There are two books from before vacation I haven’t yet written about here: Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and Chandra Prasad’s On Borrowed Wings. My memory of these books is getting a bit hazy, but I don’t want to ignore them entirely here.
So first, Gertrude Stein. I’ve been meaning to read Three Lives for a very long time; in fact, I’ve probably owned the book for well over a decade. Stein is a fascinating figure, but I’ve always found her intimidating and need to work up a bit of courage to pick up one of her books. Three Lives is certainly one of the easier, more approachable books she’s written; it may take me another decade or two to work up to reading something more challenging, if I ever decide to do it at all. I don’t feel that I’ve ever really understood Stein, but then again, lots of people feel that way, I know for a fact, and my tendency with writers I don’t quite understand is to keep returning to them to see if one more try will make a difference.
Three Lives is a straightforward read, not intimidating at all it turns out, with simple sentences and vocabulary, without much plot and with just a few characters. In fact, it’s such a simple, straightforward, non-astounding read that one might reasonably wonder why Stein is read at all, if it weren’t for the time period she lived in and the contrast between what she was doing and typical novels of the time. The book was published in 1909, and the contrast between her writing and other novels of the time is sharp. She has taken the sentence and pared it down, often using a series of simple sentences or short phrases strung together with conjunctions. She also uses a lot of repetition, repeating words from sentence to sentence and repeating ideas from page to page. For example:
Melanctha Herbert had not made her life all simple like Rose Johnson. Melanctha had not made it easy with herself to make her wants and what she had, agree.
Melanctha Herbert was always losing what she had in wanting all the things she saw. Melanctha was always being left when she was not leaving others.
Melanctha Herbert always loved too hard and much too often. She was always full with mystery and subtle movements and denials and vague distrusts and complicated disillusions. Then Melanctha would be sudden and impulsive and unbounded in some faith, and then she would suffer and be strong in her repression.
Stein piles bits of information on top of each other to build portraits of her characters; I suppose this is what every author does in order to create a character, but Stein draws attention to the piling on by repeating her character’s full name and using “and” in her lists, instead of commas. She uses repetition on a larger scale too. Her story moves forward in a jerky back-and-forth motion; she will tell you new information, and then she will circle back and repeat old information, perhaps with some variations, before moving on again.
It’s not a very exciting style, and at times I felt bored with the book, but she does manage to capture something that feels true about her characters. It’s an incantatory style; it’s almost like she’s chanting her way through these characters’ lives, conjuring them up and capturing their full history in a fairly short number of pages.
The book does exactly what the title promises: it tells the story of three women’s lives, none of which connect to the others in any way except that all three of her subjects live in the same town. She tells their full life stories, although most of the information we have on their childhoods comes through flashbacks. All three are ordinary working- or middle-class women, and the focus in all three stories is on their relationships — friendships, and in the case of the middle story “Melanctha,” romantic relationships. The Melanctha section is the most famous one, partly because of how it deals with race; Melanctha is a black woman and some see it as a sympathetic portrait of blackness, arguably forward-looking for its time (it’s a controversial point, though).
So, Three Lives is an interesting read, a good book to analyze stylistically and think about contextually, although it’s not engrossing or emotionally compelling, at least for me. I’m very curious and I wish there were some way of knowing how Stein’s reputation will fare in decades and centuries to come. I suspect she’ll remain known, at least for a while, although it’s hard to tell whether that will be because of her writing or because of her life story. I’m looking forward to reading Janet Malcolm’s book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice to learn a little more about that life.