Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Gertrude Stein’

Of writers.

In Memoir, Travel, Writers, Writing on April 3, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Bruce Chatwin observed that there are two types of writers, “the ones who ‘dig in’ and the ones who move.” Chatwin was a mover. When I read him I hear the cadence of his restless feet traversing ancient causeways, just as when I read Melville, I smell salt air.

Once, in London, traipsing around Bloomsbury, I sought out the home of Virginia Woolf.  It is not open to the public, and is now converted office space. But the brass plague confirmed the address. I was reduced to peering in through a barred street window. There were fax machines and furniture, a woman in a beige sweater pounding away on a computer and the flurry of activity one associates with commerce. I tried to imagine Mrs. Woolf there but failed–a “dug in” writer who slipped through my fingers. The failure was particularly poignant in that she had so famously observed, “A woman is to have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Likewise, I found Gertrude Stein’s Paris house, her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, the place she shared with Alice B. Tolkas. Stein called Alice “Pussy” and Gertrude was “Lovey.” There is that awful scene in A Moveable Feast, where the young Hemingway, standing in the foyer of Miss Stein’s house, overhears her upstairs: “Then Miss Stein’s voice came pleading and begging, saying, ‘Don’t, pussy. Don’t. Don’t. Please don’t. I’ll do anything, pussy, but please don’t do it. Please don’t. Please don’t, pussy.’” She was dead eighteen years when Hemingway’s memoir of Paris and being hungry was published–“But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” Of his writing, Miss Stein said, “Hemingway’s remarks are not literature.” He got her back in the end.

Hemingway is nowhere to be found at his Key West home, despite its well-preserved museum condition. I suspect his spirit has been trampled by hoards of tourists over the years. Papa too was plagued by their presence and had bricks shipped from Baltimore, where they’d been taken up from newly paved streets, to construct a wall around the place, protecting his privacy.

I went to Prague seeking Kafka, the writer who perhaps more than any other, ushered us into the modern era. But he too had disappeared. The City of a Thousand Spires, however, remained true to a fashion and I gave myself to its dark alleys and endless cobblestone streets. “Prague doesn’t let go,” he wrote. Though Prague invites the exercise of transmutations, to this pilgrim the city is more given to music. Smetana and Dvorak are easier to find than the man of The Castle. I do not think this unusual as music, once released abides ripe in the atmosphere, whereas the written word must be sought out.

The spirit of Joyce is to be found in Dublin, though ironically he wrote in self-exile. Thoreau’s cabin at Walden is lost to history, but Emerson’s house in Concord remains and it is easy to imagine the great man dug in, to use Chatwin’s phrase, surrounded by his books and working intently.

And of Chatwin? I found him a desert stretch removed from the Minaji Plain in Rajasthan. But that is another story for another time.

Words per idea?

In Writing on March 11, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’ve determined that these entries should be, give or take,  500 words each. That’s approximately the number of words it takes to fill one page. If you ever want to write a novel, by way of advice, all you have to do is write 500 words a day. In a year you’ll have a 365 page novel, unless it’s a leap year, then you’ll have 366 pages.

I decided on 500 word postings because I hold the notion that an idea, any idea, can be conveyed in 500 words or less. If you need more than one page to make your point you’re in trouble. I am convinced that even the most complex idea can be, indeed should be, limited to a single page.  Most ideas, I think, can be conveyed in just a few sentences–the really good ones, in a phrase, as in, I think, therefore, I am. Or perhaps: In the beginning was the Word.

The thought articulated above, that an idea can be made pithy and communicated with no more than 500 words, took one-hundred and eighty-seven words, counting this sentence.


I consider myself an essayist first. However, five hundred words does not an essay make. Perhaps in grade school it would qualify, but likely not as a grown-up definition. There are fortunately no essay police to ticket the violator, no standard by which one must practice the craft. That is the thing I most appreciate about the form: its unobstructed freedom. Although, I am hesitant to call these postings essays, if a haiku, with it skeletal structure of just seventeen syllables is a poem,  then perhaps it’s not such a stretch.

The essayist’s craft

Is calling the rose a rose,

Plus “rose,” Gerti said.

I’ve read that a blogger should not accept word limitations or rules of count. This makes me happy, as logic would suggest that if I embrace a word limitation then perhaps I am something other than a blogger. That maybe I might even be a writer–but please not a blogger. I was at a party recently and someone asked me what I do. I told them I write essays and book reviews and general musings about whatever strikes my fancy. I mentioned this forum and a few others where my writing appears. Oh, he said, you’re a blogger. I gulped. It is a term I must accept, given this outlet, but that does not make me like it. As I’ve stated previously, the word blog and its deviations, is an inelegant word and looks plain dumb. Too, the context makes me squirm. I am convinced that a good poet would never use that word and I trust the judgement of poets when it comes to words.

With only forty words left me I should summarize. An idea can, and should be made simple–pithy is the goal. I should also like to mention that I believe in the value of constraints, that working within parameters is liberating, as discipline is freedom. And lastly, I reject the moniker of blogger–that, long form or short, an essay is an essay is an essay.

(I’ve run over by eighteen words. Sorry.)

A Life in Terms of Fiction

In Literature, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Thinkers, Writing on July 11, 2009 at 11:21 pm

The notion interests me that the ancient Greeks judged their philosophers by their lives, as well as their intellectual contribution. Kierkegaard noted that Socrate’s “whole life was [a] personal preoccupation with himself…” Likewise, Rembrandt made more than ninety self-portraits, far more than any other artist. One art historian, Manuel Gasser, wrote that “Over the years, Rembrandt’s self-portraits increasingly became a means for gaining self-knowledge, and in the end took the form of an interior dialogue: a lonely old man communicating with himself while he painted.”  Rembrandt, employing the tools he knew best, made of himself a study.

The Greeks admonished, “Know thyself.” The study of one’s self is a discipline of the highest order. It would be easy to fall into a semantic trap here. Define your terms, I’ve been counseled. What is this self that so interests you? For our purposes, we know what we mean and I am not going down that philosophical rathole. Who am I and what do I make of the answer to that question?–that is the oil being brushed onto this canvas. Academically, this is the ontological branch of philosophy, sprung from the questionable tree of metaphysics. Metaphysics means above the physical and that is territory I find generally disagreeable and prone to dead ends. Yet I am drawn to the ancient charge of the Greeks and cannot leave it alone, as Rembrandt apparently could not turn away from his own image.

Artists did not depict themselves as the main subject of their work until the early fifteenth century, which correlates with the rise of individual wealth and power. A hundred or so years later Montaigne made himself the center of his literary work, creating a new genre in the process. In the early twentieth century Joyce declared that “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” I cannot easily meld Joyce’s artist-God with Rembrandt’s self-portraits. Can the artist be front and center and invisible at the same time?

I am an autodidact and feeling my way along here. At center of it, I don’t care about academic discussions, though a reader at this point must be already tapped out by my seemingly endless runs down dark alleys mapped chiefly in the distant and shrouded structures of rhetoric. If it’s not yet apparent, the nature of this exercise is one of self-portraiture, old fashioned style. Raising a family of three kids and sustaining a marriage has not afford me time to pare my nails in distant observation. I have dirt under my nails. This project reflects a modern pace, whereby one gets a thing done without a lot of fancy dancing around the subject. In this instance the subject being me. Some say the advent of the self-portrait correlates to the improvements of polished silvering in the manufacturing of mirrors. I am trying to polish my mirror and determine exactly what it holds. Interestingly, Van Gogh’s self-portraits are all of the left side of side of his face, the right side sporting the mutilated ear. Can a person look so deeply inside, yet expect to hide the obvious?

I once thought it would make for a successful literary project to write a biography of a fictitious person. Of course, Gertrude Stein pioneered the idea with her Autobiography of Alice B. TolkasBut this project would be a platform to explore a life composed out of a wishful existence. In doing so, in a fictive biography of a fictive person, two things happen, both of which, I think, can happen in real life. One: a life can be created and molded with intent. And, Two: a determined study of that life can be made. As I stated, both can be done in reality, without the fiction; however, rarely do we think of “creating” our life, and even more rarely do we consider studying it. Here is the premise: create a compelling individual, having lived an interesting life, and write the biography of that person to explain all the things which came together to make the person who he, or she, was. Garnish the story with a bit of dramatic tension and dive in. To wit, page one, paragraph one:

 “On the night James Whitmore Norton died, presumably before he discovered that he had been betrayed, he made this entry in his journal: There was smoke, or dust, I don’t know which, spotted in the foothills late this afternoon. The sun went down before we could investigate and tonight we retire to our rooms nurturing a sense of dread and foreboding. According to Phan Chí Düng who was tending the downstairs bar, shortly after Norton went to his room there was a noise heard from upstairs, described “like a small rumble of thunder” by Düng, after which a fire broke out and quickly spread through the upstairs engulfing Norton’s suite. It remains a curiosity that Norton’s journals where found stashed in the mini bar where they survived the conflagration. Norton, however, did not survive. The circumstances surrounding his death have never been suitably explained. It is commonly believed, however, that despite the public adoration and international acclaim in securing the Nobel Prize a half dozen years earlier, Norton’s enemies remained committed to their public vow to finish him off.”

I’ve often thought of my life in terms of fiction. It makes it more plastic, more like the image in the stone awaiting release by the artist. I suspect there is a physiological distinction for this condition. It is probably detrimental to one’s well being to think this way for too long. Like so many interesting things, it should be avoided as a rigorous practice. But it is indeed fun and lends the fictive thinker down a curious and interesting path. I have tried to instill in my kids the notion that life is not shaped entirely by the external; that the internal life is likewise to be developed and shaped. Creativity is necessary for that. Contrary to Henry James’s dictum that all fiction is trivia, fiction as a manner in which to consider the shaping of one’s life is insightful. It has been my observation though that few individuals consider this option at length.

The circumstances surrounding the mysterious death of James Whitmore Norton have yet to be suitably explained.