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
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