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Journal, Day Two

By Gillian Conoley

Gorgeous brilliant sunny California day, big black Van Gogh crows crossing cornflower blue sky, direct shadow fallen on damp gritty sidewalk giving off just a little steam. If it’s snowing where you are, or worse yet, not snowing, cold and gray, just scooch a little closer to the heater and imagine.

Ok, back to Gertrude Stein. And to reading someone’s respresentation of another war as we are thinking about how to represent ours, or how all sorts of others are already respresenting it. Perhaps represent is the wrong word here. Perhaps being alive to the war in writing would be another way to put it.

Alice B. as a war-torn love story, which it is, while at the same time a lasting document of Stein’s methods, in which she tells us very straightforwardly what she’s up to, with an only mildly jumbled syntax, so she’d make sure we got it (she’s so patient and understanding and only mildly hurt when Life magazine makes fun of her writing and publishes others examples of it as jokes, and so shrewd is her idea to write Life to express her appreciation of the spoofs but they weren’t really Gertrude Stein’s writing only imitations of Gertrude Stein, so would you like to print some real ones, which they did). Among Alice B.’s many brilliances, never mind the most brilliant, the broadest stroke at quandaries of representation––writing an autobiography that is not of Toklas but of herself as written by Toklas—so that she enacts one of her writing’s deepest convictions: “that after all the human being essentially is not paintable”–– are all the little breadcrumbs she drops for readers of the future and present, acts of generosity, really, such as “She says hitherto she had been interested only in the insides of people, their character and what went on inside them, it was during that summer that she first felt a desire to express the rhythm of the visible world.” And many many pages later, “Hitherto she had been concerned with seriousness and the inside of things, in these studies she began to describe the inside as seen from the outside.” And my favorite: “All of which of course may seem strange because it has been so often said that the appeal of her work is to the ear and to the subconscious. Actually it is her eyes and mind that are active and important and concerned in choosing.” And listen to this final buoyant love song for Alice—the kind of call and response these last two paragraphs of the book make:

I am a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs and I have to do them all at once and I find it difficult to add being a pretty good author.

About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.

That passage plays the musical back-and-forth banter of a love song. How does she get that tonally clear bell of mild derision and grand affection in “You know what I am going to do”–– how does she make us hear it so strongly and fully and brightly?

Thank you Rennie Stores for writing in. I will answer your questions about Volt’s war issue later in the week, but for right now I’d rather stick with Stein and your comment about Stein’s remove being deceptive and being a shield—interesting also to think of your choice of word in shield as war object. Yes it’s a remove a veil so that we may see—but reading this again at this point in my life (I like the idea of reading the books I love most every 10 or 15 years; it would have to be books one loved for one to meet them fully) it’s the act of piercing through the veil that Stein does—and the clear shots of the war that come through—that I notice the most. For example this:

Well I too said when she woke me, is it a revolution and are there soldiers. No, she said, not exactly. Well what is it, said I impatiently. I don’t quite know, she answered, but there has been an alarm. Anyway you had better come. I started to turn on the light. No, she said, you had better not. Give me your hand and I will get you down and you can go to sleep down stairs on the couch. I came. It was very dark. I sat down on the couch and then I said, I’m sure I don’t know what is the matter with me but my knees are knocking together. Gertrude Stein burst out laughing, wait a minute, I will get you a blanket, she said. No don’t leave me, I said. She managed to find something to cover me and then there was a loud boom, then several more. It was a soft noise and then there was the sound of horns blowing in the streets and then we knew it was all over. We lighted the lights and went to bed.

I must say I would not have believed it was true that knees knocked together as described in poetry and prose if it had not happened to me.

And the piercing of the veil makes the veil even more palpably present and real. We get to watch it open and close, like an eye.


write again Rennie Store, and others,

what writing about war is/can do/past or present, or feel free to change the subject entirely– Good talking to you,

Good night to all.

Posted in Uncategorized on Tuesday, January 9th, 2007 by Gillian Conoley.