Would he like it if I told him Gertrude Stein 1923
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
For me this is where Gertrude’s wording, word-images, word-drawing of things, objects [Tender Buttons] and then people [Portraits and Prayers] really began to work. Really explodes. I love all of it of course, but this sounds like/conjures its object to me. It’s object is Picasso and this is the notebook manuscript of that gorgeous portrait of him that made its author so excited.
The Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript collection of Gertrude and Alice’s is stunning. Sometimes I want to go and live there, burn my passport, unscrew the door handles, sit, read, be –eventually write. Meanwhile, I’d forgotten it and that I had downloaded many of the 27 pages of images in its photographic archive online -including this.
Elsewhere in the collection is another note on the subject, which again captures exactly the excitement of break through and of this particular one. It’s reproduced in the back of Gertrude Stein on Picasso. The Complete Writings [1970/85] but nowhere else so far as I know. She writes there;
“Do one about Pablo his emotional leap and courage as opposed to lack of courage in Cézanne… Pablo is never dragged, he walks in the light and a little ahead of himself like Raphael, therefore his things often lack a base. Do him. One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming…”
Gertrude’s work drilled in to me, right through my core. So much so that I really didn’t realise until years and years later. Her finely profaning actuality is my goddess. She took it as far as it can go, as Donald Barthelme once wrote, and few can really follow her there. Certainly no-one will clamber past her on her heavenly bough -as DB also kind of said- and there would be no point trying.
I’ve been writing a series of ghazals for Gertrude which capture some of what she represents to me, but the urgency, intimacy and potency of her inspiration escapes me in truth. She and it, the work of course, are pure inspiration; an ever renewing equator. However/therefore it’s only ever been clear to me that “I have to be my own tree”, as Candia McWilliam wrote in her gorgeous memoir [WtLfiW].
For me the best book about her -and Alice of course- remains Diana Souhami’s Gertrude and Alice, unquestionably [excerpt here]. The best book on her work is much harder to say. Her own books are the best books on her work, especially perhaps the Lectures series. Beyond that there are bits and pieces; I’m not sure that anything is more intimate with the work than the introduction to The Geographical History of America by William Gass, in the end.
But Gertrude is a writer that you have to read, live and breath [don’t die without reading the volumes she published in Plain Editions in the original!]. No writing about her writing is ever going to come close to that. And neither does it. Souhamis book is openly about the person/s but it does frame, contextualise and make conceivable the work itself somehow. It has some of the sheer spiritedness, of which the work was a manifestation on paper, no?
If you don’t get Gertrude, try harder, try again. Trust yourself to take from it what you want, when you want. It’s not all equally good; don’t be reverential. Allow yourself to enjoy it…