January 5, 2015

Four essays "Stein at War: Four Essays on Writings by Gertrude Stein During World War II," by Douglas Messerli


During 2010 I saw a wonderful theater production of Stein’s Brewsie and Willie. Over the years since, several Stein scholars and I have increasingly become disturbed by commentaries such as Janet Malcolm’s of which I wrote in My Year 2008 and Barbara Will’s publication Unlikely Collaboration—books that seemingly intentionally have not only misinformed the reading public about Stein, but confused many students and even admirers of her work. Given the situation, accordingly, I perceived in 2014 that the wonderful performance—composed by Marissa Chibas, Erik Ehn, and Travis Preston—of Stein’s 1946 dialogue represented a great opportunity to revisit Stein’s World War II writings, with the goal of reevaluating her personal feelings and allegiances. What I discovered in the year and a half since, expressed in the “Stein at War” essays included below, was what I can only describe as a decidedly different perspective from those who seem to suggest Stein was sympathetic to the Vichy government or Nazi politics.


stein at war

                                                       by Douglas Messerli 


not real but really there


Gertrude Stein Paris France (New York: Liveright, 1940). The edition I own is from 1970; a new edition, with an Introduction of Adam Gopnik was published in 2013.



http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/5-9-12_Stein.jpg Gertrude Stein’s 1940 “memoir” (a term I use with great caution), Paris France might be characterized as one of the strangest of works in what many would describe as her literary cabinet of curiosities. The very implication that this work, if we judge by its title, a work “about” the city of Paris, is belied by the fact when it was published, Stein had already moved to her and Toklas’ rented country home in Biliginin the Rhône-Alpes.

     Although the book begins with her earliest memories of Paris (“Paris, France is exciting and peaceful. / I was only four years old when I was first in Paris and talked French there and was photographed there and went to school there, and ate soup for early breakfast and had leg of mutton and spinach for lunch….”), most of the book—written, tellingly, just before Paris fell to the Germans—makes the largest of generalizations about France in general, and is “located” in its focus on the outlying provinces rather than in the capital city.
     The early pages of Paris France may seem to suggest that the remainder of the work will be about her beloved Paris, but, in fact, Stein’s focus shifts from the city to the country as early as page 18 (of the book’s 120 pages) as she begins to speak in broader and broader terms of overall French values, particularly France’s “feeling about foreigners.”


After all to the French the difference between
being a foreigner and being an inhabitant is not very
serious. There are so many foreigners and all who are
real to them are those that inhabit Paris and France.
In that they are different from other people. Other
people find foreigners more real to them when they
are in their own country but to the French foreigners
are only real to them when they are in France.
Naturally they come to France. What is more natural
for them to do than that.


     In this paragraph, Stein reveals much of the texture of the book at large. As Adam Gopnik has noted in a thoughtful introduction to the new 2013 edition of Paris France, “Understanding Steinese,” Stein’s language throughout is a purposely stylized representation of everyday speech. As he makes clear, Stein removes nearly all the interconnections of associative thinking that her mentor, Henry James embraced, making her “subtle thoughts sound flat and straightforward, and […letting] straightforward, flat thoughts sound subtle.” Indeed, Stein’s commentaries—embedded in what sound like maxims, declarative observations, conversational asides, old wives’ tales, gossip, and, as Gopnik asserts, sometimes “disingenuous and morally obtuse…remarks”—may sometimes convince us, as Gopnik suggests, of “the truth of her observations,” but just as often, I would counter, seem ridiculously personal and hegemonic.
     One might almost be tempted to suggest that Stein’s observations are thrown out in a way that allows one simply to take them or leave them, perceiving that there are always vast differences in the ways things are perceived, particularly given not only one’s personal views, but the vast separation in time since Stein penned her comments. Take, for the example, Stein’s comments quoted above. Certainly, given the American (and other international citizen’s) invasion of Paris after World War I, we might be ready to grant Stein the acuity of her comments. Looking at it today, however, in a period of increasing French disparagement of Northern African, Gypsy, Albanian, and other minorities, and in its own wartime and ongoing attitudes to the Jews—both its own citizens and émigrés—one might “naturally” (to use Stein’s preemptive assumption) have to immediately disagree with Stein’s assertion.
      Stein’s heady considerations of the difference between British and French culture, for example, seem to be correct, but only if you are, like I am, a determined Francophile as opposed to an Anglophile:


….France was so important in the period between 1900
and 1939, it was a period when there really was a serious
effort made by humanity to be civilized, the world was
round and there really were not left any unknown on it
and so everybody decided to be civilized. England had the
disadvantage of believing in progress, and progress has
really nothing to do with civilization, but France could be
civilized without having progress on her mind, she could
believe in civilization in and for itself, and so she was the
natural background for this period.


Obviously the French also liked progress, and the British clearly saw themselves as utterly civilized. The Germans claimed they were the source of all culture, and the French only a culture of “civilization.”
    Elsewhere, Stein—who one must always remember, was, like so many progressive and experimental writers of her generation (Djuna Barnes was another example), a devout conservative when it came to social and political behavior—argues for the French nature being inherently conservative. Questioning the revolutionary rhetoric of Napoleon, for example, Stein attempts to associate the role of revolution to the period of human adolescence:


How could you be civilized if you had not passed through
a period of revolt, and then you had to return to your pre-
revolt stage and there and there you were you were
civilized. All Frenchmen know that you have to become
civilized between eighteen and twenty-three and that
civilization comes upon you by contact with an older
woman, by revolution, by army discipline, by any escape
or by any subjection, and then you are civilized and life
goes on normally in a latin way, life is then peaceful and
exciting, life is then civilized, logical and fashionable in
short life is life.


     In some senses you might almost think that Stein is arguing here for the life-changing possibilities of war as argued by the Futurists. But she follows up that paragraph by insisting that “War can not civilize, it takes life to civilize….” Taking this viewpoint even further, she contends, in an interesting aside, that such was the problem with the Surrealists:


That was really the trouble with the sur-realist crowd,
they missed their moment in becoming civilised, they
used their revolt, not as a private but as a public thing,
they wanted publicity not civilization, and so really
they never succeeded in being peaceful and exciting,
they did not succeed in the real sense in being fashionable
and certainly not in being logical.


Even if one recognizes in this viewpoint that perhaps Stein is correct, when one realizes that such commentary is being issued from one of the most noted self-publicists of the century, it certainly gives pause to nearly anything Stein might be proclaiming in these kinds of comments throughout her book.
     Some of her assumptions, moreover, as Gopnik posits, are simply silly and even morally reprehensible. “Well war does make one realize the march of centuries and the succession of generations.” Even if we grant the fact that in 1940, just six years before the end of her life, Stein had seen her share of war, and that for her, perhaps, the actions of “too many fathers” (Mussolini, Hitler, Trotsky, Stalin, and even Roosevelt) seemed to her more another bother than anything to be fearful of, or that, isolated as she was now from her Paris, war was not yet such a serious thing, nonetheless, the very fact that she and Toklas had had to transfer to the country in order to save their lives and that, as Jewish women, they were still very much in danger of being sent to a concentration camp or killed outright, were realities that she would have had to daily face. Although she may not have yet known the full extent of the Jewish extermination, she certainly would by that time (the camps were begun in 1933) have heard rumors about the camps and their brutal methods. And Stein would have had to be utterly ignorant—something that she emphatically was not—to be unaware of the German hatred for the Jews and the growing anti-Semitism across Europe.  
     While, throughout this work, Stein seems intent in arguing that the French continue to go on with normal life despite the war at hand, associating all wars, as being things of “isolation” (“Wars always take place in vacation time and in vacation weather, so one is not in Paris”) she, quite obviously knew that things had turned “bad.” As she muses at the near center-point of Paris France:


It could be a puzzle why the intellectuals in every
country are always wanting to form a government
which 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.


     Unlike Gopnik, who argues that being ironic “isn’t her way,” I would argue that irony is very much at the core of many of Stein’s commentaries in this and other works, including her outrageous 1934 suggestion, in an interview, that Adolf Hitler should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Even if she could not yet know of all the unimaginable horror that World War II would bring upon the world in which she was located, she surely sensed the tensions rising around her, that the world had, once more, turned “bad.” 
     Many of the observations and conversations of Paris France, moreover, would be repeated in her war-time fiction, Mrs. Reynolds, in far poignant and absolutely terrifying contexts. The various questionings of her friends and neighbors that take place throughout Paris France become the pattern of Mrs. Reynolds’ encounters in the later book. If there is a raison d’etre for Stein’s position, one might argue that Paris France is a book in which the narrator is trying her hardest to forget everything going on around her. In its intense discussions of dogs, French cooking, the use of French loan-words in Shakespeare, remembrances of the quays of Paris—and perhaps even her rather homophobic insistence that in every French village there “is a man who has not married,” (who they [the local women] cannot take seriously and call “a hen, and most of the time he does go a little funny…and once in a while goes quite queer…[one] shot a woman just any woman as he saw her at a distance.”)—reiterates Stein’s determination to deflect the war-time world in which she has suddenly discovered herself.
     Yet again and again, despite all the seeming chatter of ordinary living, war rears its ugly face, often in the very moments when the narrator is thinking about the most mundane of subjects:


 You talk to yourself about chestnuts and walnuts
 and hazelnuts and beechnuts, you talk to yourself
 about how many you find and whether they have
 worms in them. You talk to yourself about apples
 and pears and grapes and which kind you like best.
 You just go on talking to yourself in war-time. You
 talk to yourself about spiders or lizards, you talk to
 yourself about dogs and cats and rabbits but not about
bats or mice or moths.


The worm, as she notes, is always a possibility in the isolated world she now inhabits. It is a world even populated by spiders or lizards, but she will not go so far as to focus, she suggests, on the even more frightening specters of “bats or mice or moths.” If the first two animals are obviously frightening, even moths, one might recall, help to unravel the fabric of the world they inhabit. As Mrs. Reynolds comes to perceive in Stein’s long fiction, despite the always welcoming presence of Mr. Reynolds, war creates so much empty space; as Stein writes in Paris France, “There are so many people who go away in war-time here there and everywhere.
     Finally, I would argue, the reader of Paris France might be better off to see the book as less a gathering of Steinian “truisms” about French culture, than as a constantly shifting and very personal apologia for the author’s remaining in France during such difficult and morally abhorrent times. This is no memoir in the usual sense, but an impassioned plea for the reader to share or least comprehend Stein’s own commitment, despite her love of American culture, to all things French.
     France, for Stein, represents a kind of inner being, the core of self that is clearly not always rational (or as Stein would put it, “logical”) in its perception of things. From early on in her life, Stein ruminates, she came to realize that even as a young girl in San Francisco “there was more french””


After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is
interested in living inside themselves. That is why
writers have to have two countries, the one where
they belong and the one in which they live really.
The second one is romantic, it is separate from them-
selves, it is not real but it is really there.


    This is perhaps one of the most important statements in understanding Stein’s aesthetics and, particularly, her need to remain in France, despite whatever it may have cost her and Alice, throughout the war. Even from afar, one might empathetically comprehend why two lesbian women, having lived most of their lives abroad, would find it nearly impossible to suddenly re-assimilate themselves to the far more parochial and unaccepting world that repatriation to the US might have represented. Stein would simply no longer be the figure she was if she had returned, let us imagine, to Baltimore! How might any of us at Stein’s age of 66 suddenly imagine ourselves as leaving what we have come to define as the country define as home. The six last years of her life would have been lived in even greater isolation than that she describes in the pages of Paris France. We have only to look at an example such as the former expatriate Djuna Barnes—in Paris perceived as one of the great wits of the age, a woman without whom no party could be complete—who, upon returning to the US because of World War II, quickly developed a life that has correctly been described as being life of a hermit who scared away almost anyone who might have wanted to visit. Yes, Barnes continued to live for several more decades and even wrote. But she was no longer a joyful human being in touch with other human lives. Perhaps Barnes was never a truly a joyful human being, but Stein was! Stein desperately depended upon the social interrelationships with artists and writers that she had had in Paris, even with the natives of village where she hunkered down during the War, and, after, the hundreds of soldiers who accepted her open visits to her dinner table.
      Stein’s France, moreover, as she makes clear in Paris France, was not anybody else’s France. If at times it may seem to related to others’ perceptions of that country or, even, if, as Gopnik imagines, “we are convinced by the truth of her observations”—something that, for all my love of Stein, I seldom was—we recognize that Stein’s version is a Romantic one, “not real,” but for her, alone, “really there.”


Los Angeles, August 31, 2014
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (August 2014).

 

a fiction requiring history and faith

 
Gertrude Stein Mrs. Reynolds (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995).

 

Front Cover Recently rereading Gertrude Stein’s wartime novel, Mrs. Reynolds, I once again took joy in having reprinted this book (from the Yale edition of her works left unpublished at the time of her death) on my Sun & Moon Press imprint in 1988 and again in 1995. It was the very first volume in my ongoing Sun & Moon Classics series, with more than 150 volumes published before the press ceased publishing around 2000.

     In my now third reading, I perceived, even more emphatically, not only how mistaken had been claims by Janet Malcolm, Barbara Will and others describing Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as collaborators with the Nazis during World War II, but realized that these Stein detractors had clearly not bothered to carefully read or attempted to comprehend Stein’s serious war writings, of which Mrs. Reynolds stands at the center. 

     Mrs. Reynolds, the “heroine” of the novel is indeed a very plain but pretty woman, like the figure in the Matisse painting from which I had stolen for my cover design,* a woman who loves flowers for what they are as opposed to what they might symbolize or represent: “Mrs. Reynolds liked roses to be roses. This is the way she felt about roses.” The character, in fact, is a very practical woman, who “had never been unwell,” a woman who may cry, but does not—at least at first in this fiction—hint at or outwardly demonstrate something hidden within; “Mrs. Reynolds never sighed.” Things, Stein suggests, are what they appear to be in this work: “[Mrs. Reynolds’ husband] was a nice man he looked nice and he was nice.”  “Mrs. Reynolds was quiet and easy, when she said, well, she meant well. She did” (Mrs. Reynolds, p. 9).
     But from the very beginning of the fiction, Stein also warns us to be careful upon what we focus. Although the language and events of this book may be very straight-forward, almost transparent, the real concerns of both the character Mrs. Reynolds and the fiction in which she appears relate to something far more abstract. “Mrs. Reynolds is not all about roses, it is more about Tuesdays than about roses” (9). The way the work functions, so Stein straight-forwardly states, is more about dates, the days of the week and, as we shall soon see, the years of events, than it is about Mrs. and Mrs. Reynolds’ domestic life. 
       “Tuesday was when Mrs. Reynolds was born.” More importantly, Stein continues, Tuesday “was the day they made peace from war and that was the day they made war from peace.”** And already in the few first paragraphs Stein briefly shifts attention from her comments about the book’s central character to memories of World War I, speaking of Mrs. Reynolds’ nephew and his friend, who together “went to be soldiers and they were both killed by a bomb on the same day.” (10). The intelligent reader perceives, in another words, that although a great part of this fiction might be superficially concerned with talk about “bread in soup,” “eggs and butter,” and “guinea hens and geese” (10), the book’s true subject is a far more profound one. 
       The next few pages, devoted to the process of the young baby growing up to become Mrs. Reynolds, may seem, like almost anyone’s adolescence, to be very uneventful, with the major subjects being things such as strawberries, box-hedges, and the girl’s youthful friendships—innocuous events that might even lull the reader into the belief that Stein’s fiction will be a strange kind of biographical telling of her heroine, a kind of Bildungsroman. Already by page 20, however, when Mrs. Reynolds turns 22, she suddenly begins to notice the clouds in the sky:


Then the clouds began to come that is she began to see the
clouds there were in the sky, rosy clouds and dark clouds and
white clouds and silver clouds. Whichever clouds there were,
she noticed them and she looked at them.


The discussion of clouds continues for two more pages until Mrs. Reynolds finally becomes Mrs. Reynolds at the age of 23: “And now Mrs. Reynolds was twenty-three and this year she was to be Mrs. Reynolds.” Events, accordingly, are linked up with the years of being, and the years of being are associated with larger events in the world. 
      Mrs. Reynolds coming of age also hints at another major structural element of the book, that of predictions and foretellings. The first prediction of this tale, very much centered around one major prophesy, that of Saint Odile, is uttered by a distant cousin’s brother’s son when the future Mrs. Reynolds is just seventeen, predicting that at the age of 23 she will become Mrs. Reynolds. And indeed, through the machinations of another couple, Epie and Leonardo, the young heroine is introduced to her future husband. The same morning Mrs. Reynolds dreams that “there were five artichokes blooming in the garden,” a reference, possibly, to James Joyce’s Ulysses, where Bloom recounts his memory of the evening in Matt Dillon’s garden with Dillon’s bevy of six daughters (Tiny, Atty, Floey, Maimy, Lou, Hetty) who with the seventh, Molly, create a kind of floral landscape: “Open like flowers, know their hours, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes. In ballrooms, chandeliers, avenues under the lamps.”*** Just as this passage calls up Bloom’s marriage to Molly, so does it in Stein’s work presage the young 23-year old girl’s encountering of her life-time companion, Mr. Reynolds.
     Mr. Reynolds has also been affected by war; “He had lost two brothers in the war. …Very much later and in another war [presumably the war of which Stein’s fiction is concerned] he lost his only nephew.” 
     Over the next few pages Stein recounts the marriage and the relatives that attend the ceremony; but suddenly, with the introduction of Mr. Reynolds’ younger brother William, who lives next door with his wife, Hope, everything changes. For William, quite obviously a very different kind of man than his elder brother, has two friends who quickly become the foreboding figures who consume the days and nights of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds’ life.


The parents of the wife [Hope} sometimes came and stayed
with them [William and his wife] but mostly they had other
kinds of people with them.
   The ones they knew best were two men.
   The one was Angel Harper. He became very well-known
but they [Mr.and Mrs. Reynolds] did not know him any more
then.

    The other was older he was Joseph Lane. He had bushy
eyebrows and was older than any of them and it did not make
any difference to him how young he was or how old he was. (24)


     Stein goes out of her way to dissociate the central couple of her story from William and Hope, describing William as a man who stays in bed “when anything happens, which did happen very much that winter.” Although Hope, a teacher, does go out and even encounters others, she too has very little to do with Mrs. Reynolds and her husband. Stein goes even further in insisting upon the dissociation of the two families:


She [Mrs. Reynolds] and her sister-in-law were neighbors
but it would not be very likely that they would be either going
out or coming in at the same time.
    Anyway neither the brothers nor the sisters-in-law met, they
really never met.


    Why, one might well ask, does Stein make it so evident that Mrs. Reynolds has no relationship with her in-laws and, as she later reports several times, never met either Angel Harper or Joseph Lane? Even more importantly, why does she associate these two figures—whom readers quickly discern represent Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin (only four pages later Stein writes “Angel Harper later was a dictator.”)—with a relative of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds?

http://www.danielpontius.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/basket.jpg      As the fiction progresses, the reader naturally associates Mrs. Reynolds more and more with Stein herself. As Steven Gould Axelrod acutely notes in his intelligent essay on the fiction, “Mrs. Reynolds: Stein’s Anti-Nazi Novel,” “the novel reflects the perspective of a woman whose experiences closely resemble Stein’s own. Held hostage in Vichy, France, she is frightened for her life, horrified by the violence occurring around her, and clear in her loathing for Hitler”  (essay read in manuscript). 

     Even in these few early pages, Stein has associated Mrs. Reynolds—through the character’s desire for “roses to be roses”—with Stein’s own famed maxim, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” from 1913, later restated as “A rose is a rose is a rose,” her version of Williams’ later, 1927 dictum, “No ideas but in things.”  And. if Mrs. Reynolds’ dream is actually a reference to Joyce, she has connected her heroine with the Jewish figure of Leopold Bloom, aligning her character to her own religious beliefs. As the work moves forward, moreover, we cannot help but feel this woman, walking the streets of a small, provincial French village, where she regularly speaks with the inhabitants, is extremely similar to the Stein we come to know in Bilignin as described in her Paris France.
     Recognizing that some of those neighbors, even somewhat distant friends such as Stein’s admirer and, some argue, protector, Bernard Faÿ, may be Nazi-sympathizers, Stein goes out of her way to dissociate herself from them, insisting not only that Mrs. Reynolds has never meet Angel Harper (that she had no knowledge of him and his ideas), but that she does not engage with those who do know of him, refusing to consort even with her brother and sister in-law.     What gradually becomes apparent is that Stein’s choice of the word “knowing” with regard to Angel Harper and Joseph Lane, does not necessarily indicate that her brother and others are actual “acquaintances” with those dictators, but rather hints that the gerund is a code word implying that those with such “knowledge” are sympathizers or supporters of Hitler or Stalin—just as one, so I have read, might identify oneself as an alcoholic attending AA meetings by inquiring of another, “Do you know Bill?” (William Griffith Wilson being the founder of that organization). With that word, Stein makes it clear that Mrs. and Mr. Reynolds are utterly opposed to those who are “in the know.” 
     Soon after his early friendship with William, Angel Harper leaves: “he went away and they never saw him again” (37). But William Reynolds and his wife Hope continue to be tainted by their former relationship to him. Later, he and his wife are visited by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Madden-Henry, obviously a British pair who are admirers of Angel Harper: “Mr. and Mrs. Madden-Henry admired Angel Harper because he never coughed.” (96) Hope also expresses her admiration of Harper, in a strange way, by suggesting the dual meaning of the word “bat”: “Bat is a word that has two meanings, one that flies by night and one that hits a ball.”
     Possibly in this passage Stein is simply satirizing the situation by playing with the satirical notion, held by many and particularly apparent in Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator, that Hitler’s rants often sounded very much like coughing fits; his name in the film, Adenoid Hynkel, reiterates that fact. Not only is Harper a “bat,” a frightening, vampire-like figure, but like the little tramp in The Great Dictator, “hits” the ball, which Chaplin represents in the form of a giant globe of the world, around the room.**** 
     Others, such as Mrs. Coates, immediately begin to think very badly about the Madden-Henrys, and, more importantly, Mrs. Reynolds—who has already prophesized that Angel Harper would be drowned (“She never knew Angel Harper which was just as well because she would have said of him that he would be drowned dead….”) (62)—a short while later tells her husband that she “really never wanted to see or hear William again” (138). Soon after William and Hope, thankfully, move away.     
      If Mrs. Reynolds and most of her neighbors at first know little about Angel Harper, once his name is invoked, the fiction is soon overwhelmed with mentions of him and, to a far lesser degree, of Joseph Lane. After the early naming of Harper, his moniker crops up throughout the rest of the fiction on nearly every page and, at times, in nearly every paragraph. In short, as Stein notes, even if Mrs. Reynolds and most of the others in her village had never “known” him before he “went away,” it hardly matters: “…Ten years after, it made no difference, because everybody knew about him and might he might be afraid enough” (37-38).
     The fiction itself becomes, just as Angel Harper is described, more and more gloomy. A hoot-owl hoots “terrifically” (38), the winters seem colder, it rains for “twenty-eight days in the daytime and in the evening and at night….” (81). The link between these events and Hitler are made quite clear, as in the very next paragraph Stein repeats: “By this time Angel Harper was very well known, so well known that everybody knew about him.”  
     Already by page 50, the woman who began the work as one who “never sighed,” begins to sigh quite often, an act in which she continues to engage throughout most of the rest of the fiction.

      Gradually, perhaps in imitation of Hitler’s autobiographical Mein Kampf, we begin to get glimpses of Angel Harper as a child, a young boy, and a teenager:


When Angel Harper was a little boy he did not drill other
little boys and make them march. Some do. He did not.
He sat and when he sat, he sat. Enough said.
….
He talked to himself and he said, all the same.
And when he said all the same he meant it. (68)


    Although these brief memories have no common thread, they generally show Angel Harper at a distance from others and removed from the rest of world events. He often acts alone, watching, focusing on his own inner thoughts. Many of them show a person not knowing how to relate to others around him:


Angel Harper was bitter he was where he was and he was
bitter, he ate what he ate and he was bitter, nobody saw
him just then and he was bitter and little by little it was
as much worse and he was bitter.  (90)


This passage, in particular, reminds one of Hitler’s anger with his father who stood against his desire to become an artist, described in Mein Kampf.
    As Axelrod makes clear in his essay, Mrs. Reynolds not only recognizes Angel Harper as evil (“Angel Harper is annoysome, he is dangerous, he is painful, he is owned and is annoysome…”), but she would have him dead.“: “And I would be pleased if they killed him (98).” Mrs. Reynolds truly wishes that he might become an “angel harper,” a dead man harping in some vague depiction of an afterlife. In this case, as Axelrod has argued, I think we have to think of the “angel” as a fallen one, as a satanic force rather than a creature of paradise.
    As the wartime situation grows in its horrors, Mrs. Reynolds becomes more and more sad (282). She has bad dreams and fears for the future. What begins as a wish for Angel’s death is transformed into hate: “If I knew about him I would hate him, and I do know about him and I do hate him” (298). 
     Before long what began as descriptions of simple feelings, emotional responses to Angel Harper that alternate with the very ordinary and uneventful days of Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds—as they rise each morning, leave the house for periods of time, eat dinner, and, ritualistically, go back to bed—begin to be overshadowed by longer units of time which designate the years of the dictator’s life. 
     This begins with a brief mention of Harper/Hitler being thirty-eight (“Angel Harper was now thirty-eight and it was not at all too late” (108). And in the next line Stein warns the reader to pay attention: “Listen here,” she insists. Something is about the change, she hints, as if warning us that a new element of narrative structure is about to be introduced.
     On the very next page (109), Angel Harper is described as being forty-three. A couple of pages later he becomes forty-four, an aging process upon which Stein continues to focus until the end of her work. Narrative time in Mrs. Reynolds shifts as the Hitler figure grows older. The numerous figures of the earlier pages begin to disappear; life becomes more difficult as people aimlessly pass by the Reynolds’ window. Food becomes scarce. The small daily events that were so crucial to the narrative pattern of the fiction, become more and more vague as Mrs. Reynolds increasingly fears to even leave the house. 
     To understand this shift, I argue, one has to further make sense of Mrs. Reynolds’ increasing fixation with Angel Harper’s age, particularly since, we quickly perceive, more and more pages are devoted to each passing year. Stein hints at the key to comprehending this shift by noting that in the year 1942 one naturally thinks of Columbus’ voyage of 1492, a voyage which her husband links to wider world events that embrace even the distant USA:


Mr. Reynolds came in, he did not meditate but he told Mrs.
Reynolds what every one said. They said that suddenly in
September 1940 the United States of America instead of being
a big flat land illimitably flat, the land against which Christopher
Columbus bumped himself in 1492 became a part of the round
world that goes around and around.*****


     In another words, through the Columbus simile, the reader is asked to see the very flat world, where hardly anything happens, as a multi-dimensional reality, as a world in real time and space; the sympathetic reader is asked to infuse the flat narrative of Stein’s Mrs. Reynolds with events in the real world to make sense of the emotional responses of Mrs. Reynolds and others described in the book in order to make it, too, part of the “round world that goes around and around.” If, as Stein claims in her final “Epilogue,” “There is nothing historical about this book except the state of mind,” she asks that the reader bring with him that “state of mind,” that he impose historicity upon her flat fiction to comprehend the significance of the author’s and characters’ observations.
     When Angel Harper/Hitler becomes 44, for example, the year would have been (given Hitler’s birth year of 1889) 1933, an important year for Hitler: in that year he was named Chancellor of the Reich, which, in turn, allowed him to gain control over the German police. On February 27 that same year, The Reichstag was set afire, which, with Hindenberg’s support, led to the suspension of basic rights and permitted detention without trial. In March of that year, Hitler’s German National People’s Party acquired the largest number of seats in parliament, and. along with the “Enabling Act,” transformed Hitler’s government into a legal dictatorship.
     An even longer chapter is devoted to Angel Harper at age forty-six (128), Hitler’s 1935, the year the people of the Saarland voted to unite with Germany and its Fürher expanded the Wehrmacht; relationships between Jews and Aryans were outlawed. At forty-seven (133), Hitler reoccupied the Saarland, breaking the Versailles Treaty of World War I. He sent troops to Spain to support General Franco.
     As the situation becomes worse and worse, as I said, more and more time is given over to each year of Angel Harper’s life. Quite clearly, Stein is paralleling her character’s increasing fears with the flurry of events surrounding Hitler and his Third Reich. By the time he becomes fifty-one (1940), the year Germany attacked France, conquered Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Belgium, nearly everything in Mrs. Reynolds life has stopped:


…in every way it was a day in which Angel Harper was more
fifty-one than he had been then it was time that trains stopped
puffing and that chairs were not there to sit in and that hens
stopped laying eggs and when cows saw snow it excited them
and they jumped around and perhaps some of them broke their
leg. Angel Harper was fifty-on and there was no longing no
longing for anything.


The world in motion has become almost dead, a world of stasis.
      Contrary to the forces of Angel Harper, however, are two major dynamisms. The first is the vague and distant (he is after all, as Mrs. Reynolds notes, “a foreigner”) presence of Joseph Lane. As Axelrod has observed, if one supposed, given Stein’s “sometimes conservative personal politics,” Stein might focus on Lane/Stalin’s evil capacities, through the persona Mrs. Reynolds she surprisingly sees him to be in opposition to Harper, arguing at one point, “It is very nice and quiet of him to go on…and Mrs. Reynolds gave a sigh of relief” (237)—passages, which Axelrod points out, clearly “refer to Soviet successes on the eastern front beginning in late 1941.”
     The second opposing force to Harper/Hitler comes from Mrs. Reynolds’ belief in predictions and prophesies, in particular the somewhat surprising prognostication of the seventh century Saint Odile. It is clear that, as she says of her heroine, Stein was not so interested in the Catholic convictions of Saint Odile and others, but found their holiness to lie in their faith expressed through their visions of the future, their commitment to the future through the evidence of their predictions: 


To prophesy for years is more difficult than to prophesy for
months.This is perfectly well known. She said spiders can
exaggerate but months and days. She was fairly fortunate
because after all prophecies do come true yes they do.


     As world events grow more and more dire throughout the book, the years of Harper’s life growing into longer and longer events outweighing the daily comings and goings of the Reynolds, that figure’s belief in the saint’s seventh-century prediction permits her to grow stronger in the face of current events. 


Saint Odile had said, listen to me my brother, I have seen
the terror in forests and mountains where the Germans shall
be called the most war-like people of the earth.
     It will happen that the time will come when a war the
most terrible war in the world will happen and mothers will
weep for their children and will not be consoled.
     From the Danube the war will commence and will be a
horrible war on earth, on the sea and even in the air, and
warriors will rise in the air to seize stars to throw them down
upon cities and make them the cities burst into flames.


http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0b/Alsace_Mont_Sainte-Odile_24.JPG/220px-Alsace_Mont_Sainte-Odile_24.JPG   The patron saint of the blind, Odile of Alsace was born (c. 662-c.730) at Monte Sainte-Odile. Born blind, she was rejected by her father Etichon and sent away from her family’s wealthy home to be raised in Burgundy by peasants. At a nearby monastery, an angel appeared to her, baptizing her Odile, whereupon she recovered her sight. When her younger brother, Hughes, heard of her recovery, he brought her home again, so enraging his father that the elder killed his son. Odile revived her brother, and escaped, hiding from her father who chased after her, in a cave. When he attempted to follow her flight, the cliff face gave way, injuring him and forcing him to turn away, thus establishing her as a kind of proto-feminist figure in church history.
     Odile evidently made several prophesies, mostly about local events; but the one referred to by Mrs. Reynolds is believed to speak of the German’s defeat in 1941, when the eternal city of Rome will burn, and the Huns will be forced to fight a new army that will come from across an ocean (55).*****
     By the end of Mrs. Reynolds, although still unsure of the precise date in which the terrible events will end, the heroine is so convinced of the Saint’s predictions that she serves almost as a proselytizer for Odile’s predictions of the future, sharing her knowledge with nearly everyone with whom she meets. By the year in which Angel Harper is fifty-two, Mrs. Reynolds, convinced in Odile’s prediction, is certain that “he is nearly through.” 
     Accordingly, Stein asks that just as the reader has infused the book with an historical reality, so too must he bring to it a faith that might justify Mrs. Reynolds’ belief in what lies ahead in order to make certain that Harper, like Hitler, is not “fifty-five” alive.****** 
     It is not enough to simply focus, as have previous critics, on Mrs. Reynolds’ life as depicted in the fiction, in short, but, as I argue, Stein asks that we direct our attention to the world outside the fiction, which includes the historical facts of Hitler’s rule and the religiously-inspired divinations of St. Odile. By centering her fiction on both history and faith, Stein illuminates what first appears as a flat, one-dimensional reality, projecting it somewhat like a folded image in a pop-up card, creating a three-dimensional perspective. 
     What Axelrod’s and my own readings also make quite clear, finally, is that attending to Mrs. Reynolds helps one to perceive a Gertrude Stein who—far different from the one hazily described by writers such as Janet Malcolm in her rather scurrilous study Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007) and who stands apart from the even more disparaging attack on Stein by Barbara Will in Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma (2011), as well as behaving far differently from the figure described by numerous other rumor-mongers—empathically expressed a strong hatred for Nazism in her writing of the period, values that are just as apparent in her sensitive dialogue with American soldiers in her Brewsie and Willie that followed. If in Paris France Stein seems to be attempting to keep her mind off of the horrible realities hovering over her, in Mrs. Reynolds she and her heroine squarely face those horrors of what she admits has tragically resulted in “so many deaths.” 
_____

*I was equally pleased again by the collage I had created for the cover of that book (under the pseudonym of my hyperactive designer, Katie Messborn), a Matisse painting of a woman surrounded by geraniums and a floral patterned swathe of cloth, witnessing from a large, American-like picture window, a meeting of Hitler and Stalin (cut from National Geographic) with an image of a small plane pasted above their heads. The purple from which I cut the exaggeratedly looping drapes was almost the exact purple Matisse had used in other elements of his domestic scape. I still think it perfectly catches the feeling of Stein’s work, with its mix of everyday living, fading fashion (the swathe of cloth seems to be falling from where it has been pinned above a painting), and the menacing figures in profile in seeming walking distance from the faceless woman entrapped within. In a completely unconscious manner I took the one-dimensional decorative patterns of Matisse and, by adding an historical photograph, transformed into an encounter between the ordinary daily flatness of life with a three-dimensional perspective of history.
**Presumably the “peace” of which Stein is writing is the end of World War I. In actuality, the armistice that ended that War was on Monday (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”), but we can forgive Stein’s carrying it over until the next day, perhaps the day when she first heard the news. The same war, however, is generally cited as having begun on a Tuesday, July 28, 1914, just as she claims in Mrs. Reynolds.
***”Blooming artichokes,” in fact, are thistles, and have little to do with Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus), which are the roots of plants related to Sunflowers. The name bears no relationship to the city of Jerusalem, but derives instead from the Italian word girasole because of the plants’ similarity to the garden sunflower (the word literally meaning “sunflower artichoke”), which somehow became corrupted in English to the word “Jerusalem.” Yet the dream of Mrs. Reynolds bears a great deal of resemblance to the Ulysses passage. However, one might observe that if it is a literary reference, it would be one of a very few in all of Stein’s writing.
****As far-fetched as this may sound, such an allusion to cinema would have again tied Stein to the Jewish issues very much at the center of that film. Similarly, only a few pages later (121), a guest in Mrs. Reynold’s house, Valerie Harland, jokes, “To be or not to be Angel Harper,” in response to which everyone laughs. This may simply be a joke based on the Hamlet speech, but it might also refer to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 satire To Be or Not to Be, in which Jack Benny portrays Hitler. Clearly, both of my statements are pure speculation. There is no evidence of which I am aware that Stein saw either of these movies or even heard of them. It does not change Stein’s heroine’s clear abhorrence of Mr. Reynolds’ brother, William, his wife, and others like him. 
*****Throughout the quiet and patient Mr. Reynolds is associated with the US in his numerous comments about what Stein calls “the romance of America.” See pages 58-59.
******A translation of the Odile prophesy I found on the internet reads:

     "There will come a time when war will break out, more terrible than all other wars combined, which have ever visited mankind. A horrible warrior will unleash it, and his adversaries will call him Antichrist. All nations of the earth will fight each other in this war. The fighters will rise up to the heavens to take the stars and throw them on the cities, to set ablaze the buildings and to cause immense devastations. Oceans will lie between the great warriors, and the monsters of the sea, terrified by everything that happens on or under the sea, will flee to the deep. Battles of the past will only be skirmishes compared to the battles that will take place, since blood will flow in all directions.

    “The earth will shake from the violent fighting. Famine and pestilence will join the war. The nations will then cry ‘Peace, peace,’ but there will be no peace. Thrice will the sun rise over the heads of the combatants, without having been seen by them. But afterwards there will be peace, and all who have broken peace will have lost their lives. On a single day more men will have been killed than the catacombs of Rome have ever held. Pyres will be erected greater than the greatest city, and people will ascend the highest mountains to praise God, and nobody will want to make war anymore. Strange signs will appear in the skies: both horns of the moon will join the cross. Happy will be those who will have survived the war, since the pleasures of life will begin again, and the sun will have a new brilliance...

      "Woe to those who, in those days, do not fear the Antichrist, for he is the father of those who are not repelled by crime. He will arouse more homicides and many people will shed tears over his evil customs. Men will set themselves one against the other and at the end will want to re-establish order. Some will try to do so, but this will not succeed and thus will end up even worse off than before! But if things will have reached the summit and if the hand of man can no longer do anything, it will be put in the hands of Him, who can send down a punishment so terrible that it will not have been seen before. God has already sent the Flood, but he has sworn never to send one again. What he will do will be something unexpected and terrible."
*******Although Stein scholars (Ulla Dydo and others) report that Stein completed Mrs. Reynolds in 1942, if you follow the years of Angel Harper’s life which the fiction describes, the work indeed does end, as did the real war, in 1945, with Harper/Hitler’s death. It is apparent that Stein went back and revised these sections later


Los Angeles, September 5, 2014
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (September 2014).


a time gone mad




Gertrude Stein Wars I Have Seen (New York: Random House, 1945; London: Brillance Books, 1984.
     After finishing her “fiction” Mrs. Reynolds in 1942, at the house in which she was living in Biliginin—although it is also evident that she later revised that fiction to include the end of the war in 1945—Stein, having moved to Culoz, turned, in 1943, to writing a book that at first seems to be a kind of continuation of her earlier, Paris France—the latter seemingly a larger discussion of not just the current war, but about all the other wars she had experienced, Wars I Have Seen.

     Like Paris France the work once again begins with her birth and events in her early childhood, as she recounts her fascination with the U.S. Civil War (Ulysses S. Grant being one of her favorite figures throughout her life), with childhood legends of battling knights, and her youthful reactions to the Boer War, the Spanish-American War, and other battles. Much of this, including some of her recounting of World War I, is, like the earlier book, filled with abstract generalities and gnomic-like pronouncements, representing maxim-like, somewhat comical observations (“It is funny about wars, they ought to be different but they are not,” this despite the fact that by the end of the book she reveals most emphatically that World War II is utterly different from any of the wars that came before it;” “In the nineteenth century, there was reading, there was evolution, there was war and antiwar which was the same thing, and there was eating. Even now I always resent when in a book they say they sat down to a hearty meal and they do not tell just what it was they ate. In the nineteenth century they often did.”), and long, heavy-weighted musings (including a long discussion of the relationship of being “between babyhood and fourteen” to legend and coincidence and a new realization at age fifteen that she describes as very disconcerting: “So at fifteen there comes to be a realization of what living was in mediaeval times and as a pioneer. It is very near. And now in 1943 it is here.”) 
     At times it seems that these maxims, pronouncements, and musings will, in fact, overwhelm any coherent narrative about her World War II experiences. One almost cringes, at moments, for example, when Stein attempts to differentiate the current War from World War I, which she declares was a nineteenth century war which its veterans remember as something they “liked”: “it was a nice war, a real war a regular war, a commenced war. It was a war, and veterans like a war to be a war.” Tell that to the over nine million soldiers and seven million civilians who died during World War I. Had Stein even seen a trench? I am tempted to try to ameliorate such ridiculous statements by simply describing them as the blind spots of an old woman—until I remind myself that at 69 in 1943, Stein was only a couple of years older than I am today.
     But what we must also recognize is that not everything Stein writes in this book, as in Paris France, represents her own point of view. As in that earlier book, what Stein often creates is not a work which, instead of personally commenting on history, serves as  a kind of expression of the panoply of voices and their accompanying points of view that living in a small French village during 1943 and 1944 would naturally produce. And, in that sense, her Wars I Have Seen is less a personal memoir about war than, like Mrs. Reynolds, an attempt to demonstrate “the way anybody could feel these years.” Perhaps we cannot go so far as to say that, as she does in the Epilogue of her “fiction,” “There is nothing historical about this book except the state of mind,” but we can argue that the history she tells is not merely a personal one. And if, at times, it appears that Stein is somewhat impervious to the feelings anyone might have during this tense period in French history, it is because it is not a history about any one person—even though those events are represented through her point of view and she very much stands out as the central figure within the book.
     One need only to observe the basic structure of most of this work to realize that it is unlike nearly any other Stein creation. Although a great many of Stein works are conversational in tone, here the very patterns of the book suggest a kind of narrative structure that is not only oral but is based on way human beings converse with one another. 
     Consider, for example, the quote I so objected to above: “It was a nice war.” That statement appears on page 75 in the 1984 British edition of the original 1945 Random House publication. Given Stein’s usual predilection for outright pronouncements and generalizations, we may not, at first, even question her description of a war—any war—as being “nice.” But Stein quite clearly knows in saying this that she has made a rather strange comment. And two pages later, after ambulating through a great many other issues, including the appearance in 1918 of a vision to two children of the Virgin who predicts “a much worse war,” Stein returns to her comment to explain:




The 1914-1918 war was must like our civil war, it was that
kind of a war and that made it possible for Elmer Harden to
make Pierre Caous admit that it was a nice war. A nice war
is a war where everybody who is heroic is a hero, and everybody
more or less is a hero in a nice war.




      This quite clearly alters what at first seems to be a personal observation. Elmer Harden is a figure, also appearing in Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, who Stein and Toklas met and shared with them his experiences in World War I. I quote below the entire passage from the 1933 work:

 

                  Before the war we had known a young fellow,
                  not known him much but a little; Elmer Harden,
                  who was in Paris studying music. During the war
                  we heard that Elmer Harden had joined the french
                  army and been badly wounded. It was rather an
                  amazing story. Elmer Harden had been nursing
                  french wounded in the american hospital and one
                  of his patients, a captain with an arm fairly disabled,
                  was going back to the front. Elmer Harden could not
                  content himself any longer nursing. He said to
                  Captain Peter, I am going with you. But it is
                  impossible, said Captain Peter. But I am, said
                  Elmer stubbornly. So they took a taxi and they
                  went to the war office and to a dentist and I don’t
                  know where else, but by the end of the week Captain
                  Peter had rejoined and Elmer Harden was in his
                  regiment as a soldier. He fought well and was wounded.
                  After the war we met him again and then we met often.
                  He and the lovely flowers he used to send us were a
                  great comfort in those days just after the peace. He
                  and I  always say that he and I will be the last
                  people of our generation to remember the war. I am
                  afraid we both of us have already forgotten it a little.
                  Only the other day though Elmer announced that he
                  had had a great triumph, he had made Captain Peter
                  and Captain Peter is a breton admit that it was a nice war.
                  Up to this time when he had said to Captain Peter,
                  it was a nice war, Captain Peter had not answered,
                  but this time when Elmer said, it was a nice war,
                  Captain Peter said, yes Elmer, it was a nice war.




     Obviously Captain Peter is Pierre Caous, the man he convinced to allow him to nurse the French wounded in the American hospital. And his seemingly outrageous comments are not meant as a commentary on the horrors of the war, issues which he brilliantly explored in his own writing,* but are merely a generality on the values of those who fought in the war, the individuals who saw themselves and others as heroes. For Stein, World II was much more of a medieval experience, a far more brutal world, which, she argued, made it a 20th century war instead of a 19th century one, a war in which the people no longer believed in progress or that personal invention might still somehow save them. In short, Stein’s casual way of approaching her subjects should not obscure her more serious consideration of the issues she brings up, which reveal not always her own points of view, but those of the past and those around her.
     Stein brings these issues up, one might also say, as tantalizing questions which she later answers in various ways that are not always personal. As Stein puts it another way, “Anybody can ask a question and anybody can answer a question, and during war-time they ask questions more than ever particularly in war-time like this one of 1943.” The seeming triviality of some of these questions is humorously revealed in her next comments: 


                Who said Christine aged six of her mother who is the
                Italians, Italians being in occupation it was a natural
                question, why the Germans said her mother, and who
                are friends of the Germans, why the Italians said her
                mother, and who are friends of the English said
                Christine, why the Americans said her mother, and
                is Stalin friends with the Germans said Christine,
                no with the English said her mother, and who are
                the French friends of, said Christine, why no one
                said the mother.


The incessant child-like questions, many of which Stein posits, creates a kind of chatter than reveals more than its speakers sometimes perceive. “So if you ask questions and there is an answer it is not nevertheless any less illuminating,” Stein concludes, arguing for her approach.
     Not all of these questions are as significant as her discussions of the differences between wars or even the issue of which country sides with which. As the reader of Mrs. Reynolds will remember, Saint Odilie’s predictions were of enormous importance to the character in that book, and in this work that obscure saint remains of interest to Stein, if for no other reason than because she made predictions whose coincidence with current events help her (as it did for Mrs. Reynolds) to have faith in the future.** Similar to the pattern I describe above, Stein begins with a simple, strange outcry: “Saint Odile, oh yes Saint Odile. (p. 57)” The following paragraph on the farmers of Bilignin has nothing to do with her saint. But a paragraph later, she mentions the subject once more, “And now about Saint Odilie,” without really picking up the strand again until page 59, while still refusing to finish her story. Once again on page 69, she brings up the theme, “So Saint Odile did prophesy.” But she does not pick up the subject again until page 192, in talking about the liberation of Rome, and Stein withholds her major statement on Odile’s predictions until page 239.

https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRxT_f8NHu9weYl5HjyvgP7tVpr8fa-7fMzzjb5M5U2yUnPKc3cdw

     Similarly (as early as page 31) Stein applies her reading of Shakespeare’s plays to the war: “There are so many enemies in Shakespeare,” which unleashes a somewhat long discussion of enemies. But it is not until page 37 that she again brings up Shakespeare as a subject in relationship to his play, Henry VI. On page 59 Shakespeare returns and reappears from time to time throughout the rest of the book. In short, Stein uses such subjects sometimes almost as leitmotivs, mentioning them and then withholding the information before furthering the discussion at later points along the way when it becomes appropriate, often in different contexts. She does the same in her several mentions, throughout the text, of James Fennimore Cooper’s novel, The Spy.
      One might perceive this structural device, in fact, as a purposeful clue to the reader that what Stein has to say on the aforementioned subject will be returned to from various perspectives, from the viewpoints of many in the context of sometimes conflicting ideas. Certainly, she applies this approach to the most sensitive issues that she brings up, including her often clashing viewpoints that she and her neighbors have about the Vichy government and its nefarious leader, Philippe Petain. On page 83 she writes: “But to tell about Petain and all the things one could I could think about him.” Immediately after, however, she jumps to a long passage about eating honey in the war, a replacement for sugar that one at first misses, but gradually realizes is every bit as good as sugar. Clearly one might read this as a kind of metaphor for her relationship to Petain and the Vichy government, particularly since it was her acquaintance Bernard Faÿ’s interference that allowed her and Alice to remain in France during the war. In 1941 she was even asked to translate some of Petain’s writings. But when she does finally proceed into her discussion of what we now recognize as a villainous figure who sent thousands of French Jews to their deaths, it is with the removed restraint of a biographical story about his life (p. 86), explaining how this retired World War I figure was brought back to head the French German-sponsored government. Even in that discussion, Stein expresses a great many doubts about Petain’s positions, particularly with regard to the French consensus that they as a people “getting slack.” Stein even appears to mock Faÿ and others in describing what Petain and many of the French sought, “a sort of heroic rotarianism in every walk of life. I used to hear Bernard Faÿ talk about this and mixed up with it all was a desire to have back a king, they thought that kings suit France, most Frenchman prefer a republic but everybody has to think as they like about that.” Stein clearly questions Petain’s position while he served as ambassador to Spain:

 

                        …he hoped Franco would do what he thought
                        should done but did he does he….


Even when she finally sums up his achievements, it is clear that Stein, like many in the French population is quite conflicted in her feelings about Petain:


                        Well anyway there was the armistice Petain
                        made it and we were all very glad in a way
                        and completely sad in a way and we had so
                        many opinions. I did not like his way of saying
                        I Philippe Petain, that bothered me and we
                        were in the unoccupied area and that was
                        a comfort.


Despite the fact that others had suggested to her that there was no difference between the occupied and unoccupied zones, Stein argues convincingly that “there was a difference all right. One might not be very free in the unoccupied but we were pretty free and in the occupied they were not free, the difference between being pretty free and not free at all is considerable.” Her mixed views, moreover, were similar to a great many French Jews, as Caroline Moorehad has made clear in her Village of Secrets. In the beginning a large portion of the population supported Petain, changing their viewpoints as they grew more and more aware of his roundup of the Jews and his other capitulations to the Germans.

http://thisrecording.com/storage/steintoklas%20cheatu.jpg?__SQUARESPACE_CACHEVERSION=1321926506174     Strangely, in that same paragraph, Stein suddenly rushes ahead of her story, as she explains that the difference between the two French regions is now not so significant (German soldiers were now occupying the unoccupied territory as well***), but that she still feels the armistice was right because “it was an important element in the ultimate defeat of the Germans.” In fact, it would play a major role in permitting the Allies access to Italy and France, and, perhaps equally importantly, as I recently perceived in reading Village of Secrets, in saving numerous Jewish children and adults hidden through Vichy France, particularly in the not so distant Plateau Vivarais-Lignon.**** Stein, however, has drawn her conclusions not merely from her feelings in 1943, the year in which she contextualizes these observations, but from another perspective that comes from 1944 or even if after the end of the War, the kind of leap ahead in narrative that she used in The Autobiography (see My Year 2008). Moreover, they are not just Stein’s feelings but those of many around her in a community filled with everyday men and women, some of whom are heroes, others of whom are collaborators, surrounded by Germans with whom few, including Stein, choose to communicate. In the hills about, moreover, were the young French maquis, some of whom, if Stein is to be believed, snuck home on weekends, and about whom there are a wide-range of reactions among the town’s citizenry.
    Several pages later, after some stories that help to prove her point, Stein humorously summarizes her and her neighbors’ attitudes, “And all the time there is Petain, an old man a very old man and mostly nowadays everyone has forgotten all about him” (p. 92).
     One has to be careful, accordingly, in how one reads the viewpoints Stein expresses. For in her conversational, answer-and-question like structures, she often put statements in contradiction with others, or delays information that amends and even changes the initial statement. Despite Stein’s lifetime conviction, for example, that people do not basically change but continue to repeat each themselves—a view reconfirmed by her constant repetition of her memory of the young doughboys she has seen in San Francisco as being representative of the American forces—by work’s end Stein arrives at a complete about face, recognizing that just like differences between World War I and World War II, the new American soldiers she encounters in 1944 are very different in their ability to speak and in their thinking processes than were the soldiers of World War I. 
      In other words, Stein uses the tactics of communal thinking to proffer and explore unanswerable questions with which she is faced by having, as she and her neighbors were, “an enemy in the house” (p. 67), an enemy, one must always remember, that would have surely arrested her had they been able to read her impossible-to-interpret handwriting. It almost a shock when late in the book (page 229) that Stein writes:


                       Alice Toklas has just commenced typewriting
                       this book, as long as there were Germans around
                       we left it in manuscript as my handwriting is so
                       bad it was not likely that any German would be
                       able to read it, but now ell if they are not gone
                       they area so to speak not here, we can leave
                       our windows open and the light burning, dear
                       me such little things but they do amount to a lot,
                       and it is.


For suddenly we realize just how precarious Stein’s and her neighbor’s situations have been all along. And because of these purposeful expressions of communal sufferings I would argue strongly against Djuna Barnes caustic dismissal of the book, “You do not feel that she [Stein] is ever really worried about the sorrows of the people. Her concerns at its highest pitch is a well-fed apprehension."
     In fact, despite Stein’s attempts to situate her commentary within the voice of the community as a whole, which successfully cloaks her writing within a public commentary that suggests a kind of guarded neutrality about many of the issues facing her and her neighbors, Stein’s personal feelings and emotions, nonetheless, quite often come to the surface in a manner similar to what I just observed about her relief that Toklas had now been able to commence typing up her manuscript. If these emotional responses, like the questions and answers she expresses of those around her, remain rather muted, that has as much to do with the wartime situation—the natural fears of drawing attention to oneself or each other simply out of a sense of self-protection. As historian Moorehead makes clear in Village of Secrets, after the German entry into Vichy France, “orders went out to mayors and police to report every incident,…even those taking place at night and on holidays. Posters, propaganda, suspicious people, sounds of aeroplanes, suggestions of discontents: all and everything was to be noted and reported. …Under a new edict, law number 979, Jews were no longer allowed to leave their residences without special papers” (VoS, p. 155). 
      True, Stein is not an idealist hero like the Protestant and Catholic church figures and community leaders in the Vivarais-Lignon region. Like even these remarkable figures, her behavior was sometimes filled with contradictions. While there may have have been dashing purists living in enemy territory like Casablanca’s Victor Laszlo, their exploits were certainly better suited to the cinema fiction.
     Despite the German edicts and restrictions, however, Stein remained an active member of Culoz, beloved clearly by many, sharing her townspeople worries, fears, and hate of the Nazis, desperately awaiting the arrival of the Americans. Young men forced to travel to Germany to work in factories—a euphemism for what Stein well realized meant that they were being sent North “as hostages, to be put in a pen” (pp. 85-86), stopped by to see her before they left for advice and encouragement, leaving her, at least in Stein’s perception, “cheered,” she kissing each of them. Her reaction is one of her many gems of intense understatement: “Oh, dear me one cannot sleep very well.”  In her nightly and daily walks through the countryside, Stein often came upon young soldiers, who she very clearly recognized as maquis, part of the guerilla bands of the French Resistance. Even while still in Bilignin, Stein makes clear she recognized what was going on around her:


                         I go out in the village of Bilignin there I see
                         all your young men whatever is happening
                         they are still there and that is everything that
                         they are not gone. But now they are gone and
                         going. Some of them betake themselves to the
                         mountains others are conspiring, the son of our
                         dentist a boy of eighteen has just been taken
                         because he was helping and will he be shot or
                         not. Oh dear. We all cry.


     The connection between the visitation of the young men about to travel to Germany and her statement that “some of them betake themselves to the mountains” are meaningful. If a few youths had previously escaped from the often German-filled villages, such as Culoz, after the Vichy government issued, in February 1943, the Service du Travail Obligatoire (STO)—requiring all men born in the years 1920-1922 be obliged to serve as workers in Germany—the Maquis groups grew commensurably. As Moorhead summarizes: “With the STO came the beginnings of a Marquis.”
     As a Jewish homosexual American, Stein had three identities which might and should have doomed her, and she was, one must always remember, equally responsible for her companion, Alice.***** Yet nonetheless, she moved about on long walks throughout the region, joined Alice on train journeys to other cities, including Belley, Aix-les-Bains, Lyons, and Chambery, cities and villages in which she would (and in some instances did) certainly face possibly hostile Nazi troops. Stein makes it clear that she and Alice always updated their papers, obtaining the proper passes before starting out on such journeys.
     Despite whatever agreements she had made with Faÿ and others to insure the protection of her Paris apartment with its art noted collection of art, the Gestapo reportedly did break into Stein’s apartment on Rue Christine, threatening to cut up and burn the Picassos. As Janet Malcolm reported (in one of her few truly informing moments among her numerous open attacks on Stein):


                  A resourceful neighbor called the French police,
                  who were able to dispatch the Gestapo men by
                  asking them for requisition orders that they did not
                  have. (When the police arrived, the Gestapo men
                  were in Stein’s bedroom trying on her Chinese
                  coats.) A longer-term reprieve for the paintings was
                  achieved by Bernard Faÿ, the collaborationist who
                  protected Stein and Toklas during the war, and now
                  used his influence to protect the art.******


Numerous other, “minor” “bibelots, linens, and utensils,” however, were looted.
     Stein, probably, had no idea about these dangers while living in Vichy France (although Faÿ or others may have written her about them), but she most certainly knew of the dangers of her situation, particularly after the couple were forced to move from Bilingnin to Culoz. Even that incident reveals both Stein’s and Toklas’ peril and bravery. When her lease on the Bilingnin house expired, the owners, despite the fact that, as Stein asserts, they did not need “it just then” (p. 49), insisted she and Toklas vacate. Stein sued, losing the case in court. Surely bringing up a court suit during that period was a fairly rash act. I do not know what lay behind Stein’s thinking; it may be that the owners had wanted her and Alice out of the house because of their fears of having Jewish-homosexual-American tenants, but obviously it might have, and may have called attention to Stein’s and Toklas’ presence. Indeed when Toklas visited her lawyer to close the deal on the Culoz house, which they had found after their legal defeat, she was told what her lawyer describes as something “rather serious”:


               …and now I have something rather serious to tell you.
               I was in Vichy yesterday, and I saw Maurice Sivain,
               Sivain had been sous-prefet at Belley and had been
               most kind and helpful in extending our privileges
               and our occupation of our house, and Maurice Sivain
               said to me, tell those ladies that they must leave at
               once for Switzerland, to-morrow if possible
               otherwise they will be put into a concentration camp.
               (pp. 49-50)


Clearly shocked by his comments, Stein queries him about the difficulties of traveling into Switzerland, which the lawyer assures her “could be arranged.” 


              You mean pass by fraud I said. Yes he said, it could be
              arranged. I felt very funny.


    Some critics, such as Malcolm, have criticized that seemingly inappropriate word, “funny,” as demonstrating an insignificant response to the situation. But it is a word that Stein uses time and again throughout Wars I Have Seen, representing, it seems to me, not what my dictionary describes as the “simple, general term” meaning something that creates laughter or a sense of mirth, but as what is described as the “quaint” meaning, as something that “because of its strangeness” amuses one in a more thoughtful manner. In my larger Random House Unabridged Dictionary, the word “funny” also suggests something that “arouses suspicion,” a feeling of deceitfulness. For Stein it hints also of a sickening feeling that hits one in the pit of one’s stomach. Feeling “funny,” Stein rushes home to tell Alice what she has heard that they must now do, Stein repeating the phrase, as she arrives home, “I felt a little less funny but I still did feel funny, and Alice Toklas and Madame d’Aiguy were there, and I said we are not moving to-morrow we are going to Switzerland.” The women suffer they meal together, until Stein comes to a decision:


                   We both felt funny and then I said. No, I am not
                   going we are not going, it is better to go regularly
                   wherever we are sent than to go irregularly where
                   nobody can help us if we are in trouble, no I said,
                   they are always trying to get us to leave France but
                   here we are and here we stay.


     If, within the context, this appears like a dangerously sudden decision, a Steinian-like bluff against what she describes as “realism,” by work’s end we see the wisdom of her determinedness to stay. But we also must somewhat qualify our feelings, with the suspicion that Stein, like most of those in France during this period, did not truly know what might have been her and Alice’s fates if they had been interred in a concentration camp; even as late as 1943 many French Jews still perceived themselves as protected by their citizenship. While a few had seen, first hand, the Vichy brutality expressed against the Jews in Vénissieux detention center in nearby Lyons, Stein and most of the region’s residents could have had no idea that conditions would have been so awful, and even fewer could have imagined what lay ahead in the Poland camps where by 1943 most of the Jews who had not changed their identities and were not in hiding had been sent. As Moorehead writes of the remaining French Jews in 1942:  “What exactly awaited them in Poland was still a matter of conjecture; many found it impossible to believe that it was mass murder. But what was clear was that with the German occupation of the whole of France, another step had been taken in the delivery of Jews for deportation. The little optimism that had remained among Vichy’s Jews now died” (VoS, p. 155).
     What is quite apparent is that Stein simply did not comprehend the dimensions and enormity of German and French anti-Semitism. A few pages later, when she lashes out against the French and German hatred of the Jews, she expresses it only in terms of a misunderstanding of Jewish wealth, suggesting that for her the issue appeared to be centered in the mistaken idea that the Jews represented an economic power that somehow threatened the lower and middle classes. If once international bankers such as the Rothchilds had gained financial wealth, she argues, by the time of industrialism, “the Jewish money in the world is only a drop in the bucket and all of it together could never buy anybody to make war or make peace, not a bit.”


                      …of course everybody must know it, the big
                      names in industrialism and in the financing of
                      industrialism are not in any modern country
                      Jewish and everybody must know it but nobody
                      wants to know it, because everybody likes it to
                      be as it was supposed to be as for so many
                      hundreds of years it was so course religion does
                      get mixed up with it…and so anti-semitism which
                      has been with us quite a few centuries is still
                      something to cling to (p. 56).


Stein was attempting to be logical in a time that had gone mad.
     If nothing else, however, Stein again demonstrates her own views in a way that shows her to be not only outspoken but brave in a way that goes far beyond mere “apprehension,” and certainly demonstrates admirable convictions.
     Toklas and Stein, moreover, not only faced possible arrest and imprisonment, but even if left alone, were in some financial peril, particularly when monies from Paris no longer arrived. Throughout Wars I Have Seen Stein strongly attempts to cover up any shortages of food she and Alice were suffering, recognizing that in the Rhone farmland she was so much better off that those who had remained in the cities. The most significant difficulties regarding foodstuffs and other ingestibles are represented as minor issues of missing sugar (replaced by honey), cow milk (replaced by goat’s milk), and Toklas’ craving for cigarettes (purchased from the Italian soldiers and others). Stein’s biggest complaints have to do with their limited diet as opposed to any days of empty stomachs. She does, however, describe the effects of food shortages, as she does also Mrs. Reynolds, on men. Even in the camps, Moorehead suggests in Village of Secrets, the men wasted and died at a faster rate than the women.
     The reason for Stein’s continued peregrinations throughout the territory are casually attributed to their need to obtain food. Throughout Wars I Have Seen Stein depicts a population forced to be on the move in order to trade dairy goods for meat, meat for fruit, etc. As she describes the situation: “You have to buy what you do not want to buy in order to buy what you do want to buy” (p. 115). Many grocers and other individuals, Stein makes clear, illegally sold goods. Grocers and farmers had been ordered to deliver a certain amount of their food to the German occupiers. And Stein admits how difficult it is to live on the rations one is allotted:


                  …a good many people had for a year consciously
                  tried to live on their rations, but now everybody
                  finds that there is no use in doing it, no use at all
                  and so nobody does, nobody does except funnily
                  enough some timid grocery storekeepers, who are
                  afraid. I know one family of them and they are the
                  only ones around her who continue to be thin and to
                  get thinner. Nobody else is, nobody else is thin and
                  nobody else continues to get thinner, nobody not
                  unless they are awfully poor and because of their
                  situation in life unable to work. Nobody. (p. 106)


Rather than seeing this as an example of Stein’s dismissal of those going without, I perceive it simply as another instance of Stein’s understatement, a purposeful playing-down of the horrific elements of war- time living.
     Stein also downplays any true financial difficulties, only at one point admitting that she and Toklas were truly facing destitution. Without even hinting that she and Alice might have been in need of help, she suddenly (p. 111) begins a new story with the words “You never can tell who is going to help you….” Citing the French people’s thrifty ways, she nonetheless praises their willingness to “most unexpectedly” be helpful. “After we came into the war it began to get very difficult extremely difficult, and nobody among my old friends nobody asked me if we were in any trouble and it was getting a bit of a trouble….” Almost out of nowhere comes an offer from Paul Genin, a former Lyons silk manufacturer, who asked if she was having difficulty with money. Admitting that it had begun to “run pretty low,” Stein is amazed by his generosity of setting up an account for her and serving as her banker. Six months later, Stein was able to sell one of her Cezanne paintings, and to pay him back.
       In the latter half of Wars I Have Seen, we find more and more statements that reveal her opinions and attitudes. At several points she refers, dismissingly, to what describes as “callabo”: “that is one who wanted to collaborate with the Germans, there were quite a few of them and they are getting less and less but there still are some and he [the owner of the local drugstore] is one.” She quotes a German to underline her own hatred for collaborators: “They [the French] are either honest and intelligent, they are either collabo and intelligent or they are collabo and honest but I have never met one who was collabo honest and intelligent.”  She even seems to share the excitement of the villagers who in 1944, began to shave the heads of the girls who kept company with the Germans (p. 248). And as her narrative progresses she increasingly comes to describe the mountain Maquis as Robin Hoods, despite the various opinions and fears of those around her. Later in the book, when finding herself and Alice sharing a taxi with a Maquis, Stein is absolutely delighted:


             To-day we were for the first time in company with a
             real live maquis, we were in a taxi and he came along
             to go to Culoz, and we were delighted, he had the
             tricolor on his shoulder rand looked bronzed and
             capable….(p. 233)


In the next paragraph, she expresses herself even more clearly: “The maquis were pretty wonderful of course now they are armed and more or less superior in numbers to the Germans….” 
      But her naiveté and lack of inside knowledge continues to be apparent, even when, after the Germans have abandoned the railway center, and she and Alice share in the village celebrations. Told that a resistance fighter (the French Forces of the Interior, F. F. I) had been hiding in Culoz, she seems quite amazed. “Well honneur aux maquis, one cannot say it too often…,” she concludes (p. 243).                      
      What is most touching about Stein’s work, however, is her increasing impatience with the war and her growing desire to witness the American liberators. She even determines that she will end her work when she encounters her first American. When Stein does hear word of Americans in Belley, where she immediately rushes to a nearby hotel in which she is told they are gathered, her reaction so silly that she sounds almost like a schoolgirl writing in her diary “Oh happy day, that is all that I can say oh happy day” (p. 244). Such an utter expression of excitement hardly squares with Stein’s noted inability to care for those whom she encounters.  Fortunately, she does not end her book with her first meeting, but continues in an epilogue to describe her pleasure of talking to the soldiers, asking them from what state they hail, and discussing with them the many ideas they so readily and openly—as opposed to the soldiers of World War I—express.*******
       It is also fascinating that a great many of the soldiers she meets not only know who Stein is but claim to have read her poems in school. Given the quality of education these days, and the complete lack of any contemporary figures in most secondary educational programs, it seems almost miraculous that the military men of World War II would not only be so excited to be in her company and but would ask her to sign her name on the American dollars they handed her. Stein, herself, attempts to explore the reasons just why these soldiers are so different from the others she has previously met. Perhaps Stein had helped to bring about some of those changes by working so emphatically against the tropes of 19th century to create a 20th sensibility—despite some of horrors that came with that transformation. Even if Stein might be guilty of a bit of fictitious reporting here, it is so endearing that we desire to believe the fact that Stein once represented a figure that is now, in so many ways, maligned. Given Stein’s reconnoiter with the Americans in this volume, it is almost inevitable that her next war-time book, her final contribution to literature would be a dialogue between American soldiers, the intellectually challenging, while utterly patriotic Brewsie and Willie.


_______
*Stein’s Elmer Harden, presumably, was the same author of one of the most acclaimed works on World War I. His An American Poilu (published by Little, Brown in 1919) attempted to describe the horrors of the war in terms of sound: “If the city of New York should topple in the sky and fall to the ground, the crash would be like a whisper to the racket of that dawn [June 10 or June 13, 1918]. I wonder that the entire regiment didn’t perish from the mere sound alone. Its fury turned Jehovah’s wrath into a shepherd’s piping and ten thousand Wagners, ‘ragging’ ten thousand orchestras, into the murmur of a parlor seashell. But what’s the use—I only amuse myself—you can’t hear it. I’ve already forgotten myself how monstrous it was. Memory cannot hold so much noise.” Clearly this young man, serving in the French army, did not see World War I as a trivial event or a “nice” war in the sense of its personal consequences. His observation, rather, had to do with the sense of heroism that its survivors brought home with them.
**Stein relates coincidences with superstition and faith (see page 18), which are particularly appealing to those “between babyhood and fourteen.” Yet coincidences and predictions obviously fascinate Stein throughout her writing and, in particular, in these war-time writings.
***Stein rightfully connects these issue with the struggles in North Africa, which some argue should have been at the center of the defeated French forces instead of the country’s agreement to an Armistice. In fact, the success of Free French, De Gaulle-led forces in areas of Africa, is part of the reason that German forces were introduced, in revenge, into Vichy France. The response to the November 8, 1942 attack by British and American forces in North Africa, three days the Germans entered Vichy France. The free garrison at Brazzaville, to where Louis Renault and Rick Blaine head at the end of 1942’s Casablanca, accordingly, is directly connected to the reasons why Stein and Toklas had to bear with Germans sleeping in the Culoz living room.
****Caroline Moorehead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (New York: HarperCollins, 2014). See my essay on this book below.
*****Marjorie Perloff has argued that, in Stein’s case, her lesbianism had nothing to do with the dangers her faced her. Simply being elderly Jewish women was “quite enough.” Perhaps this is true in Vichy, France, but once the Germans had entered into the form Vichy territory, Stein and Toklas would have been equally arrested for being homosexuals. I think it is important to remember, if nothing else, that gays were also arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis.
******Janet Malcolm, “Strangers in Paradise,” The New Yorker, November 13, 2006. Always on the lookout for another criticism or scandal she might hurl at Stein, Malcolm, in response to a letter mentioning a Gestapo raid and arrestment of 40 children in an orphanage near Culoz, in the village of Izieu—an incident in which there is no evidence at all that Stein knew anything about—wrote to Genin’s stepdaughter, Joan Chapman (on the suggestion of Stein critics Ulla Dydo and Edward Burns), in an attempt to discern whether or not Stein might have know of this event. Chapman wrote back, dismissing Stein’s knowledge about the Izieu raid:


              No, we had no idea that a group of Jewish children were
              hidden in a boarding school at Izieu, they were indeed
              deported, we only found out months later. I’m sure Gertrude
              and Alice had no idea of the incident at the time. Izieu is
              about 20 K from Belley and 30 K from Culoz. In those
              days the only way of getting to and fro was walking or
              on a bike, people were pretty isolated from each other.
              Anything confidential was never mentioned by phone.


Indeed, Stein describes herself was only walking or occasionally taking a train and never mentions Izieu in Wars I Have Seen. Chapman, however, also wrote Malcolm of another event, the arrival of two young boys, one, a five-year old Jewish-German orphan named Manfred Iudas. Caring for the children, Chapman and her mother evidently grew quite fond of the boy and had decided to adopt him. Consulting their friend Stein, the Chapmans apparently were warned against adopting him, with Stein insisting that he “must be adopted by a Jewish family.” Malcolm immediately jumps on this statement, which she presents almost as an “edict,” suggesting that, once again, “Stein did not behave well in the Second World War.” Malcolm melodramatically writes: “The story chills the blood….. To propose that a Jewish child be sent to a Jewish family at a time when everywhere in France Jews were being rounded up was an act of almost inconceivable callousness. Ulla Dydo and Edward Burns agreed that Stein’s advice was inexplicable and terrible.”
     In reality, it is soon revealed, when Malcolm later meets with Chapman, that when Stein had argued for Jewish adoption, had not at all put the child’s life at risk, and the child was, in fact,  adopted by a Jewish family only after liberation, “when Jews were no longer in danger.” The Izieu raid did not take place in 1943, as reported by the letter writer, but on April 6, 1944, four months before France was liberated. In short Stein had done absolutely nothing to suggest she was callous or thoughtless regarding the Jewish children. Moorehead, in her Village of Secrets, also describes this event, a shocking one since it came so close to liberation, and the school was located in an isolated region,  set atop a hill. The school was also said to be protected by “sympathetic Vichy officials.” The attack was directed by the notorious Klaus Barbie.
    That does not stop Malcolm, however, as she madly trudges forward trying to dredge a story out of her non-event. Why, she queries, would Stein, a non-practicing Jew, have argued for a Jewish position of “isolationism,”  the idea that a Jew should marry only a Jew? Her argument is a nearly pointless one as she searches the records vainly, quoting Toklas, who converted to Catholicism after Stein’s death, as saying that she and Stein ever thought of themselves as being among a religious minority.
      Forget the fact that Stein, as she demonstrates in Wars I Have Seen very much understood herself, practicing or non-practicing, as a homosexual Jew in danger of imprisonment, it seems absolutely ludicrous to try to explore an issue that seems to have very little to do with the theory of Jewish isolationism. Even I might have argued, had I been there, that a child—one of thousands, who had been suddenly torn from his Jewish family, beliefs, and roots—might benefit from being raised by a Jewish family, particularly after the Holocaust, in which millions of Jews had lost their lives. Given the intense values of family and tradition in Jewish culture, I would think that anybody who hadn’t suggested what Stein did, would have been the most insensitive of human beings. And clearly the Genins agreed, for they found a Jewish couple to adopt Manfred. Stein’s religious practices, or lack of them, I would argue, have absolutely nothing to do with her intelligent and sensitive suggestion—particularly given the fact that she might easily have been among the dead simply for being who she was.
     Finally, as Moorehead makes clear, “…There was a strong feeling in the French Jewish community that these children [those temporarily protected by Protestant and Catholic families] needed to rediscover their Jewishness, receive a Jewish upbringing, become, as they saw it, “un home Juif nouveau,” a new Jewish man.”
*******Some of her soldier friends, recognizing that they are different from their father’s generation, attribute it to the Depression, during which they or their parents were forced into fields of labor in which they did not take pleasure ; the new generation, they argue, are determined to find most satisfaction in their lives. Others argue that the rise of radio and its broadcasts made them a more intelligent and knowledgeable audience that their more isolated ancestors.


Los Angeles, September 4-5, 2014
Reprinted from EXPLORINGFictions (September 2014) and PiPPoetry (September 2014).

 

 
o brave new world!


Gertrude Stein Brewsie and Willie (New York: Random House, 1946)
 

In 1946, the same year as Gertrude Stein’s death of pancreatic cancer, Random House published what was to be her last book—with the exception of the numerous volumes published by Harvard University Press as part of the deal to house her archives. Brewsie and Willie stands almost like a comically effervescent Tempest when compared with the darkly brooding works of her other war-time writings.

     The intense conversation Stein had with American soldiers described in her Wars I Have Seen continued during the following year back in her Paris apartment, discussions which make up the entire of this dialogue fiction. Like many of such dialogue works (see My Year 2012 for a fuller discussion of the genre), moreover, Brewsie and Willie is inherently dramatic—which I have already attested to in the wonderful production of Stein’s intense conversations between very young and somewhat older soldiers and nurses in the Poor Dog Production in Los Angeles of a dramatic treatment by Marissa Chibas, Erik Ehn, and Travis Preston in 2010 (published in that My Year volume)—becoming, as I put it, “a poetic chorus of fearful and thoughtful voices that links this [piece] to her most challenging work.” 
    Despite the serious doubts expressed by the most of the soldiers, and, in particular, by their lead spokesman, Brewsie, Stein’s work is a testament to the American future, particularly a future with will embrace the thousands of GIs about to be “redeployed” back to their home country. As Stein had made clear in Wars I Have Seen, there was something “different” about the soldiers she encountered after World War II from the former doughboys of the First World War. These soldiers of 1944 and ‘45, unlike their silent, more drunken, and ruminative World War I brothers, having grown up as sons and daughters during the Great Depression, were open to their European experiences and interested in the post-war citizens of France, Germany, England and other countries. And, most importantly, these men talked and listened; rather than simply accepting their new experiences and their collective re-internment to the country of their birth, they doubted and even challenged the values they would face upon their return. Although, in Stein’s telling, they were nearly all eager to get back home in order to start over again, they were also afraid, worried by changes in their country’s economy and politics, and troubled abour how they might fit in among the others who had not had gained their war-time experiences.
     Convincingly using the language of the soldiers—sometimes so eerily on-spot that it is difficult to imagine that behind these young voices is a woman of 73 years of age—Stein is not afraid to breach a wide range of issues, some of them quite controversial, particularly given the fact that these were men and women who even decades later would be described by some as “the greatest generation.” Stein projects these soldier voices in a discussion of edgy issues of race, cultural identity, immigration, religion, history, economics, politics, and the failures of the American imagination. 
     One may certainly wince at hearing Stein’s lead character, Willie, ruminating about Blacks:


                       It’s funny, said Willie, the way a nigger
                       always finds some little nigger children to
                       talk to, you’d think there were no nigger
                       anywhere and there he is, he just is sitting
                       on a chair in a garden and two darky little
                       boys talking to him and they talking French
                       and he talking to him and they talking French
                       and he talking and go on talking French and
                       does talk the same to them, and I do think it
                       is funny. (p. 28)


But one quickly recognizes that that is precisely the way soldiers, particularly several of them being Southern-born, might have spoken; and, more importantly, what is really being described throughout this section (part “Five”) is that in fighting beside Blacks throughout the War, these men are no longer surprised to see Black soldiers dining among them, talking with the French (even possibly in French), and doing everyday things alongside them that would not be permitted for many years in some of their states back home. 
    Even the everydayness of living and being with Blacks suddenly begins to make these G.I.s perceive that they now live in a very different world than the one to they are about to return.


                      Does it make one mad or doesnt it make one
                      mad, said Willie. What you mean, asked Jo.
                      Well, said Willie, I saw a Negro soldier
                      sitting on a bench just looking out into the street,
                      and next to him were three white women, not
                      young, not paying any attention to them and I
                      didnt know whether it made me mad or didnt
                      make me mad.  (p. 41)


Jo rightfully argues that it “doesn’t make ‘em mad not even when they see a white woman walking with one of them, the boys like to think it makes ‘em made but it doesnt really make ‘em mad not really it doesnt.”  
     These are Americans quite quickly coming to terms with racism almost without quite comprehending the significance of what they see and hear. The character Brock (one of the most unforgettable figures in the early part of Stein’s dramatic conversations) expresses a statement by another Black soldier that is so searing in its critique of American race relations that it seems to have pulled out of post-war headlines:


                     You know the other day I heard a colored major
                     say, he hand no children, although he was married
                     nine years and I said, how is that, and he said, is
                     this America any place to make born a Negro

                     child.


     It’s apparent that many of the ideas the central figure, Brewsie expresses arise, as he puts it, from being “kind of foggy in the head.” For one wonderfully comic instant, Brewsie even ponders the idea of a transgender existence:

 

                      I wish I was a girl if I was a girl I would be a
                      WAC and if I was a WAC and if I was a WAC,
                      oh my Lord, just think of that. (p. 11)


     More intently, Brewsie, his G.I. friends and nurses explore cultural stereotypes by throwing out pejorative terms such as “Frog” (for the French), Heinies (for the Germans), and Limies (for the English) while simultaneously questioning their own prejudices, wondering why, for example. although they enjoy drinking with German men, they more highly admire the French women for basically refusing to fraternize with the Germans, even though the German women readily slept with Americans and Russians. One young soldier is determined to stay in Europe instead of returning home, to allow him, he insists, to become educated, to have more time to explore the differences between the European cultural ideas and those of his homeland. Others find some aspects of European life far more “up-to-date” than the “old-fashioned” constructions and the concepts behind them of the United States:


                    Jo said, what do you think, one of those frog girls
                    said, I showed ‘em a picture of my wife and the
                    baby in the baby carriage and she said, what,
                    do you have those old fashioned baby-carriages
                    with high wheels and a baby can fall out, no we
                    French people, we have up-to-date baby-carriages,
                    streamlined, she said. (p. 25)


     Jo immediately wants to get home and buy himself one of the new baby-carriages. But much of the conversation between these soldiers, especially as Willie articulates Stein’s ideas, is that the U.S. is doomed in its reliance on industrialism. Like England and other countries which have already gone through vast industrial growth, the U.S., he argues, will eventually use up so many of its resources and will fall into decline. The very thing they all look forward to, to find a decent job that will permit them to buy new goods, will, in fact, give them no time to talk and think, no time and space in which to embrace the very activities they have now begun to enjoy and that have suggested to them new ways perceiving. They will become subjects to a system that ultimately will steal away their possibilities for exploring the new potentialities with which they have just begun to come into contact. And it is these complex ideas that take up much of Stein’s dialogue, particularly since Willie struggles to intelligently express them. Speaking of the English, Willie begins a long spiel which we will continue and expand upon from time to time throughout the remainder of the book:

 

                     Well anyway they had lots of coal and iron ore
                     and tin right there on that island and they just made
                     and made, and everybody gave up every kind
                     of way of living excepting jobs in factories and
                     mines, even little children, and they made all their
                     colonies and empire buy them, and it was swell just
                     like us and they got richer and richer. Well we
                     horned in after our Civil War we went industrial
                     and we got richer and they got poorer and their
                     markets that is the people in their empire slowed
                     down in buying and they used up their raw
                     material, and then they tried to take new places
                     to sell to, like Egypt which they took from the
                     French and Africa from the Dutch. The lousy Limies,
                     said Willie. You just wait, said Brewsie, and there
                     we were getting richer and richer and why because
                     we had our outside market right at home that is we had
                     emigration, thousands and millions in every year into
                     our country… (pp 35-36)


After a summarization of the developing industrialization in Russian, German, and Japan as well, he continues:


                     And it’s all because everybody just greedy
                     wants to manufacture more than anybody
                     can buy, well then you know what happened
                     after the last war we cut off immigration, we
                     hoped to sell to foreign countries, foreign
                     countries didnt want to buy and we had the
                     depression. …Yes and then we had to fight,
                     and yes we won but we used up a hell of a lot
                     of raw material and now we got to make a club
                     to make those foreign countries buy from us,
                     and we all got to go home and make some more
                     of those things that use up the raw material and
                     that nobody but own little population wants to buy.
                     Oh dear, said Brewsie. (pp. 36-37)
 

    “Oh dear,” we might all proclaim; for whatever one thinks of Stein’s and the soldier’s quick summary of early 20th century economics, there is little question that the author and her characters were right in predicting that the soldiers of World War II would be destined to return home to buy up industrial goods, homes, and other possessions that would affect their lives and ultimately result in the end of American industrialism. Today we are a country whose industrial goods are mostly manufactured elsewhere.

     But how can they effect a change back home? At first Brewsie and others suggest an active participation in unions; and in connection to participation, one of the Red Cross nurses, Janet, argues that together as a generational force, “we got to make a noise, a loud noise, a big noise, we got to be heard” (p. 89).
     Brewsie and others soon recognize, however, that, in the end, they probably will be unable to change the course of American economics. As an alternative they suggest the possibility of “pioneering,” of each going their own way, living in a world apart from the corporate-dominated factories in which they are expected to find jobs. What their concept of “pioneering” actually entails is a little vague, at times sounding a bit like the alternative choices some of their own children would make in the 1960s—a kind of perpetual hippedom, a life lived apart, at the very least, as Lawrence suggests, from being middle aged:


                    I tell you old and young are better than tired
                    middle-aged, is so dead dead-tired, dead every
                    way as middle-aged, have got the guts to make
                    a noise while we are still young before we get
                    middle-aged, tired middle-aged, no we haven’t,
                    said Willie, and you know it, no we haven’t, said
                    Willie. (p. 90)


Their fears of what they believe will be their future are so bleak, even frightening that it makes another nurse, Pauline, want to cry. All look to Brewsie for some sort of solution, but the more they wait for him to speak, the less he has to offer, and the more the others finally do speak out. 
   The marvel of Stein’s dialogue is that, if it begins as a kind of one-man monologue, it quickly grows into a chorus of contradictory voices, some throwing out ideas, others dismissing them, while others work to suggest various points of compromise. By the time they finally get their orders to move on, they have all changed from passive beings speaking in clichés to somewhat articulate individuals who no longer want to answer only yes or no like the questions in the Gallup polls, but are determined to challenge their contemporaries, to speak out, and, most importantly, to listen. As future job-hunters, however, they doubt they will ever again be able to join others in such intense discussions in the future:


                      And tell me, said Janet, wont you miss
                      talking when you get home, you do know
                      dont you all of you nobody talks like you
                      you were boys were always talking, not
                      back home. Yes we know, said Jo. Yes we
                      know, said Jimmie. Not Brewsie, said Willie,
                      he’ll talk but, said Willie, Brewsie will talk
                      but we wont be there to listen, we kind of
                      will remember that he’s talking somewhere
                      but we wont be there to listen, there wont be
                      anybody talking where we will be. But, said Jo,
                      perhaps they will talk now, why you all so sure
                      they wont talk over there, perhaps they will talk
                      over there. Not those on the job they wont, said
                     Willie, not those on the job. (p. 110).


     It depends on what you read the 1950s and the history that followed upon which side you might join in their argument. Did the American soldiers, including my own Air Force-serving father waiting in Naples, and the thousands of others who soon returned home give up their voices to live out the “quiet lives of desperation” that writers and cultural observers critical of the next decade use to characterize their post-war existences? Like Brewsie, some clearly did speak out, people like John Cage, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, J. D. Salinger, and Jane Bowles, among hundreds of others went out to “pioneer” in one way or another. These men and women, as well as their contemporaries, like the numerous jazz musicians of the 1950s, sought out alternatives instead of joining the industrialized systems into which most G.I.s were swallowed up. My own father—a rube from Iowa if there ever was one—returned after World War II to become a noted educator in his home state.
    Stein saw the moment as a precipitous one.


                      …I am sure that this particular moment in
                      our history is more important than anything
                      since the Civil War. (p. 113)


We have to find a new way, she argued, or we will go poor like other industrial countries before us. “Don’t think that communism or socialism will save you,” argued the conservative but perhaps prescient writer: “you have to find a new way out” (p. 113).
     If there was ever moment to care about one’s country, to be truly “patriotic,” Stein insisted, it was at this moment. “I have always been patriotic,” insisted Stein. And she could not have revealed it more persuasively than in this loving and moving document in which her beloved G.I.s speak out for themselves.


Los Angeles, December 4, 2014
Reprinted from EXPLORINGfictions (December 2014).

 

 

 

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