By Gerald Hausman
Bokeelia, FL, USA
Gertrude Stein, commenting on her wondrous line, "A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," said this: "I know that in daily life we don't go around saying 'is a . . . is a . . . is a . . .' Yes, I'm no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years."
No fool, indeed. To have made a lasting contribution to literature with one line? That takes a fool's fool, or rather, the kind of fool Shakespeare used in his plays. The man who could talk to the moon and tease the king at the same time.
Gertrude Stein had the fool's charm to speak as she pleased and to throw her literary comments every which way, but it almost seemed she didn't care to be read. Maybe heard. But not necessarily read.
Very few people I know have read Stein's big book, The Making of Americans.
The author of Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Janet Malcolm, says she couldn't read The Making of Americans until she solved the problem of the book's weight and bulk by cutting it up with a kitchen knife into six readable, and also portable, sections. In this way she made a discovery: "It is a book that is actually a number of books."
She also says: "If you listen to the book's music, you will catch the low hum of melancholy. If you regard it as an exercise in whistling in the dark, you will understand its brilliance."
Malcolm is right. The music of a book is often the point of the book, and should be read as if one were listening rather than reading.
But the great brilliance of Malcolm is that she writes sympathetically about the genius, Stein, and her cohort, lover, best friend, mate and savior, Alice B. Toklas. Their lives are intricately interesting, more so than Stein's prosody perhaps, but then, as Gertrude might've said: You get what you get and that's what you got.