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.

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, after living for many years at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, found a country house near Belley and fell madly in love with it. When they first arrived in the area, they were vacationing, and the house was occupied by another renter. But the women had their hearts set on the place, even though they had only seen it across a valley, and used their influential friends to have the lessee, a soldier, promoted and thus transferred away from the area. They finally had their house, after a long wait, and would live in Belley and the surrounding area, some 80 km east of Lyon, through World War II and until Gertrude’s death.

One of the questions Janet Malcolm tries to answer in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is how two American Jewish women managed to live unmolested in the French countryside throughout the German occupation, even as the young men of the village were being sent to German labor camps. This is partly due to the fact that the villagers were very friendly with the women and apparently saw no reason to turn them over to the Germans. But Stein still had influential friends—Bernard Faÿ, an editor who befriended Stein in Paris despite his strong anti-Semitism and who would later be sentenced to a life of hard labor for collaboration, did his part to make sure that the couple remained safe and also well-rationed. Years after Gertrude’s death, Toklas would even sell a Picasso to fund his escape from prison and flight to Switzerland.

It seems shocking and disturbing to think of two Jews consorting with an anti-Semite in the middle of World War II, but neither of the women ever did much to admit, much less embrace, her religio-ethnic identity. Politically, Stein was very conservative: “she loved the Republican party, she hated Roosevelt, and she actually supported Franco.” (N.b., of course, that Stein died long before the Holocaust would be revealed in its fullness.) So they are not quite what we expect from two lesbian expatriates in France in the early part of the 20th century, one of them writing extremely modernist “novels” and collecting avante garde paintings.

Personally they are not what we expect either. Stein is childlike and childish and completely in thrall to Toklas, who is domineering and jealous. Much of Malcolm’s book is devoted to describing the treasure-hunt she went on to discover more of these two lives. On this hunt she meets Ulla Dydo, who has devoted her life to deciphering Stein’s texts, and uncovered a mystery in one of them—the word “may” in an early manuscript has been replaced everywhere with “can,” an unfelicitous choice given the sound of the rest of the work, and it turns out to be at Toklas’s jealous request: May was the name of Gertrude’s former lover, and when Toklas finds this out forces the redactions.

Stein’s acceptance of the punishment inflicted on her poem by the infuriated Toklas is almost beyond understanding. How could a serious writer agree to such a crazy demand? But what does one know about other people’s intimate lives? We know that jealousy can drive people to dire acts. We accept the idea of sadomasochism. Certain reports by contemporaries—and hints that Stein herself dropped—suggest that the “can”/”may” episode was not an isolated event but part of a regular repertoire of sadomasochistic games the couple played. The most striking of the reports is Hemingway’s. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, he writes of an exchange he overheard between Stein and Toklas whose violence so unnerved him that it effectively ended his relationship with Stein.

What does one know about other people’s intimate lives indeed? It is a question I think of daily and the main focus of Two Lives. Stein’s relationship with Toklas; Stein’s relationship with Judaism; Stein’s idea of herself, the image she put forth for friends to see. Malcolm is led to interesting musings on the subject of biography.

The minor characters of biography, like their counterparts in fiction, are less tenderly treated than major characters…. Unlike the flat characters of fiction (as E.M. Forster called them), who have no existence outside the novel they were invented to animate, the flat characters of biography are actual, three-dimensional people. But the biographer is writing a life not lives, and to keep himself on course, must cultivate a kind of narcissism on behalf of his subject that blinds him to the full humanity of anyone else. As he turns the bracing storylessness of human life into the flaccid narrativity of biography, he cannot worry about the people who never asked to be dragged into his shaky enterprise.

One of the notable features of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is Stein’s high-handed treatment of the lesser people in her circle. She flattens them as perhaps no biographer has ever flatteneed a character before or since…. It is—among other things it is—an anti-biography. Stein’s presentation of herself in the book as one of the world’s greatest geniuses, and of every other person as someone put on earth only to amuse or irritate her, is surely a reflection not of the way she saw herself and her friends but of the way she thought about biographical representation.

But from the rest of what Malcolm has to tell, Stein surely did think of herself as one of the world’s greatest geniuses.

One of the most reassuring things about reading Two Lives was finding out how even academics who have devoted their lives to studying this woman’s writings have a hard time understanding her at times. Malcolm gets good insights from Dydo and her colleagues and has interesting things of her own to say about The Making of Americans. While Two Lives probably doesn’t reveal anything groundbreaking of its own, it’s a very readable and fascinating biography, especially with so much of Malcolm’s research journey included in the narrative. Stein and Toklas certainly led interesting lives among interesting people, and this provides an intimate but hard-nosed window into that. And it’s enough to make me want to pick up the massive Making of Americans myself now—though probably not enough to make me finish it.