Undersending Steinese

Gertrude Stein’s “Paris France” is a book about Paris that tells many true things about the French but also gives a picture of Gertrude and her times that is about who Americans are and what Americans think when they are not in Paris at all. It is a picture of Paris by an American who thinks as Americans think, and we see America in the picture when she thinks she is showing us France. Yet because she is a fine and true writer she knows that she is showing us both things, and many truths about the French come out even though they are written the way an American must write them. This is because the writing is clear and the ideas are based on things seen rather than on what she has read about in books about Paris written by an old aunt or a magazine writer who has lived there for a few years and is excited to think he now understands it all.

And there—if I did that little pastiche with any aplomb—is a demonstration not just of how infectious Gertrude Stein’s style is but also of how much it runs into Ernest Hemingway’s slightly more self-consciously crooning and acidic one. It isn’t the least of Stein’s virtues, or importance, that Hemingway was in many ways the popularizer of a style that she had invented. One could even say, to borrow Picasso’s famous disparaging remark about his imitators, that Stein did it first and Hemingway did it pretty. But, prettified or not, Hemingway’s style was the most influential in American prose for more than fifty years, and this makes Stein’s style less an outcropping than a bedrock of modern American writing.

I hope, too, it suggests the kinds of truths that Stein’s peculiar style supports. All marked styles—and any style that isn’t marked isn’t a style; what we call a “mannered” style is simply a marked style on a bad morning—hold their authors hostage just a bit. Stein’s style makes subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and it also lets straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle. Above all, its lack of the ordinary half-tints and protective shadings of adjectives and semicolons—the Jamesian fog of implication—lends itself to generalizations, sometimes profound, often idiosyncratic, always startling. It is the most deliberately naïve style in which any good writer has ever worked, and it is also the most “faux-naïf,” the most willed instance of simplicity rising from someone in no way simple. (E. B. White and Robert Frost were neither of them the simple Yankees their styles liked to intimate, but both were more like simple Yankees than Stein was ever like a simple San Franciscan, or a simple anything.) Stein’s style is to writing what sushi is to cooking—not so much an example as a repudiation of the whole idea that still manages to serve the original function.

In truth, though, her style is more coherent and “ordinary” than it can seem, in part because a lot of its effect is achieved by the ridiculously straightforward device of removing normal punctuation. In writing, our sensitivity to small sounds is such that a minute alteration in decorum can have a very big effect on tone. The New Yorker reporter-poet Joseph Mitchell, for instance, searching for a plain style, often eliminated the normal contractions we use in English, so that every “It’s” became an “It is” and every “He’s” a “He is,” and suddenly a note of somber gravity exuded from his most basic declarative sentences. Stein achieves a similarly large and uncanny effect just by omitting commas—there are maybe a dozen in the whole of “Paris France.” As a result, any sentence, no matter how many qualifications it contains, is almost always written by Stein in commaless, undivided form. This makes her thoughts seem plain even when they are very fancy. Reading Stein is a bit like reading Emily Dickinson before punctuation got imposed on her: both claim, in every sense, our undivided attention. Many of Stein’s sentences can even be made to look normal just by punctuating them normally. “It is nice in France they adapt themselves to everything slowly they change completely but all the time they know that they are as they were.” Simply inserting a period after the first five words and a dash after the next six makes the writing seem much less eccentric: “It is nice in France. They adapt themselves to everything slowly—they change completely but, all the time, they know that they are as they were.” And then there is also the monosyllabic vocabulary—“I like words of one syllable,” she tells us, but has no need to tell us—and the lovable weakness for ordinary American idioms, as in her famous assignment of Paris as her “home town.”

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