November 18, 2008

“Simpering at the Interstices of Envy”

In his memoir, Hand to Mouth, Paul Auster relates how at one point during the years between his return from France and his first literary success he worked writing catalogue copy for a rare-book dealership, Ex Libris.  Auster includes several sample entries, one of which interested me in particular: 

394.   (STEIN, GERTRUDE).  Testimony:  Against Gertrude Stein.  Texts by Georges Braque, Eugene Jolas, Maria Jolas, Henri Matisse, André Salmon, Tristan Tzara.  Servire Press.  The Hague, February, 1935.  (Transition Pamphlet no. 1; supplement to Transition 1934-35; no. 23).  16 pp.  5 11/16 x 8 7/8".  Printed paper covers.  Stapled.

In light of the great Stein revival of the Seventies, the continuing value of this pamphlet cannot be denied.  It serves as an antidote to literary self-serving and, in its own right, is an important document of literary and artistic history.  Occasioned by the inaccuracies and distortions of fact in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Transition produced this forum in order to allow some of the figures treated in Miss Stein’s book to rebut her portrayal of them.  The verdict seems to be unanimous.  Matisse:  “In short, it is more like a harlequin’s costume the different pieces of which, having been more or less invented by herself, have been sewn together without taste and without relation to reality.”  Eugene Jolas:  “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in its hollow, tinsel bohemianism and egocentric deformations, may very well become one day the symbol of the decadence that hovers over contemporary literature.”  Braque:  “Miss Stein understood nothing of what went on around her.”  Tzara:  “Underneath the ‘baby’ style, which is pleasant enough when it is a question of simpering at the interstices of envy, it is easy to discern such a really coarse spirit, accustomed to the artifices of the lowest literary prostitution, that I cannot believe it necessary for me to insist on the presence of a clinical case of megalomania.”  Salmon:  “And what confusion!  What incomprehension of an epoch!  Fortunately there are others who have described it better.”  Finally the piece by Maria Jolas is particularly noteworthy for its detailed description of the early days of Transition.  This pamphlet was originally not for sale separately. $95.00

Maybe Auster was being a little coy in quietly tucking Eugene and Maria Jolas’s names in there with the others when after all transition was their magazine; more likely though he was just reproducing the sequence on the pamphlet’s cover or table of contents.  I wanted to read more about the controversy occasioned by the Autobiography, so I went and got Janet Hobhouse’s short biography of Stein down from the shelf.  The grievances were as follows:  The Jolases were pissed because Stein had pronounced transition dead (it hadn’t published any Stein lately); Braque was pissed because Stein had denied his role at Picasso’s side in the creation of cubism, and Matisse was pissed because Stein had compared his wife to a horse.  Tzara was pissed because he was Tzara. 

The pamphlet sounded to me like a kind of anti-matter version of Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress, the latter symposium intended to promote a modernist work and the former, its evil twin, intended to torpedo one.  Joyce himself had been behind the 1929 publication of Exagmination, and most of the contributions – by Eugene Jolas, Samuel Beckett, and others – had already appeared in the pages of transition.  This got me wondering:  could the real motivation behind the 1935 transition pamphlet have been an attack by the Joyce faction on the Stein circle? 

The Jolases had always been personally closer to Joyce than to Stein, and Eugene Jolas to a Joycean aesthetic.  In an essay that quotes Jolas’s autobiography, Man from Babel, Marjorie Perloff writes:

When, in late 1926, he heard Joyce read from the opening pages of his new manuscript, Jolas marveled at the 'polysynthetic quality' of Joyce's language, a language which was to become the touchstone for transition. The 'repetitiveness of Gertrude Stein's writings', on the other hand, was not really Jolas's cup of tea, even though, in deference to his co-editor Elliot Paul and to Stein's stature as the 'doyenne among American writers in Paris', he was to publish so many of her experimental pieces, and even though he frequently came to her defense in the pages of transition […]. In his autobiography, Jolas was more candid about what he called Stein's 'esoteric stammering':

Her mental attitude was remote from anything I felt and thought. For not only did she seem to be quite devoid of metaphysical awareness but I also found her aesthetic approach both gratuitous and lacking in substance. . . .

We published a number of her compositions in transition, although I am obliged to say that I saw, and see today, little inventiveness in her writing. The "little household words" so dear to Sherwood Anderson, never impressed me, for my tendency was always in the other direction. I wanted an enrichment of language, new words, millions of words. . . . (my  emphasis)

More vocabulary rather than less, Joycean 'enrichment' rather than Steinian reduction: this 'other direction' was, of course, Jolas's own. 

On Stein’s part, there was jealousy at Joyce’s growing reputation.  According to Hemingway if you brought up the author of Ulysses more than once at the Stein salon you would not be welcomed back.  Stein thought that Joyce got credit for a current of innovation that she herself had inaugurated: “But who came first,” she wrote, “Gertrude Stein or James Joyce?  Do not forget that my first great book, Three Lives, was published in 1908.  That was long before Ulysses” (qtd in Ellmann, James Joyce).  The knocks on Joyce extended to the Autobiography itself, where Stein writes:  “Picasso once said when he and Gertrude were talking together, yes Braque and James Joyce, they are incomprehensibles whom anybody can understand” (qtd in Hobhouse).  In other words, just as Braque was relegated to the sidelines at the creation of cubism, so Joyce should be seen as a secondary figure in literary modernism’s revolution of the word. 

On his side Joyce expressed little curiosity about Stein’s works and no desire to meet their author – Ellmann reports him voicing the charming sentiment, “I hate intellectual women.”  Although the two writers did once bump into each other at the Jolases’ flat (an encounter apparently even more unremarkable than the famous anticlimax of Joyce’s meeting with Proust), Joyce certainly never read the Autobiography, and if he was affronted, it was at second hand.    

That’s as much as I’ve been able to glean with the resources within reach of my Oblomov’s couch.  If anyone has any further information, send it along.  In the meantime I’ll be thinking about how amusing it is, in Auster’s catalogue entry, to hear Jolas complain about “the decadence that hovers over contemporary literature” in the years when new installments of Finnegans Wake were still appearing in print, and in fact in the very pages of transition itself.  The decadence no longer hovers, it has seeped into the interstices.     


LML said...

Strange, I happen to be reading Autobiography at the moment. Interesting post. Interesting to me that, given that Stein is overtly playing with the loaded status of all autobiographical fiction, getting mileage out of the real world without ever letting us forget that what we're reading is a made thing, not to be considered true in any conventional sense--interesting that very sophisticated people were nevertheless drawn in by the power of the book's truth-claims. The pamphlet's existence sounds like a closing chapter in the conceptual art project that was the Stein-Toklas household.

Edmond Caldwell said...

"Stein is overtly playing with the loaded status of all autobiographical fiction, getting mileage out of the real world without ever letting us forget that what we're reading is a made thing, not to be considered true in any conventional sense."

This is pretty much what Hobhouse says in Stein's defense in the biography (altho' you put it better), and what made me wonder if the pamphlet might really have been a sort of cat's paw in a Joyce-Stein contest.

But then I was wondering (in spite of what is more or less my partisanship for the Joyce side) if maybe Stein had the last laugh. If you look at UbuWeb, at least, conceptual-art approaches to poetry & prose are still going strong; maybe it's Joyce's aesthetic that's played out . . . (Not that I've fully thought this through, and there's also the question of "which Joyce aesthetic").

LML said...

My own half-worked-out thought is that Stein may have opened up as much fresh territory as Joyce, but that maybe she didn't fulfill, on her own, all the promise therein. Thus there remained work for others to do.

Joyce maybe brought all of his own innovations to fruition. He left no room in the field for any descendents. Like Shakespeare, he is simply a monument.

Edmond Caldwell said...

"Our bloom is gone. We are the fruit thereof."

-- Wallace Stevens, "Le
Monocle de Mon Oncle"