Book Review

Three Lives by Gertrude Stein

you absolute Stein

Gertrude Stein is a well-known literary figure for an array of reasons, and though she published a huge amount within her lifetime, the majority of her legacy seems to rest on her mentorship of other writers and artists.

Mentorship is possibly the wrong word, but we all know the big facts about Stein: she had THE salon in 1920s Paris. She was THE person to know. She made and broke careers with her patronage and her assistance and her advice, and other than her one infamous falling-out, she got through modernism and the Second World War largely unscathed.

Some of her books have remained canonical: though I haven’t yet read Tender Buttons, it’s a classic, as too is The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. BUT other than those two, this one (Three Lives) and Lectures in America, there isn’t anything else in the massive list of her publications included at the end of this Meridian Classic edition that I’d heard of. Stein is very famous as a person, respected as a writer, but far more PROLIFIC than I’d ever imagined. I always thought she’d only written like five to ten books, but double that, triple it: Stein published a LOT, and as someone who pays pretty broad attention to the modernist era and Stein’s milieu in particular, I feel like this ignorance isn’t something I’ve arrived at without a) some personal culpability but b) some systemic sociological dismissal. Then again, maybe Stein wrote a lot of underwhelming texts…

Three Lives, is often wonderful and regularly charming, but far from a perfect piece of work, though it sets a precedent and makes suggestions towards greater literature that would come from Stein (and the people she influenced) over the years to come.

Three Lives contains three distinct pieces, linked by their setting (Bridgeport, a fictionalisation of Stein’s native Baltimore, like in The Wire!) and their focus on the lives of working class women. Two of the protagonists are first-generation German immigrants, one works a long, hard, life as a housemaid, while the second is brought to America by a social-climbing aunt who finds her work as a servant then arranges an unhappy marriage for her with a man Stein clearly codes as gay. The third piece – and by FAR the longest – is about a black woman who tries and fails to find romance with a doctor and then a professional gambler. This story – for obvious reasons – has aged least well of the three, but in its intention and choice of subject matter it is inarguably an… err… significant piece of literature.

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Though they are set in the same place and the same time – late nineteenth century to early twentieth – these three stories are not linked by narratives: there are no overlapping characters or places or events (unless it’s done so subtly it’s more of an “Easter egg” than a literary device). This is not a novel, it’s more a novella and two long short stories. Or a novelette, a novella and a short novel, depending on how – and if – you use those terms.

Stein writes about poverty and doomed love affairs and about the fears and dangers of the immigrant experience. She writes a lot about warring matriarchs – the servant women who “run” the households of affluent couples who suddenly find their control usurped once their employers’ children become more assertive as they reach adulthood; there’s a lot about being alone in a city and doing what you’re told out of social fear, and in the piece that explores life as a poor, but educated, black woman, there is lots about sexist double standards and the internalised racism that comes from members of a minority straining to avoid “stereotypical behaviours”. As a Jewish person and a homosexual woman, Gertrude Stein was – of course – no stranger to being treated with prejudice, but as a very affluent and (later) very culturally significant individual, she doesn’t have the claims to shared camaraderie with women like the black protagonist she describes here that would make this long piece palatable to a modern audience.

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Stein uses repetition with subtle changes to craft her version of an evoked consciousness. In some ways, the simple language she uses here could be argued as a classist depiction of the “simplified” thoughts of the lower classes, but I think – particularly given the stylings of her infamous protege-turned-enemy, Stein understood with a real insight how valid the discussion of emotionality in accessible language could be. Stein’s short sentences and their spiralling repetitions towards emotional crises reflect, yes, the way people talk and the way people think. Yes, we do replay the most important conversations of our lives over and over and over in our heads and, yes, words and memories and feelings change with time: Stein’s use of shifting memory works well, it’s clever because it’s accurate.

Sometimes, yes, this does get a little dry, and in her writing about black experience Stein is clearly lacking knowledge, but publishing a book in 1908 (or 1909 – the notes to this edition give both years as a publication date) that centres working class female experience, and black experience, too, is something that deserves respect. Stein didn’t write this to become a star, she wrote this because it told stories she felt needed to be told. Of course, these stories would come to be told better from people who had lived within them, rather than watched them as a middle class tourist, but the intention – if not the execution – is kindly.

Far more than the other Stein I’ve read, the evidence of her influence on that writer is clear here: it’s her style, not his: he just happened to, alas, apply it to more masculine (and thus more marketable) narratives. Also, as much as I’d wish it weren’t true, he does do it slightly better.

Three Lives is worth reading, though, as both a key literary, left-wing-intentioned, artefact and as an intriguing and creative modernist text in its own right. Well worth a go, like.



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