Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Notes on The World Is Round by Gertrude Stein

The World Is Round is a children's book written by Gertrude Stein, published in 1938. The book was illustrated by Clement Hurd, who is best known as the illustrator for Margaret Wise Brown's children's classics The Runaway Bunny (1942) and, especially, Goodnight Moon (1947).

I've lately decided I am firmly pro-Gertrude Stein, but to date this is still just the third book I've read by her. I only recently learned of its existence, via Ethan's posts about it, and even then, I wasn't expecting to read it any time soon, except I came across the attractive 75th anniversary edition on display at the Children's Book Store here in Baltimore. This edition includes the original book - with its pink pages and blue text, as mandated by Stein - an afterword by Clement Hurd's wife, Edith Thacher Hurd (from 1986), and a new foreword by Thacher Hurd, their son (and incidentally a writer of children's books himself, including one of our old favorites, Art Dog). These two pieces, especially the afterword, tell the interesting story about the genesis of Stein's book and its production, in the context of the burgeoning and 'experimental' world of children's books in the 1920s and 1930s, including some letters between Stein and Hurd. Briefly, Margaret Wise Brown, a big admirer of Stein's, suggested to Young Scott Books that they invite literary authors to write children's books. Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Stein were asked; only Stein responded.

But never mind all that! How is the book? In many ways it makes perfect sense that Gertrude Stein wrote a children's book. Her vocabulary and her syntax tend to be simple. There's rhythm and repetition, like you'd find in many children's books.

[In my effort to include pictures from the book in this post - an Existence Machine first!! - I struggled mightily with formatting. I had wanted, e.g., pages 1 and 25 to be side-by-side, but it wasn't happening. So then I thought, well, ideally, I'd write something alongside each image, preferably something relevant and insightful or at least useful. Alas, no. At one point, I came back to this post, as it remained in draft status - where it remained for many months before being published, if we're honest, and we're nothing if not that - I stared at the blank space next to the page, and nothing was coming... I typed "what am I doing" - because honestly my god what am I doing.] [Incidental side note while we still have white space to fill: this book is one of the many places, but not the first, where the line "A Rose is a Rose is a Rose" appears.] [But anyway look at page 1! Isn't it lovely?]
It is in many ways delightful - in both classic children's book ways and Gertrude Stein ways. But I have to say: it's difficult to imagine many actual children reading the book or sitting still while it's read to them. The book concerns the adventures of Rose, and what she thinks and feels, her doubts and struggles, and among other things, her climb up a mountain with a chair, because why not. The language is simple, as one might expect from either Stein or a children's book. And it's repetitive in the way children's books often are, but especially the way Stein often is. [I know, I already more or less said that above. Pretend this is me being artfully repetitive like Gertrude Stein. Only pretend I'm using far fewer syllables.] Yet there is a lot of text, quite a lot for a children's picture book. Many pages are only text, and a lot of it, and one page in particular is essentially one paragraph, a wall of text. So you'd have to imagine either an especially precocious child, and/or an especially patient one. Still, it is frequently lovely, often funny, interesting, philosophical, occasionally bizarre, occasionally boring, and, again, it has a page that is a wall of text, much like you'd find in, like, The Making of Americans, or Kafka or Bernhard or something, not so much Goodnight, Moon. I love that page so much. Unfortunately, while many images from the book exist online, I could not find that one, so I took a photo of it myself. And here it is:

"Water yes and birds yes and rats yes and snakes yes and lizards yes and cats yes and cows yes, and trees yes and scratches yes, and sticks yes, and flies yes, and bees yes but not a Rose with a chair, all a Rose with a chair can dare is just not stare but keeping on going up there."


Notes on Self-Portrait In Green by Marie Ndiaye

Self-Portrait In Green came to my attention this Spring via a tweet from Aaron Bady, in which he linked to publisher Two Lines Press's special "Try Out Marie Ndiaye!" page. They described the book as "an utterly unclassifiable memoir that belongs on the shelf somewhere near Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red." As I had just gotten finished reading all three of those books, this seemed especially designed to attract me in particular. I had never heard of Ndiaye (who is apparently a big deal in France), but I loved those three books, to varying degrees, and it was cheap, so I ordered it.

In the event, having read the book twice, I'm not sure what to say about it. Granted, what do I ever know to say about a book anymore, right? When was the last time a blog post appeared here? Nearly seven months ago? Right. In that span, I've thought about writing about a number of things, planned several posts, opened drafts, written terrible sentences, but not found the time, or taken the time, or whatever, to do what it takes. But one common thread that has bugged me is the problem of expectations. I'm sort of obsessed with blurbs (can you be "sort of" obsessed with something?) - the work they do to manage and contain our reading experiences. Publishing copy, too: book flaps, webpages, ad copy, etc.

So, I began reading this book with incredibly high expectations - and it just doesn't measure up to them. In fact, it can't. "Measure up" is wrong - it just doesn't compare. It doesn't seem to be anything like those books, in any meaningful way. The comparisons are simply unfair, and in the end a bit annoying. And yet, they hooked me in, didn't they? - it was successful marketing! god help me - and I'm not at all sorry I read the book. But the whole enterprise rankles. And notice, too, that they call it an "unclassifiable memoir" - yet by the end of the page, have referred to it as a novel. Apparently, in this brave new post-James Frey (heh) literary (heh) world of the (relatively) massive successes of your Knausgaards and Ferrantes, there is simply no difference whatsoever between a memoir and a novel, a memoir and a fiction. For the record, Knausgaard's My Struggle books have always scanned to me as memoir, so naturally everyone calls them novels. Ferrante's Neapolitan series, meanwhile, scans as fiction, so naturally those books get taken as essentially memoir, to the point that it's apparently totally important that we know who she really is. In this case, I have gathered, from where I can no longer remember, that Ndiaye began writing Self-Portrait in Green as a memoir, and it became a fiction. A common enough occurrence, no doubt. So why not just call it both? Isn't that irritating? I think it's irritating.

(And yet, perhaps somewhat contradictorily, I do not have a problem with writing that is in fact unclassifiable. I call that, simply, writing - and it is in this sense that the commonality with Nelson, Rankine, and Carson, all three the real deal, as far as I'm concerned, is borne out.)

The book you say? How is the book? Hah, what an odd question. The book is pretty good, I think. I enjoyed it, rather a lot, on a sentence by sentence level. I enjoyed the texture of it, of those sentences (the term is borrowed from a friend). I'm not sure I understood the significance of all the green. There were women in green, throughout, and presumably the green meant something, but I couldn't tell you what it was. I'm not sure I care. Re-reading, I enjoyed the sentences even more—Ndiaye is a talented writer—but I remain more or less in the dark about the green. I'm ok with that.