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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three Lives (1909) by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein, literary modernist.

Book Review
Three Lives (1909)
by Gertrude Stein

  If Henry James is the originator of literary modernism, typified by an approach that plays with narrative convention and the established forms of the novel, Gertrude Stein is one of the first disciples.  Three Lives was her first novel, and the publication history should resonate with anyone who plies their art form in the "indie world."  Published as a kind of favor with little prospect for popular success, "Let me get this straight Gertrude, you want to publish a novel that consists of three semi-stream of consciousness narratives about working class women in a small southern town, and one of the women is Black?  This is not what people want to read about!"  Three Lives was aggressively promoted by Stein herself, and found favor with what would be known in the 20th century as the "avant-garde."  Stein herself is like a charter member of the 20th century avant-garde, what with her being a Lesbian, American who lived in Paris and translated Gustave Flaubert.   Flaubert and Henry James are all over Three Lives in terms of being a recognizable influence

  Stein would get more and more modernist and increasingly abstract as her career progressed, making Three Lives the Stein equivalent of Henry James Portrait of a Lady.  But in the difference in subject matter: James with his trad literary take on the marriage plot, and Stein with a radical subject choice of working class women in 19th century America, you can see all the difference between the time James was writing and the time Stein was writing.

 What Stein was doing was not radical for a French novel (in terms of subject matter) and not particularly radical in terms of the English language narrative innovations brought about by James, but the combination of the two strands in this accessible book is itself notable.

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