Friday, June 17, 2011

Everything is coming up roses (a rose is a rose)

Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein at home (by Man Ray)

In Everybody's Autobiography, Gertrude Stein famously summed up a visit to Oakland, the city where she spent her formative years, by writing that "Whenever you get there, there is no there there." Stein's oft-misinterpreted and typically gnomic line refers to the disappearance of her childhood home as much perhaps as a particular sense of cultural dislocation that a long-time resident of Paris must have experienced upon visiting California in the 1930s. Stein, of course, was not just any Parisian, but one who, along with first her brother Leo and later her partner Alice B. Toklas, famously surrounded herself with artists now recognized as the revolutionaries of modern art, including Picasso, Cezanne, and Matisse.

Were it possible for the ever-confident, self-assured, and endlessly and eagerly photographed Stein to return to California now, seventy years after her trip through Oakland, she may find herself inclined to revise her opinion of our lack of thereness, if only due to the happy accident that has San Francisco (Toklas' home town) on the verge of Steinian delirium. Between the Contemporary Jewish Museum's contextualizing Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and the SF MOMA's The Steins Collect exhibits, it seems we're in for a summer of breathlessly unpunctuated excitement.

Or maybe this feverish excitement is limited to Green Apple, surrounded as we are by what seems like a blessed deluge of books about, relating to, or touching upon our most famous literary emigrant. Although not all of the following books are tied to the concurrent exhibits, the serendipitous coincidence (not to mention seeing Stein's mug plastered all over town) has me eyeing my copy of The Making of Americans with a sense of guilt. (Although I could cop out--if listening to a 913 page book could be considered a cop out--and sit back while Gregory Laynor's performs the book for me.) (Do yourself a favor and listen to page 906.)

If any of this has made you feel the urge to brush up on Little Gertie*, take a look at the books below: from Atak's beautiful (and difficult to keep in stock) interpretation of Stein's story "Ada" to the hefty companion to The Steins Collect, I'm sure you'll find something in which to dip your toe before moving on to sentences like
Once upon a time there was no dog if there had been a dog nobody wept.

Once upon a time there was no name and if any one had a name nobody could cover a name with a name. But nobody wept except somebody who had not that name wept.

Atak's illustrated version of Stein's Ada, her first "word portrait" and a significant artistic breakthrough, is a bright and bold interpretation well-suited to the subject. Since I'm entirely ignorant of printing techniques, I'll quote from the book's publisher:
Atak’s unique style of illustration harks back to the days of chromolithography. As with these early printing techniques, on every page of the book each print layer is meticulously created by hand directly onto film. There are only a handful of artists left still using this technique and the result is inimitable. The book has the look and feel of something created in the early days of printmaking.

The Steins Collect is the companion book to the MOMA show. Read more about it on the Yale Press Log, which also informs us that the Press will be reviving two more of Gertrude Stein's work this fall, perhaps turning this summer of Stein into a veritable revival.

Steins' The World is Round is out-of-print (although you can view the edition illustrated by Clement Hurd--he of Goodnight Moon fame--on Flickr), but To Do, a follow-up to that book is a nice consolation, as consolations go. Molly explains why we're so infatuated with this one:
This whimsical book begins with the reassuring fact that everyone has a name and a birthday, taking a dizzying journey through the alphabet and the names therein. Never published in Stein's lifetime because it was deemed too obscure for children and adults, Yale University Press thankfully saw it as perfectly suited for both.

In 1906, Harriet Lane Levy was convinced to move to Paris from San Francisco by her friend Alice B. Toklas. Finding herself suddenly immersed in "in a strange world peopled by artists who spoke a language she could not understand--a colorful world that she could only remotely observe in black and white," Levy compiled these brief reminiscences which were until recently tucked away at the Bancroft Library. A fine book capturing an exciting era.

And, of course, there are the books by Stein herself, if you're so inclined.


* "Little Gertie is a little schnatterer. She talks all day long and so plainly. She outdoes them all. She's such a round little pudding, toddles around the whole day and repeats everything that's said or done." -- from a letter written by Stein's father, quoted in William Gass' essay on "Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence" (in The World Within the Word)

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