Post # 10. “Before the flowers of friendship faded friendship faded.” This family photo shows Gertrude, freshly settled in Paris with brother Leo (left), in 1907, a few years before their friendship faded.
I was going to tell you how moving to Paris, my new “hometown,” helped me to finally befriend Gertrude Stein, the unreadable writer. Well, twice before I had felt a flash-like connection with my difficult muse. When I heard the quote about friendship my small life experience as a school girl went, Aha! — and again when I read in “Poetry and Grammar” how “commas are holding your coat for you.”
“Poetry and Grammar,” a lecture Gertrude had given on her America tour, was a treasure that came with me when I moved away from Germany. I still have the copy, dog-eared and faded, and I used to stare at those sentences, Stein’s ruminations on what makes a sentence and what makes a paragraph, like young Coco Chanel used to stare at striped sailor shirts on the coast of Normandy. Which brings me to Paris.
“That is why writers have to have two countries, the one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic, it is separate from themselves, it is not real but it is really there.” A friend handed me the small book called “Paris France” (no comma). I opened it and started laughing. Already on page one, where she comments on the comedy of French traffic wars between cars and pedestrians, I recognized the Paris I knew. “If anybody jumps back or jumps at all in the streets of Paris you can be sure they are foreign not french.”
A little later she says,”A frenchman always goes completely to pieces when his mother dies,” and the absurd “always” in this sentence cracked me up. I recognized what I had already observed in different terms: that French men allowed themselves a certain femininity and even hystericalness whereas French women had permission to be sharp-minded and outright sexual. This fascinating balance within gender, the harmony between logic and fashion that Stein describes as elements of civilization was something I knew. She calls the mixture “peaceful and exciting”, and I knew what she meant and I knew that suddenly I could read Gertrude Stein.