Read an Excerpt
From Jonathan Levin’s Introduction to Three Lives
Though at times challenging and enigmatic, Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives remains a delight to read. Unlike many of the other great works of literary modernism, its difficulties are not of the sort to be resolved by an encyclopedic knowledge of literary history or the ability to piece together the seemingly scrambled pieces of a fragmented narrative. Stein’s prose is refreshingly direct, almost to the point of self-parody. Indeed, this style is so simple and straightforward that it challenges most readers’ expectations. Anyone reading Three Lives for the plot quickly realizes that while Stein provides her reader with plenty of plot, that plot is often overshadowed by the prose style itself, especially in the volume’s longest and most widely read tale, “Melanctha.” Stein clearly takes pleasure in words, almost in the way that a seven-year-old might, endlessly repeating a word, and variously inflecting it, to the point that it is effectively emptied of all meaning. Relying mostly on simple, often monosyllabic words, Stein wields language much as the modern painters she admired and collected were wielding paint, suggesting form through a radically simplified use of line and color. “I certainly do think you would have told me,” Jeff Campbell says to Melanctha Herbert at one point in “Melanctha,” “I certainly do think I could make you feel it right to tell me. I certainly do think all I did wrong was to let Jane Harden tell me. I certainly do know I never did wrong, to learn what she told me. I certainly know very well, Melanctha, if I had come here to you, you would have told it all to me, Melanctha.”
By combining and repeating such simple words and phrases, Stein helped reinvent the English language for the twentieth century. Much as Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and Pablo Picasso helped people understand how the eye constructs its field of vision, so Stein helped readers understand how words construct a field of meaning. In both cases, modern art serves to remind its audience that what the eye or ear beholds as a natural and given reality is itself the product of much active construction on the part of the beholder. The satisfyingly realistic look or sound of things is simply a style that has achieved such compelling force that it has come to look like the absence of style altogether. Modern art, by contrast, invariably looks highly stylized, a reflection of modern artists’ conviction that art should aim for something more than mere imitation or an illusion of reality. Indeed, modern art would challenge the conventions that governed imitation and the production of such illusions as perspective and verisimilitude in order to foreground the artifice that gives the world its aura of felt reality.
Three Lives was written during the height of Stein’s excited discovery of modern art. Only a few years earlier, she had moved to Paris, where with her brother Leo, an art collector and critic, she quickly established her famous salon in their home at 27 rue de Fleurus. From around the time Stein wrote Three Lives until the outbreak of World War I, the salon hosted first by Leo and Gertrude Stein and then, after Leo left in 1913 for Italy, by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, was one of the very best places to go in Paris to see the new art. With such regulars as Picasso and Matisse, the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, as well as the ever-voluble Leo Stein himself, it was also the place to go to engage in lively conversation about the new aesthetic style. The Steins’ residence at 27 rue de Fleurus would for many years continue to attract a wide audience, drawn both to the art in the Steins’ collection and to the brilliant literary celebrity that Stein herself would eventually become. By the spring of 1905, when Stein began writing Three Lives, Leo and Gertrude Stein were already purchasing small drawings and paintings by such artists as Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and they had only recently decided to invest what was for them a considerable sum in a large portrait by an obscure Provençale artist, Paul Cézanne.
Leo Stein was an early champion of Cézanne. In a letter to Mabel Weeks, he would link Cézanne to Renoir, Edouard Manet, and Edgar Degas as one of the “Big Four” of the contemporary art world (Mellow, Charmed Circle, pp. 62–65; see “For Further Reading”). Gertrude and Leo acquired the large portrait by Cézanne soon after Cézanne’s triumphant (and controversial) exhibition in the 1904 Salon d’Automne, which, then in its second year, had quickly become one of the leading annual exhibitions of the new art in Paris. It was at the notorious 1905 Salon d’Automne, at which Cézanne also exhibited, that a group of painters including Matisse was dubbed the Fauves, or the “wild beasts,” a phrase first used pejoratively to denigrate the seemingly barbaric appearance of the work exhibited by this group of painters. Stein herself suggested a link between the portrait of Madame Cézanne, which hung above her writing table, and her composition of Three Lives, a link succinctly described by James Mellow in his account of Stein’s life in Paris:
The portrait of Madame Cézanne is one of the monumental examples of the artist’s method, each exacting, carefully negotiated plane—from the suave reds of the armchair and the gray blues of the sitter’s jacket to the vaguely figured wallpaper of the background—having been structured into existence, seeming to fix the subject for all eternity. So it was with Gertrude’s repetitive sentences, each one building up, phrase by phrase, the substance of her characters” (p. 71).