Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Working on a set of paintings for a competition, (re) reading ...

Gertrude Stein's Mrs. Reynolds.  The book, written in France, completed in the summer of 1942 and sent to Bennett Cerf via a friend in Sweden, contains an "Epilogue" by Stein, who says: "This book is an effort to show the way anybody could feel these years. It is a perfectly ordinary couple [Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds] living an ordinary life and having ordinary conversations .... There is nothing historical about this book except the state of mind."

Reading the novel, we might feel a temptation to watch it unfurl in the mind like a black-and-white documentary, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas walking in gardens, cutting roses, listening for news over the radio. But Stein's remarks mean that she wants us to see her -- creating.  Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds walk in the garden only in a fictional world.  This creative act -- she wants us to see -- kept her going. And the act -- of creative reading of Mrs. Reynolds -- can keep us going, as well.

The talk of the novel, the "ordinary conversations," seem over and over to come in just as the narrator has delivered news that a soldier-neighbor has died, or the clouds gather, or some new or unwelcome or uncertain thing has intruded. And they are lovely, sweet, and funny things, these conversations: "they often talked about dates in cakes and they often talked about bread in soup, they also often talked about eggs and butter but most often of all they talked about guinea hens and geese" (p. 10 of the Sun & Moon Classics edition).  These foods, even for the (real) women (who were) living in a small agricultural community (the author and her wife lived in the Ain in France),  must mostly have been out of reach. Bread was available, certainly. But dates? Butter? Perhaps, now and then, a guinea hen or a goose might be tucked under the arm of a good friend, but much of what Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds discuss is ... imaginary.  In another, later, conversation, we hear this more firmly: "I would like said Mrs. Reynolds to have a roast chicken roasted with lots of butter and I would like to see a city said Mrs. Reynolds and Mr. Reynolds said let us go to bed and he meant what he said and they went to bed" (244). The characters are waiting, waiting for news, waiting for arrivals, departures, friends, soldiers, food, and ... they have no power.  A distant but frequently-mentioned character, Angel Harper, an apparent stand-in for Adolph Hitler, is given a life ... with details (and a childhood and wishes and a strange kind of innocence) by the narrator and the Reynoldses.  And against threats from the outside world comes Saint Odile and superstition.  There is a good deal of mention of readiness ... and age ... and days of the week ... Chaos in this novel means not having details add up ... order and pleasure comes when they do: "Who has beautiful hands said Mrs. Reynolds and he said the mason had beautiful hands, and indeed the mason did have beautiful hands which was what made him a good working mason" (137).  But while there are many times when the details will not co-operate, there are small victories where the life seems so ... normal (once again).

I think the book centers on the power of the imagination.  There was no end in sight to the war in 1942, and yet the novel's characters calm themselves: "she said she liked walnuts and she said she liked quinces only there was no sugar and she said she liked eggs only there were no eggs and she said she was going home to dinner and she went home to dinner and that night they had a very good dinner a very good dinner indeed, yes indeed said Mrs. Reynolds and Mr. Reynolds said yes and then they were very quiet and it began to rain very pleasantly and they were neither too warm nor too cold and then they went to bed" (323).

And, because most posts should have a visual element, here is a rug they might have tiptoed onto:

1 comment:

  1. I put our rugs in the closet so that Ferdinand wouldn't destroy them, but i was thinking of framing them or possibly making stencils that mimic the patterns so that i could spray paint them on canvas and call the series "Tapestry". Thoughts?