Why Do Something If It Can Be Done: Quoting Gertrude Stein # 52

After the marker of 5O Stein blogs — talking about Stein’s one and only writing block –- did I contract one myself? No, for me, too, writing went on, on another page. Finishing a novel, writing about opera. Stein was writing her detective story during that ominous summer in 1933, when success caught up with her. She was troubled by questions of identity (“I am I because my little dog knows me.”) Some part of her seemed unreachable, dead. It must have been soothing to mirror her inner troubles outside, in the provincial life around her. Lots of shady things right then are happening in her village and the nearby little town Belley with its proud hotel – adultery, betrayal, feuds over money. There are even deaths that could be murders or suicides or accidents… The wife of the hotelier has fallen to her death from a window of the Hotel Pernollet. Bizarre incidents happen at her own house. Stein becomes the Miss Marple of the village Bilignin, listening to gossip, bringing up suspicions, doubts, theories. She does exactly what Stein scholars today are doing with her texts: contextualizing. Finding a context to understand what is happening within a sentence, a paragraph, a book.
Stein does it with ironic playfulness. She almost leads us on to think we already know who has done it: if not the butler, then the gardener, of course. But as the setting is not a castle but a country house (“A house in the country is not the same as a country house,” the author instructs us on page one) there is no butler, just suspicious servants, and the suspicious gardener is a “hortoculturist.”
Make no mistake, however, Stein’s play with the detective story slyly refuses to obey the conventions of the genre. She remains experimental in her writing. (Some would say, highly experimental, but on the sly.) There is no plot. Nobody figures anything out or finds solutions to the riddles or possible crimes. The author repeatedly, however, evokes a woman who “tries and cries,” “cries and tries.”
Some of the events reported in Blood on the Dining-Room Floor also appear in other texts by Stein, in “A Waterfall and a Piano,” “Is Dead,” and in Everybody’s Autobiography. But there they are not much elucidated either. Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, with its broken narrative, sometimes unfinished sentences, time-shifts and frequent contradictions is about paradoxes – the muddles of writing and reality – and is itself an intriguing and amusing muddle. In more elevated terms, Ulla Dydo called it “unexpected writing at the edge of radical uncertainties.” Joan Retallic talked about its “intricate incoherence.” Stein’s friend, writer and photographer Carl van Vechten thought the story was “hair-raising.” Stein scholar Bruce Kellner said, “It isn’t.
In my approach to the book, I met the “radical edge of uncertainty”in two ways: by translating it into German, and by setting out on a pilgrimage to the places where it all happened, to see for myself.
Stay tuned.

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