FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Gertrude Stein in Love

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 gertrudenajmiautobiography 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: clarson@american.edu.

 

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

December 13, 2018
John Davis
What World Do We Seek?
Subhankar Banerjee
Biological Annihilation: a Planet in Loss Mode
Lawrence Davidson
What the Attack on Marc Lamont Hill Tells Us
James McEnteer
Breathless
Ramzy Baroud
The Real Face of Justin Trudeau: Are Palestinians Canada’s new Jews?
Dean Baker
Pelosi Would Sabotage the Progressive Agenda With a Pay-Go Rule
Elliot Sperber
Understanding the Yellow Vests Movement Through Basic Color Theory 
Rivera Sun
The End of the NRA? Business Magazines Tell Activists: The Strategy is Working
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
Historic Opportunity to Transform Trade
December 12, 2018
Arshad Khan
War, Anniversaries and Lessons Never Learned
Paul Street
Blacking Out the Yellow Vests on Cable News: Corporate Media Doing its Job
Kenneth Surin
The Brexit Shambles Rambles On
David Schultz
Stacking the Deck Against Democracy in Wisconsin
Steve Early
The Housing Affordability Crisis and What Millennials Can do About It
George Ochenski
Collaboration Failure: Trump Trashes Sage Grouse Protections
Rob Seimetz
Bringing a Life Into a Dying World: A Letter From a Father to His Unborn Son
Michael Howard
PETA and the ‘S’-Word
John Kendall Hawkins
Good Panopt, Bad Panopt: Does It Make A Difference?
Kim C. Domenico
Redeeming Utopia: a Meditation On An Essay by Ursula LeGuin
Binoy Kampmark
Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Immemorial Divisions
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Democratizing Money
Laura Finley
Congress Must Reauthorize VAWA
December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail