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Hugh Sykes Davies

review of Narration, by Gertrude Stein

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Narration. By Gertrude Stein. (The University of Chicago Press.) 11s.6d. [Eleven shillings and sixpence.]

This piece was first published in ‘Books of the Quarter’,
in Criterion, 15/61, July 1936, pages 752–5.

It is 1,700 words or about four printed pages long.

Not many years ago, Miss Stein was honourably mentioned in most lists of the leaders of modern literature, even short ones, and was often seen in the company of greater than herself — on paper. There was some justification. She had evolved from herself, from her own sensibility, an original means of expression, and she had developed it skilfully within its rather narrow limits. Her achievement was obviously not great, but as far as it went it appeared to be genuine, and that is more than can be said for many more pretentious experiments.


Gertrude Stein, 1929

Some of the most attractive minor pieces in all the arts have been produced by such talents, limited, but within their limitations real and complete. There is unfortunately the danger that an artist of this kind may some day refuse to accept his limitations honestly. For the emotional reactions which follow any genuine creative activity, even on a small scale, are often productive of spiritual pride, and spiritual pride is a great solvent of honesty. It is to be feared that something of the kind has happened to Miss Stein. Disregarding her limitations, she has attempted tasks which she does not understand, and which she could hardly perform even if she understood them. This book on narration marks the nadir—if we are lucky—of this sad decline in honesty. There is this to be said in excuse, that the temptation to exceed herself came from others. In his introduction Mr. Thornton Wilder says that the four lectures which compose the book were delivered at the University of Chicago, and that body must take a little of the blame for issuing such an irresponsible invitation. But Miss Stein must take much more of the blame for accepting it.

Naturally enough, she has used a means of expression which is not that commonly employed in lectures, or in critical work, and which bears some relationship to the style which has made her famous. It is not the first time, of course, that she has tried to adapt it to such purposes, but never before has the critical project been so ambitious, and before we come to any opinion about the manner, it is only fair to examine the matter.

‘Ambitious’ seems to be the word for it, unless ‘pretentious’ be preferred. The discussion of the subject opens with a sort of philosophy of history, justifying the conception of centuries, and goes on to develop the differences between life in England and life in America. The conclusion seems to be this: that English life is peaceful and homely, while American life is restless and full of movement. This journalistic commonplace, woven in and out of six or seven pages, iterated and reiterated into a tedious trellis-work or verbiage, composes the bulk of the first lecture. The second lecture deals with poetry and prose, and the conclusion perhaps deserves quotation:

‘Poetry and prose, I came to the conclusion that poetry was a calling and intensive calling upon the name of anything and that prose was not the using the name of anything as a thing in itself but the creating of sentences that were self-existing and following one after the other of anything a continuous thing which is paragraphing and so a narrative that is a narrative of anything. That is what a narrative is of course one thing following any other thing.

‘If poetry is the calling upon a name until that name comes to be anything if one goes on calling on that name more and more calling upon that name as poetry does then poetry does make of that calling upon a name a narrative it is a narrative of calling upon that name. That is what poetry has been and as it has been that thing as it has been a calling upon a name instead of a succession of internal balancing as prose has been then naturally at the time all the time the long time after the Elizabethans poetry and prose has not been the same thing no not been at all the same thing.’

What of the syntactical resources of poetry? And of the semantic function of words in prose? But perhaps in some obscure way objections such as these are met by Miss Stein, and I have been too stupid to see them. Even so, I can feel little shame at failing to understand a passage which displays such deplorable looseness of thought. It is enough to examine the variations of meaning of the word ‘thing’, both singly and in its compounds ‘anything’ and ‘everything’. Apparently it can stand for the subject matter, the object described, a proposition by Miss Stein, or the preceding sentence as a whole. No theory can be expressed clearly through such confusion, nor can it exist clearly. And unhappily the other subjects treated in the last two lectures are just as shabbily handled as this matter of prose and poetry. I see that Miss Stein has discussed the newspaper, history, the novel, biography, and autobiography, but I do not know what she has said about them. Everywhere is the multum-in-parvo ‘thing’, running through the whole gamut of its nebular meanings, just as it does with children who are learning to talk, or with stupid women who try to discuss intensely subjects which they do not understand.

Gertude Stein with flag

The confusions of thought are made worse by Miss Stein’s habit of omitting all facts and illustrations. Mr. Wilder puts a very good face on it by assuring us that ‘Miss Stein pays her listeners the high compliment of dispensing for the most part with that apparatus of illustrative simile and anecdote that is so often employed to recommend ideas. She assumes that the attentive listener will bring, from a store of observation and reflection, the concrete illustration other generalization.’ But all that is mere euphemism. It would be better to say that Miss Stein spins a web in the void, either ignorant of facts or not caring for them.

Her generalizations do not perform the function of organizing our data, for we can never know which data she has in mind. Her theories are their own reward. Perhaps they merit the title of ‘pure theories’, for they are completely untainted by facts or concrete knowledge.

As an example of this airy theorizing, this passage will serve:

‘I had a funny experience once, this was a long time after I had been writing anything and everything as you all more or less have come to know it, it was about five years ago and I said I would translate the poems of a young French poet.... so I began to translate and before I knew it a very strange thing had happened.

‘Hitherto I had always been writing, with a concentration of recognition of the thing that was to be existing as my writing as it was being written. And now, the recognition was prepared beforehand there it was it was already recognition a thing I could recognize because it had been recognized before I began my writing, and a very queer thing was happening.

‘The words as they came out had a different relation than any words I had hitherto been writing, as they came out they had a certain smoothness they went one into another in a different kind of fashion than any words ever had done before.... I realized something I realized that words come out differently if there is no recognition as the words are forming because recognition had already taken place.

‘I concluded then that Shakespeare’s sonnets were not written to express his own emotion I concluded that he put down what some one told him to do as their feeling which they definitely each time for each sonnet as their feeling and that is the reason that the words in the sonnets come out with a smooth feeling with no vibration in them such as the words in all his plays have as they come out from them.’

It is dreadful to think that growing minds should have had before them such an example of loose thinking and bad criticism.

So much for the matter. Of the manner nothing better can be said. Miss Stein has elected to omit most of the usual punctuation. She does this because she wishes to challenge a livelier collaboration from the reader, and because she believes that commas make things too easy, prevent us from living our life as actively as we should lead it. Morally, this argument may be compared with that recently advanced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to justify the imposition of taxes which he admitted were financially unnecessary. It is good for us all to pay, he said, because then we all feel that we are actively collaborating in rearmament. Technically, Miss Stein’s economy of commas may be compared with a complete renunciation of the pedal in playing the piano. At best, we might have a tour de force, and that only if the pianist happened to be a very good one. As it happens, we do not get so much from Miss Stein, for punctuated or unpunctuated her sentences are simply bad, ill-constructed, confused and rhythmless.

In fact all Miss Stein’s old virtues have forsaken her. The trick of constant repetition which gave pleasure when it was used in prose with no rational end, for purely aesthetic purposes, has adapted itself very ill to the making of statements with meaning. It is bad enough to hear a silly theory advanced once, it is agony to hear it advanced twenty times in quick succession. And the faults which have sprung up in the ground left vacant by the dead virtues are a weedy legion—the vagueness of conception, slackness of thought, the endeavour to make commonplace views impressive by gesticulation and emphasis. It is a pity.



Photo of Gertrude Stein with American flag by Carl van Vechten


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