Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives

Gertrude Stein has long been the only Lost Generation figure I haven’t read apart from the bits and pieces required to prep for the literature GRE. Now that I’ve finished reading her Three Lives I’m not sure why I felt the need to push myself to sign up to read Stein for The Classics Circuit’s Lost Generation Tour; it’s not like I ever felt any draw to her work before this week.


For Stein, I can’t be bothered to take my research any further than Wikipedia (I’m tired of her, I’m tired of her, I’m tired of her), and all I have to say is: I don’t care if I’m joining the legions who “misunderstand” her work, I don’t care if I’m marking myself as a doofus whose appreciation of literature ends when it becomes hard to read, I just really don’t like Gertrude Stein even when it comes to what is probably the “easiest” of her works. I stand with James Thurber:

Anyone who reads at all diversely during these bizarre 1920s cannot escape the conclusion that a number of crazy men and women are writing stuff which remarkably passes for important composition among certain persons who should know better. Stuart P. Sherman, however, refused to be numbered among those who stand in awe and admiration of one of the most eminent of the idiots, Gertrude Stein. He reviews her Geography and Plays in the August 11 issue of the Literary Review of the New York Evening Post and arrives at the conviction that it is a marvellous and painstaking achievement in setting down approximately 80,000 words which mean nothing at all.

Anyway, let’s move on to the book…shall we? Three Lives was Stein’s first book, and is composed of stories about three women: Anna, Melanchta and Lena. The bulk of the book is given to Melanchta’s story, and maybe it’s a sign of my impatience and blah blah blah that I found this longest story (it runs over half the length of the book) so painful that I seriously considered giving up reading for good, and also fell asleep every time I started reading it. (Three Lives is a book that must be read in the upright position, preferably in the least comfortable chair you own.)

The lives Stein writes about are constricted in their view and scope. The first story, about “the good Anna,” sets this tone of small and relatively quiet lives. Stein doesn’t develop her characters in any traditional way I can think of describing, but uses repetition to set the terms through which we see her characters. So, “Anna led an arduous and troubled life”, and repeatedly we read, “Anna Federner, this good Anna, was of solid lower middle-class south german stock.” “The Good Anna” is concerned with Anna’s movements from employer to employer, a little with her private life and her tendency to be overgenerous with the money she has saved, about the collapse of her friendship with a woman who takes advantage of her money. There’s one description in this story that I love, when a dog Peter, “would retire to his Anna and blot himself out between her skirts”. Other than that and a vague interest in the way Stein used repetition (which maybe was revolutionary at the time, but now seems pretty standard), I didn’t find much of note in this story and I was vaguely relieved when Anna died and I got to move on to the second story.

That relief was pretty short-lived though. What can I say about “Melanchta”? This is the only story in the book about a black woman (or a “mulatta”, more exactly) and it made me so uncomfortable in its tone and the stereotypes it throws around. I am uncomfortable even writing about this, so let me just quote a bit and put this subject to rest:

Rose Johnson was a real black, tall, well built, sullen, stupid, childlike, good looking negress. She laughed when she was happy and grumbled and was sullen with everything that troubled. […]

Rose laughed when she was happy but she had not the wide, abandoned laughter that makes the warm broad glow of negro sunshine. Rose was never joyous with the earth-born, boundless joy of negroes. Hers was just ordinary, any sort of women laughter.

Rose Johnson was careless and was lazy, but she had been brought up by white folks and she needed decent comfort. Her white training had only made for habits, not for nature. Rose had the simple, promiscuous immorality of the black people.

Just, oh my god.

Add to this that Stein went truly nuts with the repetition, and you’ve got yourself a painful read. Again, Stein doesn’t develop her characters so much as she tries to create a lasting image of them through repetition, but here the repetitions are so extensive and unrelenting that I spent most of the story praying the characters would die soon so I could stop reading the same goddamn lines over and over again. (Also, about every other word in this story is “certainly”.) Let’s do another quote to kill this subject:

“I certainly don’t rightly understand what you are doing now to me Jeff Campbell,” wrote Melanchta Herbert. “I certainly don’t rightly understand Jeff Campbell why you ain’t all these days been near me, but I certainly do suppose it’s just another one of the queer kind of ways you have to be good, and repenting of yourself all of a sudden. I certainly don’t say to Jeff Campbell I admire very much the way you take to be good Jeff Campbell. I am sorry Dr. Campbell, but I certainly am afraid I can’t stand it no more from you the way you have been just acting. I certainly can’t stand it any more the way you act when you have been as if you thought I was always good enough for anybody to have with them, and then you act as if I was a bad one and you always just despise me. I certainly am afraid Dr. Campbell I can’t stand it any more like that. I certainly can’t stand it any more the way you are always changing. I certainly am afraid Dr. Campbell you ain’t man enough to deserve to have anybody care so much to be always with you. I certainly am awful afraid Dr. Campbell I don’t ever any more want to really see you. Good-by Dr. Campbell I wish you always to be real happy.”

Imagine, if you will, an entire novella written like this. Every sentence loops around on itself and when my reading wasn’t putting me to sleep I found myself entering a sort of trance that made it impossible for me to recall what characters actually said or did, though the knowledge that it probably wasn’t a whole lot was comforting. Towards the end Stein uses a little repetition that I find more effective, when she recalls passages from early in the story and circles the reader through time back to the opening pages of “Melanchta”, but the bulk of this story I found dull and impossible. Melanchta’s dealings with men, which is what the story concerns itself with, end only with her death. I am not sure I have ever been so relieved to see a character die.

The book’s final story, “The Gentle Lena”, is a return to the form of “The Good Anna”. Still repetitive but it’s a breath of fresh air (Stein goes in for repetition, I go in for cliches) after “Melanchta”. Like “The Good Anna”, “The Gentle Lena” is about a German girl, this time a young women who’s brought to the States by family. She works for some time, then is married to a German-American man, bears him three children, and dies while delivering the fourth. “The Gentle Lena” is the shortest story in Three Lives, and if you’re looking to read something by Stein I’d go for this story above the others because, well, it’s short, and fairly painless, if not particularly distinguished.

I feel like I should strive somehow to tie Gertrude Stein and her writing and her stylistic experiments into the larger scope of the Lost Generation this round of The Classics Circuit is looking at, but to be frank: I can’t be bothered. I am not sure when the last time was that I actually thought reading a book might kill me, but this one had me verging on death for a week and I’m glad I read it only so I can say I’ve read Stein and never return to her.

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23 Comments

I don’t think I know anyone who has ever recommended Gertude Stein to me, not even a stranger in Union Square Park. She sounds truly bad.

It sounds like you’ve decided to go to grad school for literature. Do you know exactly what your course of study is going to be yet? I haven’t been able to decide on what to try to go back for yet (I can talk myself out of every possibility), so I’m kind of curious to hear what other people have chosen.

Comment by mike keane

I’ve always thought of her as a champion bullshitter. Somehow she got some people to think her writing was important, so it’s still around – but I don’t know anyone who thinks she’s someone worth reading or has had much of an influence on other writers.

I’m not sure about the grad school thing. I was for a couple years decided that I’d go back, so I took the lit gre – but now I am sitting on the whole thing. I don’t want to spend all my time in Macedonia studying for exams for a return to school that I may or may not make, and even though my NOT studying for the exams is a decision in itself (what are the odds, now, that I’ll end up going back?), my feelings about grad school are too mixed to really make a decision right now. The job market is so bad, and probably getting worse, and I don’t know that I want to throw myself in there. I’d be interested in what you’re thinking about school, though…i finish up with peace corps in about eight months and there will be some hanging out and talking about grad school in order when I get home.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I could go on and on about it, but to try to keep it compressed…it really hit me after Americorps, that I’d much rather go back to school and study something I’m interested in than try to luck into something like that in the job market with no real experience. I don’t know if everyone else is as naive as I am, but I think I assumed that having no particular direction in life would be freeing; I’ve found it instead to be really paralyzing, and I’ve been having lots of nightmares about being 45 and working part-time in central NJ and still living with my parents. I think there’s really something to be said for the structure of your life; a 40-hour work week is pretty consuming. And if I have a chance at this point to align the structure of my life with something I’m interested in, that seems like a worthwhile goal.

That being said, I’m thinking about shelving it for another year also. I was happiest studying philosophy in school, but there’s really only one thing you can do with it (I’m at least trying to make a fatuous show of being practical), and I’m not sure I could get into a PhD program. I’m interested in therapy, but at the moment my job is actually driving a van for psychiatric outpatients, and it has kind of given me pause about entering that world permanently. One thing I’ve been thinking about, and I’m wondering if you’ve considered this too, is going for an MFA in creative writing. I’m very suspicious of those programs; I sort of feel that if you want to be a writer, the best way to go about it is probably to keep reading, writing, and having diverse life experiences, not joining a hermetic community where everyone has the same background and interests and learns to write the same way. I really don’t want to pay thousands of dollars to be taught things that I’d then want to unlearn. On the other hand, maybe some of these programs are actually decent and not at all like I’m imagining them.

Eight months, wow. Good luck with everything until then.

Comment by mike keane

right right right. i’ve thought a little about an mfa too, but i’ve all my life thought that you can’t really be taught writing. i guess i see an mfa program as a “safe” place to write – you can kind of justify it if you’re going to school for it – but i’m also frustrated with a lot of the work i see coming out of mfa programs. stephen king wrote this great piece on what’s wrong with short stories today – http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CBQQFjAA&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.nytimes.com%2F2007%2F09%2F30%2Fbooks%2Freview%2FKing2-t.html&ei=J5eYTdnZHc33sgbYzvHOCA&usg=AFQjCNH5L4grlhJZP7yFUiQUBvvpqtNTzg&sig2=aqap5Hrfl9xZrOvKBR7EHA – and it’s (all things you know) the way they’re written now more for other writers than for readers. i’m a little scared of going into an mfa program, paying a load of money to learn to do something i can probably learn just as well on my own, though it might take more time, and in the end writing stories that aren’t going to do anything for readers. sounds like we should definitely talk, though given that we seem to be in the same place we may not make any real progress towards a school or work or aimless life decision.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Well that’s alright. Most of my friendships tend to be commiseration- or enabling-based…getting good old character-building kicks in the ass is what fathers are for.

Comment by mike keane

That’s an interesting essay. I enjoy the New Yorker, but for the most part I find their fiction selections pretty mediocre. I’d probably have to do some research to find out how many of their fiction contributors graduated from MFA programs and live in Brooklyn- maybe it just seems like there’s a large percentage. 2 of their ’40 under 40′ writers are even married to each other, which I found really weird.

People who peruse those bottom-shelf journals he’s talking about or who read experimental fiction definitely seem to constitute a small percentage of our society- we’re probably about equal in number to scientologists. And I learned in americorps that a lot of people our age, maybe even the majority, really DO listen to music like britney spears and kiesha (sp?), and read vampire-romance novels only when TV isn’t available.

Comment by mike keane

i’m with you on the new yorker fiction. i would love to count up the number of their writers who have mfas except i bet it would depress me. when i look at that sort of fiction what i know is mostly that that’s NOT what i want to write – in the new yorker or not.

when i start thinking on these lines and about some of the zines publishing more experimental work…i think it’s in those zines that the best short stories are being published. one of my favorite, “lady churchill’s rosebud wristlet” publishes some pretty weird stuff, but i’m never reacting to a story printed there with the kind of “meh” i reserve for new yorker stories. i do wonder if it’s a problem that there are all these zines that are being mostly or exclusively read by writers, but i’m also more excited by the work that shows up in them than what i find in most places… and maybe this isn’t ALL that ails the short story, it’s also that the short stories most people read are the ones that put you to sleep, are written “mfa style” to appeal on a sentence-by-sentence level but never get you psyched to be reading the story.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Thank you for your review. I have never read Gertrude Stein and now I know why. Your pain in reading this book has taught us all well!

Comment by Pamela

I must admit that some of the other Circuit posts on Stein have intrigued me. But you’ve reminded me that no, I probably won’t “Like” reading her works. We’ll see.

I haven’t even read the token bit so I still have yet to experience the feeling that a book will kill me.

Comment by Rebecca Reid

I read the other posts on Stein before I wrote mine and kind of thought, “huh, these people seem to be getting a lot of her that i’m not. am i missing something?” but i don’t think i am missing anything – and i’m confused as to why stein sticks around since i don’t personally know anyone who willingly reads her work, or admires it once they have. still, i’m glad i read this if only so i don’t have to keep on wondering if i should read stein.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Interesting review, Ellen! I haven’t read any of Gertrude Stein’s works yet, but have read about her, here and there. I remember reading something about her in an essay (probably by Jeanette Winterson) and in Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’. For some reason, I never liked her – I don’t know whether it was because of the way she was portrayed in these pieces that I read. From your review, it looks like her books might have been considered important during her day, but haven’t aged well across time.

Comment by Vishy

Thanks for giving the link to that article by Stephen King, Ellen. I read that article and loved it! I found what Stephen King said quite interesting – that writers are writing for writers and that the readership is sinking, both of which are sadly true. Sometimes even novels seem to be written for writers which is sad. I read an essay sometime back on how today writing has evolved into something where writers don’t care about plot but are more concerned with writing beautiful passages and how this is encouraged in creative writing programmes. Beautiful passages are nice in a way, but a lot of readers still yearn for the old-fashioned plot.

Comment by Vishy

I agree with you. Beautiful passages are worth something, but they don’t a novel make. I’m sure I miss some fantastic writing this way, but I often shy away from a novel if the first line of the bio goes “so-and-so graduated from such-and-such mfa program…” I eased up a bit a few months ago and read Jennifer Haigh’s The Condition (for the very good reason that I found a copy of it in the peace corps office here) and there were a lot of well-constructed sentences but the book as a whole left me cold. There was so little forward motion to the novel, so little plotting, and the sentences might’ve been done pretty well but they were also never extraordinary. I like to sometimes see a writer fall on her face – to be trying ways of putting together a story and a sentence that can be stunning and sometimes, you know, don’t exactly work out.

I’ve started reading much more genre fiction in the past year and a half than I ever did when I had access to any book I wanted, and reading Books With Plots has me convinced that this is what we should be going for. I love the well-crafted sentence as much as anyone (Nabokov is my favorite writer, for god’s sake) but that is not going to be enough, people are going to get tired of that (they already are). I think more people should be skipping the mfa goal of Writing Awesome Sentences and follow someone like Dennis Lehane, who writes awesome characters and absolutely true dialogue (thereby coming up with the sort of sentences so many writers are straining after) and has plots to boot.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Yeah, I don’t know what it is about Stein. I’ve read ABOUT her plenty of times before this, and I’ve never been attracted to her or her writing.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Bad writing captivates my interest nearly as much as brilliant writing. I’m always afflicted with the urge to get into the heart of the book and shred its lazy, self-indulgent, myopic, or just plain atrociously-written content to shreds. Interestingly enough, since I began book blogging, I’ve not yet eviscerated a piece of literature on my blog — nothing I have read of recent has even remotely deserved it. Now I’m tempted to give ‘Three Lives’ a try. Perhaps aspects of the text might be culturally inaccessible to present-day readers, but I’m of the firm belief that bad writing will out, no matter the window-dressing.

Comment by Shivanee @ Novel Niche

I love this: “bad writing will out, no matter the window-dressing.” True, true, true. There’s something fun about tearing apart a piece of literature, and now that Three Lives is turning into a vague memory I’m glad that I read it, if only to tell everyone the things I didn’t like about it. I’m psyched to read you ripping apart a book. (Is that awful & mean-spirited of me?)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

[…] Chelsea Handler – My Horizontal Life (04/04/11) Michael Crummey – Galore (04/03/11) Gertrude Stein – Three Lives (03/31/11) Judy Blume – Forever (03/27/11) Timothy Egan – The Worst Hard Time […]

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I am in the middle of reading Melanctha and I keep wondering why I am torturing myself. The repetative sentences and dialogue hurt my brain and and I keep checking how many more pages I have left to read. I am also confused with the dialogue of the characters. Is it supposed to be in the vernacular? Or is she making her characters so simple they can barely put a sentence together that makes any sense.

Comment by Beatrice Nielsen

[…] Book: Gertrude Stein. Three Lives. I read a few bad books this year, but this is the only one that had me wanting to tear the book to […]

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I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY SOME OF US ARE SO HATEFUL TOWARD STEIN. I BELIEVE SHE HAD A WAY OF GATHERING ERY INFLUENTIAL WRITES AND ARTISTS AND I FIND THAT EXTRAORDINARY.
I PERSONALLY LIKE SOME OF HER QUOTES AND I THINK THAT SHE WAS AN INTELLIGENT WOMAN. IT IS A FACT THAT IF YOU HATE HER WRITING, YOU SHOULD NOT CONTINUE READING. I FELT THE SAME WAY ABOUT COLETTE.WE ALL HAVE DIFFERENT TASTES ALTHOUGH I ENJOYED THE EXHIBITS IN SAN FRANCISCO AND PARIS.

Comment by lanarebeccamarch

No one here – not me, in my review, or any of the commenters – wrote about Stein personally. Whether you believe we’re “hateful” towards Stein or not, the fact is that we’re simply commenting on her works. I don’t think anyone who’s commented here denies that Stein is an interesting woman and that, as you write, she had a way of gathering and connecting influential people. But we’re commenting on Stein’s writing, NOT her life. You say that you like some of her quotes. Have you explored her work in greater depth? I would of course be interested in hearing your thoughts on her work if you have; what I’m not interested in is this sort of caps-lock heavy comment that adds nothing to the discussion but does criticize those of us who have taken the time to read some of Stein’s work and formulate an opinion.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I have to admit that the reason I like her so much is that she lived in Paris and I am a Parisian myself.
Personally, I have studied her life more than her works although I have read some of it. I am probably wrong in placing her at the same level as Marguerite Duras for Duras had more guts when it came to writing, although once again, I do not like everything she produced.

Comment by lanarebeccamarch

What Gertrude Stein did to language she also did to art. The entire fiasco which is modern art, or the concept that someone would actually patronize something for what it was supposed to “represent”: like her writing was supposed to represent genius, can be traced directly back to her. Stein was, above all, a con-artist extraordinaire.

Comment by MrMikeludo




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