Our sleuthing began 75 km east of Lyon on an empty country road, between rabbit cages and sad bistros. Whereas nowadays a plaque guides the pilgrims in the village of Bilignin, back then, when I translated Stein’s mystery story, you had to be a good detective to find the house behind its forbidding walls. We found ourselves “at the edge of radical uncertainty,” having to knock at the gate. It so happened that the same family who had owned and rented the house to Gertrude Stein from 1929 to 1943, was still living there. The doors magically opened to us.
There was the southern façade with its high French windows and painted shutters; the low taxus hedges cut like a labyrinth; the three battered and slightly leaning towers on the famous low garden wall – the wall on which Stein would sit and sing, next to her Alice with her back turned to the view.
“And here was Alice Toklas’s kitchen and herb garden,” the family led us to the left side. “There in the back are the barn and (we exchanged a quick glance) the servant lodgings.”
The children of the owners were too young to remember the two lady inhabitants, but they still remembered the amazing mountains of oyster shells and finest wine bottles left behind the house, when Stein and Toklas moved to Culoz, a little town nearby.
We were allowed a glimpse at the salon, already closed off for winter, with its 18th century frescos. “Here hung the Picasso portrait and the Cézanne portrait which Mme Stein had brought down from Paris on the roof of her car,” we learned, “and in this spot there always was Mme Toklas’s flower arrangement.” We contemplated the corner of the room with the writing desk. Here the first traces of unnatural acts were detected in the summer of 1933: “The next morning on coming to the desk to write a letter it was noticed that hair and dust had been scattered all over. This was not an accident and it was mentioned.”
The sunny façade outside and the autumn chill inside the old house made the paradox oddly palpable: the liberal artistic life of foreigners, outsiders, and the tightly bound comme il faut of small-town life and gossip – fascinating and depressing – and exactly what Stein evoked in Blood on the Dining-Room Floor.