On Reading Gertrude Stein

There are two books from before vacation I haven’t yet written about here: Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings. My memory of these books is getting a bit hazy, but I don’t want to ignore them entirely here.

So first, Gertrude Stein. I’ve been meaning to read Three Lives for a very long time; in fact, I’ve probably owned the book for well over a decade. Stein is a fascinating figure, but I’ve always found her intimidating and need to work up a bit of courage to pick up one of her books. Three Lives is certainly one of the easier, more approachable books she’s written; it may take me another decade or two to work up to reading something more challenging, if I ever decide to do it at all. I don’t feel that I’ve ever really understood Stein, but then again, lots of people feel that way, I know for a fact, and my tendency with writers I don’t quite understand is to keep returning to them to see if one more try will make a difference.

Three Lives is a straightforward read, not intimidating at all it turns out, with simple sentences and vocabulary, without much plot and with just a few characters. In fact, it’s such a simple, straightforward, non-astounding read that one might reasonably wonder why Stein is read at all, if it weren’t for the time period she lived in and the contrast between what she was doing and typical novels of the time. The book was published in 1909, and the contrast between her writing and other novels of the time is sharp. She has taken the sentence and pared it down, often using a series of simple sentences or short phrases strung together with conjunctions. She also uses a lot of repetition, repeating words from sentence to sentence and repeating ideas from page to page. For example:

Melanctha Herbert had not made her life all simple like Rose Johnson. Melanctha had not made it easy with herself to make her wants and what she had, agree.

Melanctha Herbert was always losing what she had in wanting all the things she saw. Melanctha was always being left when she was not leaving others.

Melanctha Herbert always loved too hard and much too often. She was always full with mystery and subtle movements and denials and vague distrusts and complicated disillusions. Then Melanctha would be sudden and impulsive and unbounded in some faith, and then she would suffer and be strong in her repression.

Stein piles bits of information on top of each other to build portraits of her characters; I suppose this is what every author does in order to create a character, but Stein draws attention to the piling on by repeating her character’s full name and using “and” in her lists, instead of commas. She uses repetition on a larger scale too. Her story moves forward in a jerky back-and-forth motion; she will tell you new information, and then she will circle back and repeat old information, perhaps with some variations, before moving on again.

It’s not a very exciting style, and at times I felt bored with the book, but she does manage to capture something that feels true about her characters. It’s an incantatory style; it’s almost like she’s chanting her way through these characters’ lives, conjuring them up and capturing their full history in a fairly short number of pages.

The book does exactly what the title promises: it tells the story of three women’s lives, none of which connect to the others in any way except that all three of her subjects live in the same town. She tells their full life stories, although most of the information we have on their childhoods comes through flashbacks. All three are ordinary working- or middle-class women, and the focus in all three stories is on their relationships — friendships, and in the case of the middle story “Melanctha,” romantic relationships. The Melanctha section is the most famous one, partly because of how it deals with race; Melanctha is a black woman and some see it as a sympathetic portrait of blackness, arguably forward-looking for its time (it’s a controversial point, though).

So, Three Lives is an interesting read, a good book to analyze stylistically and think about contextually, although it’s not engrossing or emotionally compelling, at least for me. I’m very curious and I wish there were some way of knowing how Stein’s reputation will fare in decades and centuries to come. I suspect she’ll remain known, at least for a while, although it’s hard to tell whether that will be because of her writing or because of her life story. I’m looking forward to reading Janet Malcolm’s book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice to learn a little more about that life.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Reading

10 responses to “On Reading Gertrude Stein

  1. I took a graduate class on Gertrude Stein and I still don’t understand her! I do enjoy her though, but I have to psych myself up for the experience. Supposedly all of her repetition is an attempt to do in words what cubism did in paint. I wouldn’t say she was ever completely successful but I appreciate her attempts. I suspect she will be remembered as a personality much longer than she is remembered for her writing.


  2. sumanam

    I have never read or heard of “Gertrude Stein”….Thanks for mentioning… I will checkout books of her..it’s good to know about authors outside my knowledge.


  3. Stein is such a stumbling block for me! I’ve seldom encountered a writer with whom I have more trouble. So of course there’s a stubborn part of me that is endlessly drawn to try her again…I appreciated your thoughts on Three Lives, anyway!


  4. A few decades ago, I bought Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein And Company by James Mellow, a non-fiction work that centered on Stein’s relationships with not only her friends, but with other artists, with enemies, and of course, with Alice. It was extremely interesting in a gossipy sort of way – lots of juicy details about what can only be described as a glitteringly glittery crowd. I loved it. But it never translated into an appreciation of Stein’s writing. I find her difficult in much the same way I find James Joyce difficult. But I think James Joyce will be read 100 years from now. Not sure about Gertrude. She lived a very large life, and I have always found her life more fascinating than her writing.


  5. How interesting – I did wonder what Three Lives was like. I enjoyed The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but it took me an age to read, small segments at a time. I thought the Janet Malcolm was fab, not quite as super-brilliant her book about Plath, but that’s splitting hairs, really. I am definitely going to get the book Grad mentions. I’m a complete sucker for gossipy biographies!


  6. i love stein. i think three lives is a good starting point, but to really understand what she was all about, you have to spend time with some of her less accessible stuff. that said, she is cool with boredom. she doesn’t necessarily try to avoid it. she amused herself, of course, but i suspect she would wonder why we aren’t all enthralled by the play of her language.
    i am happy for you that you ventured into her — she can be very rewarding.
    btw — it took me a month of full-time reading to finish the making of americans. oh, my, heavens.


  7. Ann

    This is the second time this morning I’ve started a comment by saying “I’ve never read….” I’m beginning to feel seriously under-educated. Stein is a name I know and associate with a sharp tongue and very little else I’m afraid. If I get round to reading her is this the best place to start or are there others anyone could recommend?


  8. I’ve always been curious about Gertrude Stein due to her place in history–such an exciting time to be a writer and in such an exciting place, but I’ve been less interested in reading her fiction–in great part because I thought it might be over my head. I may have to check her out (Three Lives anyway) at some point. I don’t often (ever?) read books for their style alone, but it might be something I would try sometime. Glad to know this one at least, is accessible.


  9. Stefanie — an entire grad class on her! Wow. That would be fascinating, if quite intimidating. I’ve heard the point about cubism, although I’d like to hear more about what that means exactly and how it plays out in her fiction. It’s an interesting idea.

    Sumanam — you are most welcome! She’s quite the interesting writer.

    Emily — I know exactly what you mean about stubbornness keeping you returning to her. I’m the same way with certain authors. I can see why she can be so much trouble!

    Grad — thank you for mentioning that book about Stein and her circle — it sounds really fascinating. You may well be right about her life being more interesting than her writing. I have to say I’d probably rather read about her writing than read the writing itself, at least when it comes to the harder stuff. It’s interesting to think about even if it’s less interesting to actually read.

    Litlove — the Autobiography will probably be next up in my Stein reading, although it may take me another decade or so to get there. But I imagine it’s similar to Three Lives in terms of its accessibility.

    Emily (Edge of the Page) — I’m very impressed that you got through The Making of Americans. A month of full-time reading! I’m a pretty patient reader, but I’m not sure I’m THAT patient. But I do see your point about reading the more difficult stuff. I did also read Tender Buttons, although it’s not terribly difficult, and I liked it a lot. I read it in a grad class — twice.

    Ann — blogs can certainly make one feel undereducated, can’t they? I feel that way often. I think Three Lives would make an excellent place to start, or if you want some poetry-type stuff, there’s Tender Buttons (which is also short). The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is perhaps her most famous, but according to Litlove it takes a while, so perhaps that’s not the best place to start after all.

    Danielle — Stein wouldn’t be over your head, and you would do just fine with Three Lives if you did decide to pick it up. It’s not terribly long, so it might make an interesting experiment some day. It was for me, at least!


  10. Sounds like an approachable Stein, but I’m still quite intimidated by her. (A sample of her poetry that I recently read in an anthology has reinforced that intimidation.)


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