Where to start with: Gertrude Stein | Books

Where to start with: Gertrude Stein | Books

From the art collection that she amassed with her brother Leo, to the salons that brought together everyone from Picasso and F Scott Fitzgerald to Thornton Wilder and Matisse, there are lots of ways to talk about Gertrude Stein without talking about her actual body of work. Yet Stein wrote everything from opera libretto and poetry collections to plays and nigh-on-impenetrable doorstop novels, capturing the complexities of language and identity in ways that still feel transgressive. In celebration of 150 years since her birth, Sam Moore suggests some good ways into the pioneering modernist’s catalogue.

The entry point

Though arguably there is no “easy” way into Stein’s vast body of work – even some of her most accessible writing pushes against literary conventions – The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas is a good place to begin. The pseudo-autobiography tells the story of the eponymous figure – Stein’s life partner – while also telling the author’s own story. Divisive among Stein’s close circle on publication (Hemingway called it a “pitiful book”), Toklas is a work of surprising simplicity: there’s a clarity to the language and a lightness of touch that stops Stein’s approach to form from being too overwhelming.

The one to drop into dinner party conversation

Stein’s writing has the power to make the familiar seem strange, imbuing the ordinary with magic. In Everybody’s Autobiography, she said of her home town, Oakland in California, “there is no there there”, the meaning of which is still being reconsidered and contested. The poetry collection Tender Buttons is all about Stein’s ability to play with language. Divided into three sections – Objects, Food, and Rooms – the collection pushes words to their breaking point, somewhere between stream of consciousness and cubist painting. The transformative power of Stein’s work in a piece like A Carafe, That is a Blind Glass is the perfect reference when another round of wine is poured at the table.

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Photograph: World History Archive/Alamy

If you’re in a rush

Stein’s debut novel Three Lives, published in 1909, creates portraits of the lives of three working-class women. While the tales themselves are unconnected, each life is lived in the fictional Bridgetown, which is based on Baltimore, where she and Leo moved as orphans when she was 18. There’s a straightforward, almost rhythmic quality to Stein’s prose here; the constant repetition of the three women’s names – Anna, Melanctha and Lena – becomes an incantation, as if each time the name is returned, we’re able to see the ways in which each woman is slowly, subtly but surely, changing.

It’s worth persevering with

From the imposing subtitle – “Being a History of a Family’s Progress” – onwards, it’s clear that The Making of Americans is unlike any of Stein’s other work. While it contains some of her hallmarks – linguistic playfulness, formal innovation – the sheer size, scope and scale of Americans renders it her most challenging work. Not only is it close to 1,000 pages, Stein’s limited, repetitive approach to language takes on a new level of fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, here. With rhythms and even definitions of language seeming to shift as the labyrinthine story unfolds, Americans will cast a spell on any reader willing to grapple with it.

You’ll learn from

More than three-quarters of a century since her death, Stein has become synonymous with Paris. It makes perfect sense, then, that she would have written about her experiences there. In her memoir Paris France, Stein interweaves childhood memories with a commentary on the French capital and its inhabitants. In trying to define Frenchness – from a refusal to be startled while stomping down boulevards, to the “thin arms and sturdy legs” that she says make the French good soldiers – Paris France may be the work that best captures Stein’s combative, contradictory nature: an avant garde book that trashes the avant garde surrealists. It’s a book about Paris that revels in what isn’t Parisian as much as what is.

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