This week in New York, white tents are set up behind the New York Public Library in Bryant Park. It is called Fashion Week because it is a celebration of fashion of the sartorial kind. While that is happening in the park, we’ll be devoting space in the blog each day this week to two of our best-loved literary fashionables.
The term “fashionable,” here used as a collective noun that seemingly suggests something like “of or pertaining to persons of fashion,” will mean something slightly different this week. This week we’ll explore writers who were not necessarily fashionable in the sense commonly understood, but internally fashionable for having developed distinct literary personas.
We begin our series with two writers with very unique literary personas: Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein.
As a writer who sought to dissolve “that terrible arbitrary materiality of the word’s surface,” Beckett seems the least likely of writers to be considered fashionable. His was a lifelong struggle to separate words from their inescapable signification, to express meaninglessness with words that convey meaning. Though his native tongue was English, Beckett, who was born in 1906, chose to write his later work in French because in French it was easier for him to write “without style.” Waiting for Godot (1948-49), or En Attendant Godot (in French), his most famous work, was written in French and translated, by him, into English. The trilogy of novels—Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable (1946-50)—were also written in French. In French they were called Molloy, Malone Meurt and L’Innommable.
Because in his work his characters are often made to act in repetitive meaningless ways, and terribly tragic things happen to them but in a way that is often funny, Beckett is associated with the theater of the absurd. But though his characters are most often miserable and live meaningless dismal lives, Beckett’s life was full of meaningful relationships and he was even an accomplished sportsman. For his excellence at cricket, which he played left-handed at Dublin University, Beckett was entered into an important book called the Wisden Cricketer’s Almanac, and became the only Nobel Laureate to claim that distinction. He was also an avid fan of tennis, and married tennis pro Suzanne Decheveaux-Dumesnil whom he chose over Peggy Guggenheim, the American art collector and heiress with whom he had a brief affair. But he only got Suzanne’s attention when he was stabbed by the pimp Prudent in 1938 when refusing Prudent’s offer. Luckily James Joyce was there to take care of him. In Paris, Beckett played chess with Dada artist Marcel Duchamp and was often seen in cafés in the Left Bank. Along with insanity, chess became a major theme in Beckett’s writing.
Beckett joined the French resistance in 1940, when Germany occupied France, and he and Suzanne slept in haystacks in Roussilon, in French Catalonia. For his bravery, Beckett was awarded the Croix de Guerre. His plays are still performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and elsewhere, and celebrated in Paris. His writing is very often talked about by other great writers like Lydia Davis. For all these reasons Samuel Beckett is a most fashionable writer.
THE WORD PORTRAITIST
Sometimes a writer’s line precedes her. In the case of Gertrude Stein, “A rose is a rose is a rose,” was known to me before Gertrude Stein was known to me. The line has symmetry and mathematical simplicity. Gertrude Stein was known for the way she assembled words. The new way she assembled words might have to do with the time she spent at Radcliffe College, 1893-1897, studying Normal Motor Automatism, or what happens when people split their attention between two intelligent activities like talking and writing. Later she would engage in experiments with automatic writing, writing that is not produced by conscious thought but is produced by the hand with the mind unawares of what the hand will produce.
In 1903, Stein wrote Q.E.D. (Quod Erat Demonstrandum) about a complicated love triangle with two other women. It is one of the earliest coming-out stories, which is a pretty big deal for a twenty-nine year old woman at that time.
Around 1904, with the funds of their trust, Stein and her brother Leo moved to Paris from the United States and started a modern art gallery. They collected paintings by Pierre Bonnard, Juan Gris, and Paul Cézanne. Saturday evenings, the Steins would invite artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse and poets like Max Jacob and Guillaume Apollinaire to their apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus. Some say Tender Buttons, which Stein wrote in1914, was one of the great Modernist experiments in verse. It was a small book separated into three parts—food, objects and rooms. She also did word-portraits. These works were intended to induce the “excitingness of pure being.” Some called it verbal Cubism. Another thing that happened early on in Paris was that Stein met Alice B. Toklas who would be her life-long partner. She took Toklas to meet Picasso while he was painting Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Though she was well-known for her salon, Stein became a best-selling writer in 1932 with the publication of her autobiography, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. She wrote it in an accessible way that many people could read and love, which was smart because she could now take trips with Alice to Tangiers. In 1968, a movie was made called I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, which starred Peter Sellers. I saw the movie before I knew who Alice B. Toklas was. Anyway, Gertrude Stein had already proven herself as a word-artist and visionary so she could now write like regular people and make money.
Portrait of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso