Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Gass on Stein

William H. Gass's 1958 essay "Gertrude Stein: Her Escape from Protective Language" (reprinted in Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1971) is probably the best--and surely the best-written--aesthetic defense of Stein's style. I must demur from Gass's defense, however, because I have actually read Gertrude Stein. Gass's essay might convince if it were a Borgesian fictional criticism of an imaginary oeuvre, but unfortunately Stein's turgid texts stumble and stammer forth to sabotage all defenses. And even Gass must finally allow that the actual work tends toward unreadability, calling it "some of the dullest, flattest and longest literature perhaps in history"(95). (Even when I disagree with Big Bad Bill, I can still find something to agree with. (Does he contradict himself? So he contradicts himself. He was fat. He contained multitudes.)) In defending Modernist experimentation, stony Mount Stein is not the hill I would choose to die on. Instead, I would prefer to live--in the "doublends jined" of Finnegans Wake, say. Gass makes a valiant effort, but in the end, all aesthetic defenses of Stein are suicide missions.

Unlike Gertrude's dubiously musical medium, Gass's prose is a great tuning fork. Strike it anywhere and it will sensibly sound. It can tune a reader's ear to the music of prose, of Modernist prose, that great post-Paterian synthesis of sense and sound, music and word. Not 'words and music' but word as music--that's Gass's tune.

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