Thursday, September 1, 2016

"Desultory Correspondence" :Paul Bowles recalls Gertrude Stein


Desultory Correspondence / Sporadische Korrespondenz is an intriguing fifty-page interview by Swiss author Florian Vetsch with the American writer and composer Paul Bowles about Gertrude Stein (1874-1946). 
The interview was conducted primarily by an exchange of letters in the mid-1990s, at the time the composer, poet and novelist who was living in Morocco was one of the last living members of Stein's Paris circle. "Freddy" Bowles's first young encounter, at age 20 in 1930, with Stein and Alice B. Toklas in their Paris apartment, was not one that would seem auspicious: Bowles was directed to take cold-water baths and to walk Basket ("that ghastly dog") in the garden. "We must lance Freddy," one of Stein's comments, suggests that Stein was trying to cure him of some apparently distasteful romantic notions.
Bowles talks about aesthetic issues, conflicts between his early poetic attempts with Stein's dislike of Surrealism, and also about his various encounters with Stein in Paris and in Bilignin in the south of France. He describes the group of artists and writers that formed the core of a more modern, and less romantic, movement between the World Wars. 
In a brief excerpt below, Bowles comments about Stein's criticism and her influence on twentieth-century literature. In particular, he takes exception to Ernest Hemingway's eventual opinion of Stein as a "charlatan," and how her suggestions helped Hemingway to "just write what you see." 
Q: How did Gertrude Stein criticize your early poetry?

BOWLES: Oh, she told me it wasn't realistic. She told me it was false. But, of course, she was very, very much against surrealism, entirely. Surrealism, of course, uses so many symbols; one thing means something else, you know. And she didn't like that idea. She pulled what I said to pieces. She took, I remember, the first stanza of mine that was published in transition. It began "When in between the rows of corn / the heated beetle pants."

Q: That's from your poem "Spire Song" (1927)

BOWLES: Yeah, right. She said, "it's false. Beetles don't pant." And I thought it doesn't matter. I know some lies aren't important. Because I don't mean that beetles "h-h-h," doing that, you know. Absurd! But that's what it meant to her. And that's when she looked down at that ghastly dog and said, 'Basket pants, don't you?' And he went, "h-h-h." And then she said "but beetles don't pant!" Well, all right. 

Then I remember there was something about "purple clouds forget to sail." She said, "it's so false, false. No cloud was ever purple. No cloud was ever conscious. No cloud remembered anything." That sort of thing. Of course, I mean, if you make it completely realistic there won't be any poetry at all; I mean, not if it is surrealist. And then there was this young poet living in Paris, an American. And she brought him up, and she said "now this fellow is a very bad poet." And then she said, "but you're not a poet all all."

Then about a week later she said, "have you gone and corrected that poem?" ... 

And I said, "no, I haven't. In the first place it's all published." She said "I know it's published but you could still correct it, I told you you are not a poet. A poet would have gone up and corrected his poetry, and you didn't do anything. You just went out for a walk. I knew you weren't a poet." So of course I believed her finally, and realized what I had written was no good. I didn't write any more, I stopped writing. Oh, I was a composer of music, but I didn't write further poetry then. ...

Q: But later on you wrote poetry.

BOWLES: Much much later, yes. After having written novels and a lot of prose stories. It was a different approach. ...

Q: Was she very imperious?

BOWLES: If she gave orders? Oh very.

Q: Hemingway said somewhere that she reminded him of a Roman Caesar.

BOWLES: Well, yes she did look somewhat like a Roman emperor. He didn't like her it seems. Finally, he didn't. They didn't remain friends. And he wrote very nasty things about her in Movable Feast. Yeah, I think he should have remained loyal to her. After all she helped him a great deal when he was young. After he became famous, he decided she was no good, that she was a charlatan. Well he was wrong, he had no reason to think that, certainly no reason to write it in a book. ...

Q: What was her influence on modern literature?

BOWLES: Well, it was good. I think it simplified things a lot. But it was particularly through Hemingway. She used to send him out every morning and say "write, and bring me back whatever you wrote. And write exactly what you see just as you see it. Don't tell whether you like it or don't like it, how you feel. Just write what you see."

It was a kind of reporting. That was very healthy I think. Because it was just the opposite, really, of his first method. Because at first he didn't write what he saw, he only wrote what he remembered, which is something else. It was filtered through his own memory. Therefore it was overwritten. 

And that's what she was trying to get Hemingway to do away with: "Cut out words. Cut out everything except what you saw, what happened." I think it had an effect on Hemingway. And Hemingway's style had a lot to do with other American writers who followed him. Largely through Hemingway her influence worked for Americans, who admired his style.

Q: Have you ever met Sherwood Anderson?

BOWLES: I never met him. But Gertrude Stein influenced him a lot. And he was the first to say so.

Bowles, very early on, comments about Stein's politics as an American expatriate during the war, which involved support for the Nazi-backed Vichy regime. Her friendship with Bernard Faÿ, a French supporter of Hitler and Franco, seems to have surely helped save Stein's artworks (and probably her life) in wartime France. "Gertrude always spoke of him with deep respect," Bowles comments. "Strange that she didn't criticize him, being Jewish herself. And I knew he was anti-Semitic," he remembers.

Further comment from Barbara Will of Dartmouth College and material from Janet Malcolm's Two Lives about Stein's wartime politics is recently posted at the site Surviving Transition under the heading "The Strange Politics of Gertrude Stein."
Ultimately, reading Bowles's recollections, it becomes clear that It wasn't easy to formulate an artistic avant-garde even in Paris of the 1930s: at one point Bowles returned to his Paris apartment to find his collection of Jean Arp's "constructions" taken to the basement by his landlady. Alarmed, Bowles took the damaged pieces to a museum director, who arranged to have Arp himself restore the art.  Desultory Correspondence / Sporadische Korrespondenz was published by Memory Cage (Switzerland) in a combined English-German version in 1997 and is unfortunately out of print at the current time. 

No comments: