“Paris France is exciting and peaceful.” Reading Gertrude Stein is a must after coming off my high with Gail Scott’s My Paris. My unformed brain wasn’t ready for Stein a few decades ago when I first wrangled with her, but appreciation blooms anew. This book is essentially her “for those about to die, I salute you,” dedicated to France and England on the cusp of WWII in 1940, trying to capture the essence of France from her forty-year sojourn before it ends up in shambles under Germany’s heel. Knowing little to nothing about Stein, I was surprised to find that she grew up in San Francisco (ages 5-15? and her dad was the director of the Market St. Railway), where there were lots of French people… “A little later in San Francisco there was more french.” French actors came to SF and stayed long, so Stein saw several plays with French spoken. “It was then that I found out quite naturally, that french is a spoken language and English a written one.”
She jabs at Germany’s lack of quality art as a sign of a dying country, she explores why the French love saving money but to spend it is painful: “After the war there was the Americanisation of France, automobiles which kept them from staying at home, cocktails, the worry of spending money instead of saving it, because spending money is always a worry to French people, if they can save life is interesting, if they spend life is dull…” Dipping into the cycles of French cooking, the perfection of simple dishes, “sauces instead of being elaborate became simple and perfect, this was in the beginning of the twentieth century.” There is the mistake of Kiki Vincent (20 year old horse sent off to war), the death of Stein’s dog (Basket) and reintroduction of another dog named the same thing (to Picasso’s horror… “The Frenchman does realise the inevitability of le roi est mort vive le roi but the Spaniard does not recognise the inevitability of resemblances and continuation”), and the tales of Helen Button the village girl living in war-time. Stein worries that a century is not long enough, it does not take up enough generations. She thinks of writing a book that skewers false aphorisms, since familiarity does not breed contempt, “anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful. And that is all as it should be.”
Stein praises the respect given to writers and painters in France:
“But really what they do do is to respect arts and letters, if you are a writer you have privileges… I remember coming in from the country to my garage where I usually kept my car and the garage was more than full” but the man in charge takes care of her, “there is a corner and in this corner I have put the car of Monsieur the academician and next to it I will put yours the others can stay outside and it is quite true even in a garage an academician and a woman of letters takes precedence even of millionaires or politicians, they do, it is quite incredible but they do, the police treat artists and writers respectfully too, well that too is intelligent on the part of France and unsentimental, because after all the way everything is remembered is by the writers and the painters of the period, nobody really lives who has not been well written about and in realising that the french show their usual sense of reality and a belief in a sense of reality is the twentieth century, people may not have it but they do believe in it.”
Part II begins with a charming anecdote laced with philosophy:
When we were having a book printed in France we complained about the bad alignment. Ah they explained that is because they use machines now, machines are bound to be inaccurate, they have not the intelligence of human beings, naturally the human mind corrects the faults of the hand but a machine of course there are errors. The reason why all of us naturally began to live in France is because France has scientific methods, machines and electricity, but does not really believe that these things have anything to do with the real business of living. Life is tradition and human nature.
And so in the beginning of the twentieth century when a new way had to be found naturally they needed France.
The Frenchman’s attitude toward propaganda:
Propaganda is not French, it is not civilized to want other people to believe what you believe because the essence of being civilsed is to possess yourself as you are, and if you possess yourself as you are you of course cannot possess any one else, it is not your business. It is because of this element of civilization that Paris has always been the home of all foreign artists, they are friendly, the French, they surround you with a civilised atmosphere and they leave you inside of you completely to yourself. And their logic makes it impossible to be propagandists. If there is one thing in the world that is not logical it is propaganda, and also it is the one thing in the world that has nothing to do with fashion. The difference between propaganda and fashion is very interesting.
After all everybody, that is, everybody who writes is interested in living inside themselves in order to tell what is inside themselves. That is why writers have to have two countries, one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.