Gertrude Stein: Would You Ask This Woman For Tea?

Gertrude Stein painted by Pablo Picasso
I have been reading, with some difficulty, “Three Lives” by Gertrude Stein. I say with some difficulty not because of her well-known and much-debated prose experiments, but because of her boring and offensive characterisations of different races, and her generalisations about class.

Ann Charters explains in her introduction that the constant repetition of names and phrases Stein indulges in has something to do with an attempt to create a written equivalent of the paintings of Cezanne. I’ll buy that, although to my eye/ear at least it doesn’t work, not here anyway.

Charters also says “a feminist reading of the book as a literary satire, […] could argue that each of the three heroines exemplifies different aspects of the way society trapped underclass women […] in stereotypical roles.” I’ll also buy that, cautiously, although it’s a tough one at times given that the author is a rich woman looking down on everyone.

Take this sentence I read yesterday on the bus after deciding to give the book a second chance (I had put it aside in exasperation two weeks before):

“In the days when he had been young and free and open, he had never had the wide abandoned laughter that gives the broad glow to negro sunshine.” (Stein, “Melanctha.”)

I put the book down again when I read that. I don’t intend to pick it up again. Stein, when she finished “Three Lives,” wrote to her friend Mabel Weeks, “I don’t know how to sell on a margin […], so I have to content myself with niggers and servant girls and the foreign population generally. . . . Dey is very simple and very vulgar and I don’t think they will interest the great American public.”

(Note the highly amusing use of “dey.”)

Now, it could be that I am underestimating Stein’s gift as a writer, or not understanding it because of what she would undoubtedly call my German pedantry. You could even argue that in her views about race and class she was a product of her time, and therefore she cannot be judged by contemporary standards.

But I’m not judging her. I just don’t want to spend any of my own time in company I find narrow-minded and boring; and for that reason I will be taking “Three Lives” to a charity shop at the earliest available opportunity. Maybe Nick Griffin or Godfrey Bloom could use something to read on those long nights in the political wilderness.

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