Gertrude Stein, an ode to daring

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The American Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) became rich and famous with Alice Toklas autobiography, written in six weeks in autumn 1932. In this delightful masterpiece, easy to read, which is not the case with all her books, she imagines a new device for writing her memoirs: she is described by its “Married”, the companion of her whole life, Alice Toklas. Philippe Blanchon explains how it is “The ideal witness” in her biography of Gertrude Stein, which is a good introduction to a daring work. A writer himself, and a translator of complex authors, he is also the empathetic portrait of a woman with a strong “Appetite for life”, who “Showed a fierce desire to preserve his research and his pleasures”.

A friend of Apollinaire and René Crevel, of Fitzgerald and of Hemingway, admired by many writers, Stein’s life was at first inseparable from that of painters. Very early, in Paris where she settled in 1903, her brother Leo and she began by acquiring paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Renoir, Maurice Denis, Cézanne, Matisse, then it was Picasso. Then they separate. Leo, who also doesn’t like his sister’s prose, is faithful to Matisse, Gertrude to Picasso. “She never praised works because of the scandal they caused, wrote Blanchon; the works of Cézanne or Matisse, and soon those of Picasso, simply seemed to him to respond to his vision of the world, as they responded exactly to the need of the time, no more no less. “

Second degree

If she considers herself equal to Picasso, Gertrude Stein has “A special affection” for a few artists, including Juan Gris, who died prematurely in 1927. She has theories about Spanish genius, as she has about everything, and it’s very stimulating. She is aware, however, that her political theories are absolutely unreliable or even interesting. To this is added a propensity to the second degree which goes badly. Questioned by the New york times in 1934, she said for example of Hitler’s good: it’s ironic, you still have to know. Later, it is very seriously that she claims that Hitler is a “German romantic”, implied “Unable to act”, translates his biographer. At the start of the war, she thought that Pétain was a savior who “Wants the Republic” and is secretly preparing to ally with the English. She sets out to translate her speeches, but, writes Blanchon, “She stops her translations when she discovers the first speech relating to the status of the Jews in France”. She and Alice Toklas are Jewish and foreign, but do not seem worried, they spend the duration of the Occupation sheltered in Ain, protected since by Bernard Faÿ, collaborationist whose propensity they may not know chasing the Freemasons, also protected by their local friendships, most of them Gaullists…


The character of Gertrude Stein would tend to take center stage, but it must of course be read first. Philippe Blanchon explains very well the “Repossession and insistence process” at the base of his texts, which are more or less disturbing, and deconstruct grammar. “In one of her lectures, she will say that insistence accounts for inner existence in a” continuous present “, while repetition calls upon memories. She wants to abolish the three times – past, present, future – in order to restore the reality of an individual by means of pulses. “

Claire Devarrieux

Philippe Blanchon Gertrude Stein “Biographies” folio, 304 pp., € 9.70 (ebook: € 9.49).



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