Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Stray thoughts on various types of brow

I can't tell you how often my thoughts do go astray onto random topics, usually when I really should be focused and productive, so I decided I might just as well share a few of the meanderings with you. Plus, I mentioned the first part of this post in my recent My Life in Books answers at Simon's Stuck-in-a-Book blog, so it's high time I get it posted and come clean about my past flirtations with the highbrow.


Rather strangely perhaps—especially for a guy from a family of non-readers in the American Midwest—my literary first love was modernist fiction.  As soon as I discovered Hemingway and Woolf and Joyce and Beckett, I was hooked.  It was only later that I discovered the wackiest and most experimental modernist of them all—the often-mocked, delightfully nonsensical Gertrude Stein.  These days, although I rarely read the other major highbrow moderns (and I don’t think I even have any Joyce on my shelves, though Hemingway and Woolf and Beckett still garner some bookcase space), I still have an entire shelf of my library reserved for Stein.

A wonderfully ghostly image of Alice B. Toklas hovering
in the background while Gertrude Stein works

I can’t begin to explain what I love about Stein’s writing.  Most people find it hard to suppress a giggle at passages like this one:

She was dead then five days after and everybody said the horticulturist's family said that she walked in her sleep.  Did she walk in her sleep.  Had she walked in her sleep.  Who had walked in her sleep.  Where did she walk.  And whose was it that she walked.  Whose was it.  Can anybody cry.

I know.  What on earth does it mean?  Sometimes I giggle a bit too, and at first I thought it was all just silly and absurd, but gradually the giggles started to come more from the sheer liberating joy of Stein somehow making sense by not making sense.  There’s no plot to speak of (though day-to-day events and interests do make their way in quite frequently), no logic, lots of seemingly random wordplay (which some of her critics scornfully dismiss as baby talk), and no way to make sense of any of it in any traditional way.  My own theory is that Stein is the one author who really and truly makes literature happen inside each reader’s own mind, triggered by his or her own associations and thoughts at the moment of reading, rather than on the page or according to some recognized structure of meaning that we all more or less agree on. 

But that's enough of the highbrow part of this digression.

In addition to (or despite, depending on your perspective) Stein’s writings, her real life is fascinating to read about, especially her forty-plus year marriage (what else could you call it?) to Alice B. Toklas—the devoted wife who managed the practical side of life, typed Stein’s carelessly scrawled manuscripts (can you imagine? the mind boggles), handled much of the dealings with publishers, and kept the other wives occupied while Stein held court with the likes of Picasso and Matisse and Hemingway. 

In most discussions of Stein, and even in many photographs of the couple, Toklas tends to fade into the background, but in memoirs by friends who knew them well, it’s clear that not only was she the very center of Stein’s life—and a constant source of inspiration and support—but she was also not at all the stereotypical passive servant-wife.  Devoted, organized, and hard-working she certainly was.  But she was also a tough, smart, sophisticated, fascinating woman herself.  As much as I would love to sit down and chat with Gertrude for a few hours, for all of the challenging, thought-provoking insight she could offer on literature, art, life, and love, I suspect—being the middlebrow that I really am—I might get even greater enjoyment from a few hours spent in the kitchen with Alice.

That suspicion has been strengthened by my recent reading of Dear Sammy, a memoir and collection of letters from Gertrude and Alice to American teacher, novelist, and tattoo artist Samuel Steward.  Steward's memoir of his times visiting and staying with Gertrude and Alice is interesting in itself, but the real revelation was the letters Alice wrote to him in the late 1940s and 1950s, after Gertrude's death.  They are by turns touchingly heartbroken and hilariously, snidely critical.  On the one hand, Toklas was devastated by the loss of Gertrude, and that comes through even in letters written more than a decade after Stein’s death.  On the other hand, she does seem to become a bit of a social butterfly in these years, visited by scholars and students and by old and new friends from the literary and art world, and passionately negotiating with publishers to get Stein’s vast body of unpublished work into print. 

I knew some of this before reading Steward’s book, and I’ve always meant to get around to reading Staying On Alone, the collected edition of all of Toklas’s letters of the years from Stein’s death in 1946 until her own in 1967.  The book has been on my shelf for several years.  But I always stop after the first few lines of her letter to Carl Van Vechten and his wife, written just four days after Gertrude’s death:

For us who loved our Baby Woojums so completely it should be easy to say it all—but the emptiness is so very very great—and more intensely when I am with you. … And oh Baby was so beautiful—in between the pain—like nothing before.  And now she is in the vault at the American Cathedral on the Quai d’Orsay—and I’m here alone.  And nothing more—only what was.

I’ve never been able to bear to go on reading beyond that letter.  But I may have to try again now.  Because, based on the letters she wrote to Steward, there will be a lot of fun to be had from the letters as well.  Who knew that this quiet, unassuming companion to Gertrude could be so wonderfully entertaining, gossipy, silly, and downright catty at times?

A middlebrow pilgrimage to 5 rue Christine,
Gertrude and Alice's last residence in Paris

Among those who come in for particular contempt in Alice's letters is one of the authors on my Overwhelming List.  Elizabeth Sprigge had already written several novels, some of them well-received, but turned in later years to writing biographies.  She's best known now for her bio of Ivy Compton-Burnett, but among her other works is one of the earliest biographies of Stein.  From the beginning, Sprigge apparently didn't endear herself to Toklas—here Toklas is thanking Steward for a book on American outlaws, and mentioning how shocked some of her acquaintances were that she would enjoy such a crude, un-intellectual thing:

Then I showed it to a Mrs. Sprigge—essence of middle-class British pretentiousness—who is doing a biography of Gertrude. She was horrified but tried to cover it—when I dropped that Gertrude would have loved it—that she had a particular weakness for Billy the Kid. It's a peach of a book and ever so well presented.

Things only got worse when Sprigge began publishing her work on Stein:

Have you seen a very vulgar article on Teaching Gertrude Stein by an Elizabeth Sprigge who is writing a biography of Gertrude. The worst of it is that I got Harper's to take it—God help me!

La Sprigge's book was wiped off the slate by Gilbert Harrison's review of it in the New Republic and Donald Sutherland's in the Nation. Excellent both of them—did you see them. She put it over her British critics but not ours.

But Sprigge isn't the only one who comes in for Toklas's sharp critiques.  In a later letter, she rather jadedly mentions the deteriorating Fernande Olivier, former model of Picasso, and hilariously dismisses a visit many of us would love to have had, from no less a figure than Greta Garbo:

And I've twice seen Fernande Olivier—after more than forty years—she's unchanged except physically—she's a monumental wreck. And they brought Greta Garbo to see me. And with many questions answered by me of her friends the mystère est dévoilée—and not so interesting. She looks without makeup not more than 36. But surely this is boring you—as it did me.

And finally, Toklas made me laugh when she reminisced about Gertrude's poorly-timed dismissal of acclaimed American novelist and story author Katherine Anne Porter:

Yes the Katherine Anne Porter had a story back of her venom. She was quite an admirer of Gertrude's work previously to a visit of a well mannered good looking young G.I. whom I found talking to Gertrude on the sofa here. Do I read Katherine Anne Porter said Gertrude to me. Oh God no—said I and left the room. Whereupon the youth said—But you know my aunt. To which Gertrude answered—So very many people came to the rue de Fleurus.

As much as anything, I love the insight this passage and others like it offer into the relationship Gertrude and Alice shared, in the way that Gertrude had to ask Alice to remind her if she enjoyed Porter's work or not, and the way that she attempts to pass off the gaffe.


Recently, I made a valiant effort to read Dodie Smith's It Ends with Revelations.  Considering that I loved A Tale of Two Families and quite enjoyed I Capture the Castle and The Town in Bloom, I expected Revelations to be a very enjoyable frolic of a read.  Alas, as it turned out, I didn't feel so much like I was frolicking as that I was wading through molasses, but that's okay, because the novel still offered me an enjoyable scene to muse over and be distracted by.

Ivy Compton-Burnett, under discussion
in Dodie Smith's It Ends with Revelations

It's always interesting to me when one of my authors has her characters reading or discussing another.  It's even interesting when I don't know the author being discussed—as in Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters, when a character is reading what I found out (thank you, Google) was a D. K. Broster novel called Mr. Rowl.  And early on in my obscure author searches, Barbara Pym handed me two on a silver platter in her WWII diaries, where she mentions reading both Marjorie Wilenski's Table Two and Hester Chapman's Long Division.  Perhaps those less obsessive than I would be less enthusiastic about such references, but obviously it's all grist for my mill…

In this case, however, the author under discussion is rather more well-known, and the discussion really couldn't summarize any more succinctly the reactions of two different types of readers to her work.  Here, we get the beginning of the heroine's (I use the word loosely) conversation with the two daughters of a friend:

They asked her opinion on clothes, life and literature. She did fairly well on clothes and life but was out of her depth as regards literature—though she was thankful to be able to say that she had read one book by Kit's favourite modern novelist, Ivy Compton-Burnett.

'If you only read one, you couldn't have liked her,' said Kit. 'People who do, read them all—and again and again.'

This is not strictly true, at least in my case.  I like Ivy Compton-Burnett and think she's an absolutely fascinating writer, but I can't say that I've read all of her novels—after six or seven, they did start to run together for me—nor can I say that I've read any of them more than once.  But Dame Ivy is certainly one of those intriguing writers who lie in the no man's land (or no woman's land) between the middlebrow and the highbrow.  Her odd, unrealistic tales of dysfunctional upper-class Victorian family life, completely dominated as they are by stiff, ridiculously formal dialogue—(even when the dialogue is between two young children, they always sound like aged professors debating fine philosophical points)—definitely have some claim to being called experimental fiction right up there with Virginia Woolf or Samuel Beckett.  Yet it's also true that her subject matter is quintessentially domestic and middlebrow. 

As the discussion goes on, the two sisters in Smith's novel describe very different approaches to their reading.  Possibly most of us would relate somewhat to both approaches:

'I almost like her because she writes about families,' said Robin. 'But she doesn't tell one enough about their backgrounds, what the houses are like, what the women wear. And though everyone's always eating, we're never allowed to know what they eat.'

'Well, who wants to know what anyone eats?' said Kit impatiently. 'And she does say quite a bit about background.  Sometimes there are cracks in a wall, or an overgrown creeper, or the rich people have cushions. One can do the rest from imagination. And the strange thing is that whenever I re-read one of the books I get a different mental picture of the house in it—and I can remember all the different mental pictures. Very peculiar, that. And the dialogue's so marvellous, somehow it's what the characters are thinking as well as what they're saying, so it ends by being what they are. People say the servants don't talk like servants and the children don't talk like children, but the servants just are our great-grandmother's chauffeur and lady's maid, and the children are me, almost before I could talk."

But I have a feeling most of us can relate a bit more to one approach or the other.  Oddly, I think that I was probably very much Kit in my younger days—caring only for the occasional (probably symbolic) background detail (the crack in the wall surely indicates instability, and an overgrown creeper neglect or slovenliness?), but unable to imagine why one would want to read about a meal, or “what the houses are like, what the women wear.”

In recent years, however, as you can all probably guess, I seem to have metamorphosed into Robin.  These days, I am perfectly happy delving into novels with little or no plot but with a vivid sense of real, ordinary, day-to-day life.  No big dramatic events necessary, nor any looming symbolism.  Just life. 

What about you all?  Which of the sisters do you relate to most?


I did no less than three posts last year on my gradual discovery and ever-growing love for the impossibly obscure and distinctly unprolific Celia Buckmaster, who published only two novels in the early 1950s before focusing on her family and her painting.  She’s probably my favorite of all the authors I’ve come across that no one else seems to know about, but I’ve already raved about her ad nauseum, so I won’t repeat it all here.

But finding any kind of information about Buckmaster has been a challenge.  Even reviews of her two novels seem to be elusive.  So imagine how pleased I was when Lisa Perry, a kind reader of this blog, mentioned a couple of months ago that she’d come across a book (E. M. Butler’s Silver Wings, published—like Buckmaster’s novels—by Hogarth Press) with a blurb on the back cover for Village Story, Buckmaster’s debut.  Lisa graciously gave me permission to share her pic of the back cover of her book, which I am (finally) doing now.  Thank you, Lisa!

Apart from the pleasure of seeing at last some evidence that someone besides me actually read Buckmaster’s novels, it was interesting to see the impressive names who offered her praise—no lesser figures than John Betjeman and Stevie Smith.  In case you can’t make out the text, Betjeman called Buckmaster’s novel “Very funny, in a quite new way.”  I quite agree that it’s funny—and charming, and lovely, etc.—but what on earth is the “quite new way” of being funny?  Perhaps a re-read will clarify for me.  And Smith said that Buckmaster was “A very witty good new writer,” which is rather understated praise, but then, Smith was not known for being a pushover.

Two rather highbrow names for Hogarth to use to promote a wonderfully middlebrow author.  Or am I missing something?  Perhaps Buckmaster is quite highbrow after all and I am merely too middlebrow to have noticed?  Oh, what the hell, I’ll have to re-read both of her novels to be sure!


  1. Highbrow, eh? (You thinking of starting another list?) You have so may sides, Scott.

    I can't wait till you start on Lowbrow.

    1. No, I think the highbrows get quite enough attention as it is, Susan. But the lowbrow? Hmmmm...

  2. Interesting to hear about the book of letters. Stein has always somewhat intimidated me, but reading about that whole scene and time period is so much fun so I'm sure I'd really enjoy read this. What a funny dismissal of Garbo!

    1. I find Stein the most joyful and life-affirming of the moderns, Eric, so my advice is just dive in and go with the flow. Obviously not everyone would agree though. But the letters are fascinating and the glimpses of their life together are entertaining and often very touching.

  3. I have copies of five newspaper reviews for Celia Buckmaster's books - three for Village Story (by John Betjeman, B J M Folliot, and J S Rodriguez); and two for Family Ties (by John Betjeman and Julian Gustave Symons).

    It has been a while since this blog was posted and by now you may have seen these reviews. But if not I can forward them to you.


    Steve Nason
    (Melbourne, Australia)

    1. Thanks, Steve. Yes, I would love to see the reviews! If you're able to scan them, you can email them to them ( Thanks for thinking of it!

    2. I'll send them on to your e-mail address ASAP, and I hope I can look forward to reading your review of the reviewers.

      I should mention that I first came across Celia Buckmaster (and your blog pages) not through a literary interest but by researching a family connection to the Buckmasters (ie. Celia's paternal grandfather married into my family). But I must read her two books to see what parallels might exist between her real family connections and the lives of the characters she portrays in her books. The Buckmasters were both obscure and surprising characters. Much of the biographical information that has been published about Celia seems to have avoided mentioning important facts that must have, or should have, been obvious to the writers. For example did you know that Celia's marriage to Edmund Leach was her second marriage?


      Steve Nason


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