliberate flatness, that passage reads easily. It's always clear who is speaking, when the prose is narration and when it's dialogue, and it gets across an interesting idea -- that your politics don't totally define you -- by dancing around it.

It's not that Stein is "apolitical" or "amoral," which Gopnik accuses her of his intro, but rather that she refuses to privilege political abstractions -- whether royalist, republican, or revolutionary -- above everyday life. That's what the flatness and lack of punctuation conveys, that everything she writes about -- all the people, places, memories, arguments, and poodles -- are equally important. Paris France is remarkably democratic.

We see that democracy in action in Stein's recording of dialogue. She loves talk, whether nostalgic or philosophical or utilitarian. All kinds of chitchat get thrown into the brief book, mixed in fluidly -- like a jazz pianist improvising new riffs -- with the exposition. If Paris France is full of anything, it's full of gossip. That, too, marks it as "feminine." I think, ultimately, that it's this very femininity, this emphasis on women and womanly thinking as shaping the country (which Stein argues has shaped the twentieth century), that makes Gopnik turn up his nose at the frivolity.

Surely it wasn't a frivolous time, and Stein knew it. Written in 1938 and 1939, and originally published in 1940, Paris France lies on the cusp of World War II. Wartime is very much on Stein's mind here, and on the lips of everyone in the book. She sings hosannas to French cuisine, fashion, art, people, and dogs (seriously, there's a lot about poodles here), as if she wants to record them before bombs wipe them all away. Paris is, as she says repeatedly, "the proper background for the art and literature of the twentieth century," the cultural standard-bearer for the world. She's quietly rueful that war will smudge that background but much more forceful about France's resilience. After all, by that point Stein had lived in France long enough to see one world war, and lived amongst people who had distant relatives who lived through the French Revolution and the nineteenth century's Industrial Revolution. She saw how war did, and did not, change society, so she refused to make the looming World War II the centerpiece of her book or to turn it into a political tract. Wars, like fashions, come and go.

And, besides, it's not that fashion is insignificant, as so many male writers (again, Gopnik) might claim:

Fashions are so natural, we were all together at a house here in the country and somebody said something of Madame Pierlot's father, what was he. Ah was the answer, Madame Pierlot is eighty-six and so all who are younger have naturally forgotten about her father, but oh some one answered, when we go up to the attic and find clothes in which to dress up we always find a piece of ermine and on this ermine is written the name of Madame Pierlot's father. What kind of ermine asked some one, and the ermine was described, ah yes was the answer in that case he was the judge of the Cour d'appel.

Fashion tells a lot about class, rank, and privilege, which is something Americans -- but not Stein -- often forget or pretend does not matter. It's not that war isn't significant; indeed, Stein writes that World War I pushed France and England definitively into modernity and the twentieth century, despite all the attempts to remain Victorian. Rather, it's that wartime can be marked by periods and generations, just like changes in fashion. By marking periods, though, she gets across a lot with droll, perhaps despairing wit:

And so all this [the threat of war] may be only a fire drill, by all this I mean war and thought of war, the French say if you can remember three generations of war it is enough, you remember your father, he ate horses' heads in the war of '70, you remember your husband he was killed in '17, and your brother who was prisoner in Switzerland and it cost a good deal of money and your son and he is now home on leave and he was called away before his leave was over by a telegram to go back to his regiment and now, a thing like this including a daughter who was a school teacher and had only been married five months and was called back to evacuate the school children, all this was enough to make any one's head go right away.

War's effects are specific and personal but talk of war tends to flatten "people" into "demographics" and "populations." Stein's Paris France refuses to do this, and this in itself is a profound political statement. She loves people's particularities and idiosyncrasies too much to reduce them to raw numbers or historical data.

Indeed, the book's title would lead one to expect a historical overview of the City of Light. But no. Gertrude Stein wrote memoirs in disguise. Just as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is not that at all, and the joke's right there in the conflict between that title and "by Gertrude Stein," so too is Paris France another of Stein's memoirs in disguise. To be fair, Stein always returns to Paris, eventually. But Stein rambles and meanders. It's as much about the French country folk as it is about the Parisians. There's a lot about poodles and painting, mama's-boy complexes and peasant cuisine, old jalopies and pretty hats. Though Stein touches on many fascinating things, such as the rise of the restaurant in France or the failures of surrealism as an aesthetic movement, touching -- not digging deeply -- is the operative verb. Stein uses Paris in the same way that a jazz musician might use a basic blues chord structure, as a foundation for endless invention and exploration of the self. We're along for the ride, and anyone expecting a systematic overview will be disappointed.

But, for anyone willing to strap in for a jaunt with a supremely idiosyncratic writer, who loved others' idiosyncrasies in equal measure, Paris France is a lovely, droll, haunting hoot. By emphatically not writing the definitive guide to understanding Paris, Stein ironically paints a clearer portrait of a place and people, at a particular fissure in its history, than could be done by a sweeping Statement of the State of France. Such statements irk Stein but she created one, anyway, on her own terms.

Paris France by Gertrude Stein, introduction by Adam Gopnik
Liveright
ISBN: 978-0871403742
128 pages