On the anniversary of her death, we look at the provocative words of the avant-garde Modernist patron and poet
On her deathbed Gertrude Stein enquired of her life partner, Alice B. Toklas: “What is the question?” Before answering her own with the retort, “if there is no question then there is no answer”. The final words fit the fearsome woman: she was a prolific modernist writer and a fixture within the Parisian avant-garde scene, challenging literary and artistic perceptions alike. Born in Pennsylvania in 1874, she moved to Paris in 1903 with her brother Leo, where she remained for the rest of her life. They were both prolific collectors, and so Gertrude and Leo amassed an unrivalled collection, including pieces by Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne and Henri Manguin, and this was to become of vital importance to Stein’s literary enterprise, too.
Stein is revered for her experiments with literary form; she employed techniques such as stream of consciousness, word ‘portraits’ and repetition to such an extent that her publisher for Three Lives believed English to be her second language. Surrounded by Impressionist and post-Impressionist artworks, such techniques became infused within her prose, in particular the aformentioned Three Lives, which was divided in three short stories – influenced by Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso. Her central position to the Modernist movement was concentrated from the home she shared with Leo at 27 rue de Fleurus, which was dubbed ‘The Stein salon’. Here she hosted gatherings with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson – though only on Saturdays, for unannounced visits “began to be a nuisance”. Now, over 70 years after her death, Stein’s reflections on the essence of literary expression continue to captivate today.
- “In the morning there is meaning, in the evening there is feeling.”
- “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
- “Whenever you get there, there is no there there.”
- “Argument is to me the air I breathe. Given any proposition, I cannot help believing the other side and defending it.”
- “It is funny that men who are supposed to be scientific cannot get themselves to realise the basic principle of physics, that action and reaction are equal and opposite, that when you persecute people you always rouse them to be strong and stronger.”
- “Anybody can tell what everybody knows but what does that disclose.”
- “Conversation is only interesting if nobody hears.”
- “I like the feeling of words doing as they want to do and as they have to do when they live where they have to live that is where they have come to live which of course they do do.”
- “Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.”
- “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”