Tuesday 31 December 2013

Gertrude Stein and Cultural Femicide

The other morning I re-watched the film Midnight in Paris, directed by Woody Allen in 2011. For those of you who haven’t seen it, it’s hardly a classic, but it is good fun. In it, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, is visiting Paris with his fiancée. He’s a ‘Hollywood hack’ who wants to write a novel, and is obsessed with 1920s Paris. He is walking through the city at midnight, and finds himself transported back in time to 1920s Paris, where he meets the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Man Ray, Bunuel, Cole Porter, TS Eliot – the whole crowd. He falls in love with Adriana, played to perfection by Marion Cotillard, who had affairs with Modigliani, Picasso and Braque. In the film, that is.

It’s a fun film and it makes you want to go to Paris. But on my second viewing I noticed something that escaped my attention first time round, and it’s been making me cross.

When Gil meets Hemingway, he asks him to read his novel. Hemingway refuses, saying that you should never give your work to another writer to read. He then says he will take it to Gertrude Stein.

Hold on, I thought to myself. If you should not give your work to another writer to read, why would you give it to Gertrude Stein, who not only was a writer, but was one of the most prolific and one of the most exciting writers of the twentieth century?

It felt to me that this was a classic piece of cultural femicide, where Woody Allen completely erased Stein’s writing, and her contribution to modern literature.

It sounds like just a small thing. But Woody Allen presenting Stein as someone who read work because she was not a writer herself is just part of a much greater dismissal of Gertrude Stein’s importance and influence, and a wider dismissal of women writers living and working in Paris in the 1920s alongside the men who wrote ‘the great American novels TM’.

Hemingway knew the importance of Stein as a writer. Although they fell out over Torrents of Spring, he admitted later that ‘Gertrude was always right’, and explores her influence on him in A Moveable Feast.  In fact, contrary to Woody Allen’s portrayal, everyone in Paris knew the importance of Stein as a writer as well as a salon hostess. Janet Flanner, in one of her letters from Paris in 1926, wrote:

No American writer is taken more seriously than Miss Stein by the Paris modernists.’

But time and time again we see Gertrude Stein erased from our understanding of modernism. She’s not taught on university syllabuses, her influence on writing is not mentioned or celebrated, and trying to get hold of her work at your local bookshop is a bloody nightmare. Yet when you read Stein, you see in her bold, truthful prose that she wasn’t lying when she said that what Picasso was doing with art, she was doing with literature. She knew that Picasso was the most important artist and she was the most important writer. Her experimental form, her desire to create literary cubism – all of it is incredibly influential on the male writers we are all told to read.

The reason that men and women writers went to Stein with their manuscripts and asked for her views on their own words was because they knew her as a writer, as a genius with words. They didn’t just rock up to 27 Rue du Fleurus for Alice’s cooking and a chance to meet Picasso. They went because they knew that she was a writer who they respected to view their work, and advise on their work.

So why is Stein so ignored today, when her male peers and pupils are so celebrated?

Well, part of the problem is the one presented by Allen. Stein knew, and wrote about in Everybody’s Autobiography, that people in the USA were more interested in Stein the figure, than Stein the writer. This is exactly the trap Woody Allen falls into in the film. Here’s Gertrude Stein, the mentor, the hostess, the personality. But where is Gertrude Stein, the writer?

Another part of the problem was the widely-held conception that her work was difficult. Well, yes. Her work is quite difficult but only because it is challenging everything we accept about form and how we use language. It’s exciting. A lot of great modernist literature challenges you as a reader, Stein is no different. But while the linguistic gymnastics of her male contemporaries was admired, in Stein’s case it became something to dismiss and to mock.

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas was an instant bestseller, but the perceived difficulty of Stein’s work meant most of her writing was unpublished for most of her life. In fact, she famously fell out with Sylvia Beach – proprietor of Shakespeare and Company – because she felt Sylvia was championing James Joyce’s work over Stein’s own. It wasn’t until the success of Alice B Toklas that more of her work began to be published, and ever since then it seems to have fallen in and out of print.

Yet everyone who reads Gertrude Stein surely knows what an extraordinary writer she was. She was the genius she claimed herself to be. Janet Flanner doesn’t lie, everyone knew it in 1926. So why have we forgotten it now?

Stein isn’t the only women writer in Allen’s film who has been sidelined. Djuna Barnes makes a brief appearance, dancing with Gil, who “jokes” that it was no wonder she wanted to lead (this joke annoys me in so many ways).

Now, Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood is widely accepted as a modernist masterpiece. TS Eliot wrote the introduction, and it is a hugely influential text. It is also beautiful, frightening, heartbreaking, funny, transgressive – and the prose is poetic and gorgeous and sensual and stark. Nightwood is a truly great novel.

But where is Djuna Barnes in our cultural landscape? Again, she’s not taught on university syllabuses. She might turn up on women’s history reading lists, her Ladies Almanack is a literary curiosity for students of lesbian history, she’s read by geeks like me who love 1920s Paris and the women who lived there. She’s recognised and celebrated in ‘the academy’ but she doesn’t enjoy the fame of her male contemporaries, even though Nightwood is the masterpiece it is, even though the stories in Spillway are magnificent.

I love Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald, and I love Sherwood Anderson and all the big American writers who flocked to Paris and met at Gertrude’s salon and talked to her, writer to writer. But I am constantly frustrated and amazed by the lack of mention of Gertrude Stein, by the lack of respect paid to her, or to Djuna Barnes, or to the many, many women who were writing and working and creating in 1920s Paris, just as the men were.

So, what can we do to try and counter this cultural femicide? Well, we can start by reading Gertrude Stein. Below is a handy reading list for you…

To find out more about Gertrude Stein and her circle, you should start by watching Paris was a Woman and reading the accompanying book. Then try Women of the Left Bank by Shari Henstock. You can also read Noel Riley Fitch’s biography of Sylvia Beach.

To read Gertrude Stein, the best place to start is The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas.  Then Tender Buttons (my favourite is Sugar).  Then there’s Everybody’s Autobiography.  And The Making of Americans.  And Three Lives.

There are loads more – she was incredibly prolific. She wrote every day, barring a period of writer’s block after the success of Alice B Toklas. There’s her writing on Paris, her Novel of Thank You, her portraits of Picasso and Carl van Vechten – seriously there is just so much to read!

You can also read this anthology that has a lot of the above in it, as well as lectures and other things.

Gertrude wasn’t the only writer in the family. Alice B Toklas wrote her memoirs too, and even better it’s packed with her favourite recipes. It’s called The Alice B Toklas Cookbook.

If you want to read Djuna Barnes, this volume includes Nightwood, The Antiphon and Spillway.

Janet Flanner wrote her Letter from Paris for the New Yorker between 1925 and 1939, and her ‘best bits’ are recorded here. If I could have a drink with anyone in 1920s Paris, it would be Janet.

Happy reading!

Finally, here’s Gertrude herself, reading her portrait of Picasso.

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