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Hassan Najmi’s gossipy romp about artists in Paris in the 1920s, Gertrude, should be taken with a grain of salt, or maybe the salt in an entire shaker. Ostensibly about Gertrude Stein and the guests she cultivated, exploited, and promoted in her salon (mostly European painters but others who were writers and composers), the novel is also a torrid exploration into the possibility that Stein not only had Alice B. Toklas in her bed but also a young man, named Muhammad, whom she supposedly began an affair with during a trip to Tangier. Whether or not there is a speck of evidence about the actuality of such a relationship, I cannot determine. That hardly matters because Najmi’s novel is a delight to read, even if the story occasionally gets bogged down in minutia about the famous artists Stein cultivated.
The most famous of those artists is Pablo Picasso and a good bit of the story centers around his famous portrait of Stein. There are details about the multiple sittings the painting required, the disagreements between Picasso and his subject, and plenty of witty remarks about the completed painting–namely, that it doesn’t look at all like Stein herself. Yet, if the story is true, Gertrude couldn’t stop gazing at the painting and sitting under it whenever she had guests visiting. Moreover, once Muhammad arrives at Stein’s flat, he is as obsessed with the painting as the woman herself. (The painting also appears on the cover of Najmi’s novel, just in case you need your memory refreshed.) Although Stein herself as a character in the novel doesn’t say this, she no doubt considered the painting as important as Mona Lisa’s.
So who was this young man named Muhammad? The unnamed narrator of the novel (who is also Moroccan), provides his full name: Ba-Muhammad al-Jabali, “the man from Tangier.” “He used to describe himself as ‘a retired writer’ or ‘formerly a writer,'” but he “was also known as a painter and on occasion a sculptor as well,” yet there is no evidence of his works in any of these areas, and the autobiography he intends to write is never written but foisted off on the narrator who is left to tell Muhammad’s’ story. At Stein’s place in Paris, Mo (as he is called affectionately) will take over many of the household duties, one of many servants necessary for the daily running of the house.
The narrator speculates about the attraction that Stein had for Muhammad, surmising that he was drawn to her deep voice and manly features, even her weight: “The body of that fat American woman seemed to dominate every sensory outlet he possessed, even though everyone regarded it [their relationship] as simply a story.” And later, after he arrived, “The best thing about a body like that is the incredible pliability. As it plunges and heaves, you’re overwhelmed.” But Muhammad bemoans Stein’s constant chatter: “She was totally incapable of making love without talking….” That might not have been so bad, but she talked “in a tone of voice that sounded like a loudspeaker or a sound emerging from a recording studio.” No one ever accused her of being feminine.
Muhammad quickly learns how to make himself invisible. “He continued his personal policy of not revealing to any artist which paintings he liked and which he did not appreciate nor would he tell any artist what another artist thought of his work. He became well acquainted with the secrets of art and the minor wars among artists.” And he meets everyone: Picasso and his wife, Matisse, Juan Gris, E.E. Cummings, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Beach, Ford Madox Ford, John Dos Passos, Cecil Beaton, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Djuna Barnes, Erik Satie, Mabel Dodge, Virgil Thompson, Carl van Vechten, to mention the most famous. The gossip about these artists suggests that Najmi has read every scrap of information about these expatriates in Paris in the 1920s and 30s. This in itself is extraordinary; I cannot recall novels by other Arab writers that have employed such extensive research.
Gertrude is related by a narrator whose own story becomes important for the plot. That narrator claims that he knew Muhammad when he was an old man, broken by his memories of the past but still obsessed with them. And in the course of relating his story, that narrator also has an affair with a woman from another culture: a woman, named Lydia, who works for the State Department. She’s Afro-American and the attraction (as with Stein and her Moroccan lover) stems in part from her differing features. Furthermore, because the narrator writes about Muhammad years after his death, a number of contemporary figures are mentioned. Lydia, for example, is compared to Condoleezza Rice, the thinking man’s cereal.
There’s a fair but of humor in Gertrude (did she really permit people to call her “Gerty”?), though Stein herself appears to be without levity. Was her self-importance so inflated that she stated that her country should have placed her portrait on the American dollar, as Muhammad reports? Oddly, numerous times Najmi falls into the trap of Orientalism—or perhaps reverse Orientalism—as the following passage suggests: “No words can possibly describe precisely that amazing feeling of intoxication that comes over an Oriental male like Muhammad as he is lying with a woman and resting on top of a proud female body. Muhammad’s problem…was that he could not say ‘no,’ especially to Gertrude.”
Hassan Najmi: Gertrude
Trans. by Roger Allen
Interlink Books, 282 pp., $15
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.