Paris France, by Gertrude Stein, Yolla Bolly Press (1999)

Paris France is a memoir of Gertrude Stein‘s life in France between the world wars. While Stein’s work can sometimes be nearly unreadable for those used to more standard fare, Carolyn and James Robertson, the proprietors of Yolla Bolly Press, found this work “eminently readable — humorous, poignant, and remarkably insightful.” In their letter announcing the publication of this work, the Robertson’s wrote:

The automatic writing for which Stein is infamous is replaced by rambling storytelling. The trademark quirkiness is there, but one at least knows where one is being taken, even though the route is uncertain. Stein moves from the behavior of Paris cats, the thin arms of Frenchwomen, the paleness of French potatoes, to poignant war stories about children and horses. Along the way she writes of Picasso, her dog Basket, other dogs (she loved dogs), and French attitudes about fashion, food, love and public works–among other things. She does not leave out much.

As mentioned in the prospectus, Stein was deeply influenced by the avant-garde artists of her day — Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and others. She saw in their work a revolution of form. Her written works reflect the abstraction and stream of consciousness that this ‘new’ art was heading towards. As the Robertson’s remind us, she once declared that her writing is to literature what cubism is to painting (superficially strange and eccentric but capturing the heart of the subject.)

Stein (1874-1946) wanted to break rules of form and function to allow a new art to emerge. Like many whose work tends to focus more on what I call “art for arts sake”, Stein’s work often seems distant to me, failing to make an emotional or intellectual connection. Paris France does avoid some of that trap, but not completely. The rambling is sometimes entertaining, sometimes annoyingly distractive. An example:

But in France a boy is a man of his age the age he is and so there is no question of a boy growing up to be a man and what is the use, because at every stage of being alive he is completely a man alive at that time.

A Francophile, Stein does provide interesting insights into what she sees as differences between the French and their English counterparts. For instance, despite the lack of respect for the comma, the following is undoubtedly true:

In France whenever anybody writes anything and wants anybody to know what it is like they read it out loud. If it is English it is natural to pass the manuscript to them and let them read it but if it is in French in is natural to read it out loud. French is a spoken language English really is not.

Stein’s views on technological progress are as modern as if written yesterday, and happen to match my views. In today’s fast paced world, we forget the truism reflected in:

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.

Is it any wonder why the French, and Italians for that matter, have such an outstanding food and wine culture?Technology takes a back seat to tradition; it is the land, the time, and the place that is the master of us. On a different topic, but along the same vein, Stein also correctly points out that one can tell the health, the trajectory of a country not by its material output, but by the health and characteristic of its art (which perhaps if foreboding when one looks at the Western world today):

I do not believe that when the characteristic art and literature of a country is active and fresh I do not think that country is in its decline. There is no pulse so sure of the state of a nation as its characteristic art product which has nothing to do with its material life.

Stein does seem to be a natural optimist, able to find the good in all around her.

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.

Last but not least, Stein ponders something that has always mystified me, though her way of stating it is certainly Stein-istic!

It could be a puzzle why the intellectuals in every country are always wanting a form of government which would inevitably treat them badly, purge them so to speak before anybody else is purged…It would be a puzzle this if it were not that it is true that the world is round and that space is illimitable unlimited. I suppose it is that that makes the intellectual so anxious for a regimenting government which they could so ill endure.

As you can probably tell, I am of two minds concerning Gertrude Stein. Her thoughts themselves are often deep, penetrating and interesting, though her sometimes garbled manner of writing gets old quickly. One thing I am of one mind on is that if I were to own only one Stein book, it would be this one from Yolla Bolly Press. Yolla Bolly Press, as long time Books and Vines readers are aware (and if you are not, check out their list of works reviewed here), is one of the great American private presses of the last one hundred years.

For this edition, Yolla Bolly designed an edition that I am sure Stein herself would love. The square folio with a binding of French paper over archival boards includes 12 original drawing collages done by Ward Schumaker, reproduced in one, two and three colors from photopolymer plates made from the artist’s originals. These collages reflect nearly perfectly the modernistic spirit of the work. If I am only a ‘so-so’ fan of the work, it is because the style, like Stein’s, is not my cup of tea. Certainly the reproduction quality is top-notch, as is the typographic work, composed in Gill Sans, set in part by hand at the press by Aaron Johnson, and by Monotype at the office of Michael and Winifred Bixler on a thick and sturdy Somerset Book paper, mouldmade at the St. Cuthbert’s Mill in England.

About the Edition

  • 12 large drawing collages by artist Ward Schumaker, reproduced in one, two and three colors from photopolymer plates made from the artist’s originals
  • Afterword by George Plimpton
  • Text composed in Gill Sans, set in part by hand at the press by Aaron Johnson, and by Monotype at the office of Michael and Winifred Bixler
  • Paper is Somerset Book, mouldmade at the St. Cuthbert’s Mill in England
  • The binding of French paper over archival boards was designed at the Press by John DeMerritt and executed by Cardoza-James Binding Company and John DeMerritt
  • Square Folio, 9.75″ x 9.75″, 112 pages
  • Limited to 200 copies
  • Signed by Ward Schumaker and George Plimpton

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Slipcase
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Slipcase
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Cover and Spine
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Cover and Spine
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Cover
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Cover
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Macro of Cover
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Macro of Cover
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Macro Side View
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Macro Side View
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, End Pages
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, End Pages
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Title Page
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Title Page
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Macro of Title Page
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Macro of Title Page
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Decoration #1and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Decoration #1 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Macro of Text #1
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Macro of Text #1
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Illustration #1and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Illustration #1 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Decoration #2 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Illustration #2 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Decoration 2 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Decoration #2 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Illustration #4 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Illustration #3 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Decoration #3 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Sample Decoration #3 and Text
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Colophon
Paris France, Yolla Bolly Press, Colophon

2 thoughts on “Paris France, by Gertrude Stein, Yolla Bolly Press (1999)

  1. The Yolla Bolly Press edition of ‘Paris France’ by Gertrude Stein is probably the most sympathetic and beautiful introduction to her writings that you will encounter. Chris’ article is “spot on” with regard to the challenges and difficulties of reading Gertrude Stein’s literature (her poetry is, for me, more accessible and successful). I must confess: I, too, have a love:hate relationship with regard to reading Stein, even in this book, her most accessible work.

    Stein saw herself as a Modernist and she wrote in the stream of consciousness manner , attempting to put the reader “in the moment”. James Joyce she is not, however —- not even close. Joyce’s use his stream of consciousness and his grand experimentation with the English language is, first and foremost, deeply lyrical and poetic. He had an innate feel for the rhythm of the language and one can read long passages of ‘Ulysses’ aloud to wonderful effect. Moreover, Joyce’s writing was often wryly comical and he was a bit of a “smartass”. Joyce had an extraordinary feel for human behavior, its frailties, emotions and weaknesses. He seems to have a unique insight into the human condition not unlike Leo Tolstoy several decades earlier.

    This is precisely what makes his collection of short stories in “Dubliners” so powerful and why it was so hated in Ireland. His personal love: hate relationship with Ireland and Dublin (“dear, dirty Dublin”) endowed him with the uncanny knack of exposing a different unflattering truth about his countrymen in each successive story, forcing Dubliners to see themselves “through a cracked mirror” . Each story hits home and rubs an exposed nerve.

    By contrast, Gertrude Stein’s experimentation with language is widely unsuccessful. It is hardly lyrical or poetical, it is downright annoying. Personally, it has the feel of having a long conversation with someone afflicted with sever Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) —– the person you are conversing with says something to you, immediately forgets what he has said, then repeats the same thought in a slightly different but more circuitous manner, the literary equivalent of listening to an LP with a deep scratch that keeps repeating itself. More importantly, Stein is so involuted and obsessed with herself, her relationship with Alice Toklas, and her immediate circle of intellectuals that her writing lacks the humanity and universality that Joyce’s possesses.

    ‘Paris France’ has another book which is its “twin”, a sequel of sorts, entitles “Wars I Have Seen”, published in 1945 just before the conclusion of World War II. The book is also written in a relatively straightforward manner (for Stein, anyway) without her irritating repetitiveness and circuitous thought, describing what her life was like (and, by extension, that of the average French citizen) during the years 1940 through 1944 under Nazi occupation and the Vichy government. The book begins just as Stein and Toklas have fled Paris and have now settled down in the French countryside (the town of Culoz). However, for a good portion of this book the reader would not have a clue that France has just been conquered and occupied by Nazi Germany and that a war is raging throughout Europe. Rather, she is more concerned with scrounging food for her pet poodles than the fate of France and free Europe. In contrast to Joyce, Stein sees the world with ‘Olympian detachment’ (editor Bennett Cerf’s insightful term), peering at it as one would study bacteria through a microscope. It is only much later in the book that it becomes involved with the French Resistance and the American invasion.

    So why, then, bother reading Gertrude Stein?? Because despite all these flaws there are enough kernels of wheat hidden amidst the chaff to warrant a read. She was a keen observer and possessed a penetrating intellect. ‘Wars I Have Seen’ does indeed give the reader a first-hand report about what everyday life for the French people during the occupation years was like. For those Books and Vines readers who enjoy reading Gertrude Stein, ‘Wars I Have Seen’ will continue Gertrude Stein’s life in France as an American expatriate during World War II.

Leave a Reply