How I Spent the Eighth Brumaire

Paris.

The hope was for what befell last year, when Paris in Brumaire–late October and early November in the French revolutionary calendar devised by d’Eglantine–was mellow and the vegetable stalls full of bolete mushrooms. But this Brumaire has been inhospitable, with a wind as sharp as the knife that sliced through d’Eglantine’s neck–though conditions were tolerable when sun is up.

The plus side held gloriously clear skies and beautiful light, filling Suger’s great cathedral at St Denis. At the Pompidou there is an immense exhibition of Giacometti, in which profusion has a reverse effect. Two or three Giacometti sculptures by themselves look great, but hundreds tell you the guy ran out of steam some time in late 30s. His studio became a mecca for top level photographers doing “the sculptor” at work. Cartier Bresson, Brassai, Arnold Newman and Irving Penn were all in attendance. Giacometti was a manly looking Swiss-Italian, and played the “artist at work” part well. Annette G looked less happy as the decades passed and there are odd times when he spends three or four years sculpting and drawing a couple of Japanese men, at least one of whom was Annette’s lover. Giacometti chose his fans well too. Genet did a big essay on him and Sartre wrote the catalogue intro for his first New York show.

The Modern Art collection at the Pompidou is really good and reminds one — if reminders are necessary — just how awful “modern art” collections are in US. There was room after room of great and interesting thing: ravishing Kandinskys, a fantastic room of Picabias, one with two naked women in 40s movie poster style with a bulldog, plus a really frightening Golden Calf. Then on the next floor a whole later- modern collection with excellent acquisitions from 1950s,1960s and on.

Among them was “Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971, the series by Hans Haacke that got his one-man show axed at the last minute by the Guggenheim in the 1970s.

The work consists of 146 photographs of buildings, many of them slums, acquired between 1951 and 1971 by by Harry Shapolsky, named at the time as the city’s top slumlord. Haacke included in each photo the info given in the Real Estate Directory of Manhattan. They make ironic reading now. Back then, to take a couple of examples, Shapolsky had 219 E 94th, a 5-story building with an assessed land value of $25,000 and a total value of $47,000. A six-story walk-up, 346 East 13th St, had an assessed land value of $22,000 and a total value of $57,000.

The best pieces on this floor of the Pompidou were an immense robe made from bottle tinfoil and bottle caps, maybe 50 feet by 50ft, looking like a Klimt by a Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui; and a 50-foot sperm whale or plane, depending on one’s point of view, made from bamboo, with about 10,000 scissors, knives etc, confiscated by security at Sao Paulo airport. The artist is Cai Guo Qiang, about whom one story I found begins with the promising words that he is best known “for his magnanimous works using gunpowder”.

The greatest delight of the Pompidou’s modern collection is that not one Warhol–as profuse in American institutions of culture as dinosaurs — was on display.

It was too cold to stroll at night along the boulevards, so back in a borrowed studio in the Marais I finished reading Janet Malcolm’s Two Women, about an emblem of Paris in its modernist high tide: Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas.

Gertrude Stein, once hailed as one of 20th-century modernism’s intrepid standard- bearers, survives these days mostly in her last words about the Answer and the Question; her modernist koan, “a rose is a rose is a rose”; and her confusingly titled memoir, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, a piece of self-inflation named for her girlfriend. Her erotic reveries such as “Rising Belly”, unpublished in her lifetime, now dignify tasteful lesbian bookshelves. As an icon we have Picasso’s famous portrait which now hangs in the Met and which he abandoned after more than 80 sittings, irritably painting over her face. He went on holiday, returned refreshed and from memory laid in the dour visage that is now Exhibit A on the standard Short Tour of Gertrude Stein. Yet a couple who were fast fading into literary history are now in active play again as the subject of a short book by Janet Malcolm, expanded from some pieces she published in The New Yorker last year.

How come Malcolm settled on Stein?

The answer she gives is that she was curious about why Stein and Toklas, Jewish lesbians living through the war years in a village in Vichy France, weren’t rounded up by the Nazis or willing French accomplices and put on the next train to a concentration camp. This question obviously aroused the interest of her editors at the New Yorker. The answer Malcolm supplies, but with which she seems vaguely dissatisfied, is clear: the key to their survival was an influential friend in the form of Bernard Faÿ (installed during the Nazi occupation as the head of the Bibliothèque Nationale and at Petain’s elbow), who made sure the couple had adequate rations and fuel. This was in Vichy, not Occupied France, and so Petain’s protection, relayed down through the French administrative bureaucracy to the local prefet , was decisive. Remember also what Malcolm either does not know or allude to, that the FDR administration recognized Vichy and had amiable relations with it through most of the war and Stein had influential friends in America.

After the war, Faÿ was tried as a high-level collaborator and handed a lengthy prison term. To her credit, Stein wrote supportive letters to the court; after Stein died in 1946, Toklas helped raise money to finance Faÿ’s escape to Switzerland after five years behind bars.

What obviously bothers Malcolm is that Faÿ was no saviour of last resort as Auschwitz loomed, but a friend who was esteemed by Stein and Toklas long before the war (though most of their friends as an anti-semite and all-round swine). However, as Malcolm points out, Stein was relentlessly instrumental in her friendships, and distanced from her Jewish roots. After Gertrude’s death Toklas became a Catholic, under the theory that on this passport she could meet Stein in heaven, whose own access to heaven was no doubt secured by her extraordinary capacity to get people to do things for her, also by her most laudable characteristic–immense and continual cheerfulness. Toklas always deprecated questions about their Jewishness, when taxed by importunate Steinians.

Stein may not have been a self- hating Jew, but she was certainly not a self- affirming one either. Her father made his pile in transportation in San Francisco, and left his daughter with a fixed income and commensurate respect for the capitalist system and hostility to its foes. She liked Franco, despised the Spanish Republicans and Communists in general. She was friendly with her fascist neighbors in eastern France and said as much in letters to friends. She and Toklas thought about fleeing as the Nazis advanced, but in the end thought it too much of an upheaval and, soothed by an equable attitude towards Nazism, at least in its pre-war mode, stayed put.

It was a gamble that countless Jews took and lost, but for Stein and Toklas, protected by Faÿ, it paid off, and there is no evidence they ever felt bad about their friendship with the man who saved them.

Malcolm is clearly discomfited by this conduct, but keeps the tone amiable and the explorations of moral whys and wherefores resolutely genteel and hence rather superficial. In consequence the book’s energy comes from an unexpected source: the couple’s erotic life. Eros, at least to my heterosexist eye, doesn’t twinkle from photographs of Stein, or from Picasso’s portrait. And if Stein’s mien suggests an indifference to sex, Toklas’s sour glare signals active enmity to the pleasure principle. Yet, on accounts pulled together by Malcolm, Gertrude was a hot babe and Alice an eager and inventive taskmistress in nourishing their libidos. If only in this department, she was the boss.

One eavesdropper on the sexual hierarchy chez Stein-Toklas was Ernest Hemingway. On a visit to their Paris apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus, he was given a glass of eau-de-vie by the maid and asked to to wait. “I heard someone speaking to Miss Stein as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever,” he reported. “Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t, please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.”

Hemingway put this recollection into “A Moveable Feast”. As Malcolm points out, Hemingway had a score to settle with Stein, who was dismissive about him in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. But Hemingway also remarked that he had the hots for Stein and it’s why Toklas ran him off. The critic Donald Sutherland confirms Stein’s allure in his 1971 memoir “Alice and Gertrude and Others”, also quoted by Malcolm: “the second time I met her she came too close and my sexual response was both unequivocal and, considering I was nineteen and she sixty, bewildering.”

Gradually, through a bric-a-brac of quotes from various memoirs, Malcolm frees the couple from the gloomy prison of Man Ray’s 1922 photograph of the two ladies, standing either side of the drawing-room fireplace at rue de Fleurus, swathed in shapeless garments and sexless respectability. The visual clincher to this liberation is their friend Carl Van Vechten’s photograph of them getting out of a plane in Chicago in 1934. They look like a modern gay couple; put them in leathers and, with a piercing or two, they could be in Dykes on Bikes, leading the Gay Pride demo in San Francisco’s Castro district.

It so happens that on that same trip, Stein told Toklas she would leave her unless she stopped throwing jealous scenes. Toklas had found evidence in the unpublished manuscript of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation that it was about an affair Stein had, long before Toklas came into her life, with May Bookstaver. Malcolm calls the work”austerely impenetrable”, and so it is, partly because Toklas furiously ordered Stein to cross out every incidence of the word “may” and “May”, and substitute “can”, a ukase not quite as formally challenging as Georges Perec’s decision to use only the vowel “e” in his 1972 novella Les revenentes, but still quite a challenge in decipherment. The manuscript tells a terrible
story,” a Stein scholar tells Malcolm. “The force with which these words are crossed out. The anger with which this was done. Some of the slashes go right through the paper.”

The most touching parts of Malcom’s book are those in which she addresses a matter tactfully skirted round in standard short tours of Gertrude Stein – the unreadability of a good deal of what she wrote. Malcolm takes a deep breath and carves up with a kitchen knife the 900-plus pages of The Making of Americans, Stein’s modernist masterwork. The reader follows with growing concern the despairing messages. Page 124: “Stein’s increasing awareness of the unhelpfulness of her system of character analysis occupies her for the next 100 pages”. Page 131: “This is truly a new way of writing a novel, a novel where the author withholds the characters from the reader.” Page 136: “Stein’s vocabulary is small and monotonous. When she uses a new word it is like the entrance of a new character. It is thrilling.”

What a beautiful tribute to the powers of love that Alice could stay awake long enough reading Stein’s equally impenetrable Stanzas in Meditation to figure out that Gertrude was writing about that bitch
May.

Actually Malcolm is too unkind, since Stein’s modernist prose certainly had an influence, not least on Hemingway whom she helped greatly in the development of his style. The book is a sloppy piece of work, somewhat matching Malcolm’s very derivative researches, in which there are very odd gaps. It’s extraordinary, for example, that Malcolm cannot bring herself to mention James Lord’s “Where the Pictures Were: A Memoir” , which dealt with the infamous removal of Stein’s collection of the walls of Alice’s apartment. There is no index. Neither Malcolm nor the editors re-read the proofs with any care, after they’d shoved together the New Yorker pieces. Sutherland is introduced three times in three different ways. On one page she has Stein drawing up her will in 1947 , which would have been quite a feat since–as Malcolm accurately notes on another page, Stein died in 1946.

 

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.