Lucy Church Amiably by Gertrude Stein

This post is my contribution to the Lost Generation Classics Circuit, organized by Rebecca of Rebecca Reads.


Lucy Church Amiably, written in 1927 and published for the first time in Paris in 1930 (according to the back of my Dalkey Archive edition), belongs to the “hermetic” group of Gertrude Stein’s works. That is to say, its style goes beyond the eccentric playfulness of the best-selling Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas to a place in the avant-garde of modernism, where few readers have ever cared to tread.

Described by the author in the “advertisement” at the front of the book, it is “a novel of romantic beauty and nature and of Lucy Church and John Mary and Simon Therese,” but more properly Lucy Church Amiably is a 240-page poem written in chapters and paragraphs. Paragraphs like this one:

It is very strangely that three does not make four. Remember a tree remember three three to a tree three a tree three trees poplars as well as fruit trees a peach tree in a vine or a land tree will be fine. It is very well to prevent wishes.

And chapters like this one:

If men have not changed women and children have.
If men have not changed women and children have.
If men have not changed women and children have.

So perhaps the first question is how to read the book. My calling this a poem was for this reason. Stein cared very much about the sound of things, and while I don’t really like to make the pronouncement that sound is “more important” than sense…to some degree at least it is. But the mixing of sound and sense is highly important as well. Stein loves puns—like the name of the title character (and novel), which is something of a long, drawn-out joke about how “[t]here is a church and it is in Lucey and it has a steeple and the steeple is a pagoda and there is no reason for it and it looks like something else.” I haven’t read any Joyce other than Dubliners, so I don’t know how good a comparison he would make to the reading experience, but it did remind me quite a lot of A Clockwork Orange. You don’t actually learn Stein’s language the way you learn Alex’s, but as you inhabit it it becomes normal to you.

“Normal,” but not always terribly meaningful. Or there are other kinds of meaning, the kinds suggested by the possibilities of wordplay and repetition, especially repetition of tiny, insignificant words, slightly rearranged, misarranged, morphemes swapped and passed around, syntax tweaked, ambiguities uncovered, phrase structures iterated to levels of grammatical absurdity. And then sometimes she’ll also tell you something relatively straightforward:

Lucy Church prefers the sun to the rain but finds both monotonous she prefers a temperate climate where the snow does not stay upon the ground where the mountains are poetical the rivers wide and rapidly flowing the meadows green and the poplars very tall and the newly planted ones very thin and pretty and delicate. She also likes the people to be nearly as well to do as they are and to live in the enjoyment of butter cake nut oil and fowl and also to find many of the natural growths to be pale yellow mauve blue and purple and rose and very miniature also the sun flowers to be planted if they are useful. She also wishes it to be understood that a pagoda combined with a church is something but a pagoda in stone and not combined with a church is something else. She has plenty of time to arrange everything and she has been asked to like it very much.

Or:

Lucy Church rented a valuable house for what it was worth. She was prepared to indulge herself in this pleasure and did so. She was not able to take possession at once as it was at the time occupied by a lieutenant in the french navy who was not able to make other arrangements and as the owner of the house was unwilling to disturb one who in his way had been able to be devoted to the land which had given birth and pleasure to them both there inevitably was and would be delay in the enjoyment of the very pleasant situation which occupying the house so well adapted to the pleasures of agreeableness and delicacy would undoubtedly continue. And so it was.

Ultimately, I won’t say much more than Dalkey Archive does about the novel: “Nothing much happens in the book.” It is a country romance about pastoral France, natural beauty, social life, human interiority, and language. Amiably. You can yank Stein’s work apart and unravel how her technique encases comments on feminism, gender, modernity, cubism, art, etc. But I don’t think any of us really should until after we’ve floated around in these paragraphs and sentences for a while. As the novel’s narrator says of nature, “They will say it is beautiful but will they sit in it.”


Visit Nonsuch Book and Bread Crumb Reads for today’s other posts on the Classics Circuit.

10 comments to Lucy Church Amiably by Gertrude Stein

  • Wow, you dove right into the hardcore Stein. I’m engaging in something more like…dabbling in Stein. Still, I’m surprised the degree to which I’m enjoying her.

    Love your final lines about floating around in the paragraphs and sentences. An atmosphere is certainly evoked, a place worth sitting.

  • Ha, yeah. Have you read her before at all? I read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas years ago, and (most of?) Tender Buttons at some point since then. I’ve also dipped in and out of The Making of Americans. But this one has been on my shelf for…I don’t know, maybe as long as ten years, and until now I never made it past the “introduction” (Stein’s, and about 50 pages long, and not noticeably different from the main text).

    Anyway, I think my point was that I only dove in after a lot of time getting used to the temperature. I’m really looking forward to your post!

  • The long introduction that’s written just like the rest of the book is a nice touch. Good for a laugh, at least.

    There’s a good readalong idea – The Making of Americans. The word “good” can mean many things.

  • Wow. When I read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas a few months ago, I felt that I wasn’t sure I would be ready to read Stein again in the near future. Now I think it will be a very long time, based on your quotes! :-)

  • AR—Good for a shriek, in my case. All the times I’d picked it up—and it does say “introduction”—it never quite sank in that I wasn’t actually reading the novel yet. When I hit page 47 and found “The Novel” at the top…there was surprise. And then despair that I would never manage this if I was paying that little attention to the form!

    Valerie—Well, this certainly isn’t the most accessible of her works (or the second-most, since Alice B. Toklas pretty clear comes in first). But even other really avant-garde stuff can be fun in small doses, I think…at least for me. Tender Buttons is crazy, but it’s all tiny vignettes. Then it’s really like reading a bunch of short poems or something. A good intermediate step at least, to see if you like it.

  • Your review sounds interesting, but this kind of literature simply isn’t my cup of tea. I think, after reading the sample quotes you provided, I could appreciate Eliot a lot more, since his words seem to make a great deal more sense!

    Also, it struck me…why do many of these modernists get away without punctuation? Why didn’t they use it? What does this say particularly of their time? Would a novel written in texting format in our era become a classic? Because, really, texting says something of our times – our speedy living and inability to stop for a moment and think about tiny details that make life fuller; for example, whole words and punctuation.

  • Nicole — you are exactly right about “small doses” — The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was my bedtime reading for several months, and I think I actually said that (based on that book) Stein is not someone who can be read in great big chunks. Maybe all of her works are that way — bedside reading; a few pages at a time before lights out :-) .

  • You’re braver than I am, getting into this one. I just finished her Three Lives and found it a pretty torturous experience – the level of repetition was unbelievable had me wanting to scream for most of the read. Based on that, and the quotes here…I think Three Lives is gonna be my first and last reading of Stein.

  • Your review is exactly why I enjoy the Classic Circuit so much! Your review covers a book I would never tackle and yet you have taught me so much about Gertrude Stein. Thank you!

  • I think it’s fair to say this is NOT my lifetime to read list…but I am considering tender buttons — here and there for the morsels — or Alice B. Toklas to get a “Stein” experience.

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