Monday, May 15, 2006

E.M. Forster on Gertrude Stein

E.M. Forster on Gertrude Stein:

Well, there is one novelist who has tried to abolish time, and her failure is instructive: Gertrude Stein. Going much further than Emily Brontë, Sterne or Proust, Gertrude Stein has smashed up and pulverized her clock and scattered its fragments over the world like the limbs of Osiris, and she has done this not from naughtiness but from a noble motive: she has hoped to emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time and to express in it the life by values only. She fails, because as soon as fiction is completely delivered from time it cannot express anything at all, and in her later writing we can see the slope down which she is slipping. She wants to abolish this whole aspect of the story, this sequence in chronology, and my heart goes out to her. She cannot do it without abolishing the sequence between the sentences. But this is not effective unless the order of the words in the sentences is abolished, which in turn entails the abolition of the order of the letters or sounds in the words. And now she is over the precipice. There is nothing to ridicule in an experiment such as hers. It is much more important to play about like this than to rewrite the Waverly Novels. Yet the experiment is doomed to failure. The time-sequence cannot be destroyed without carrying in its ruin all that should have taken its place; the novel that would express values only becomes unintelligible and therefore valueless.

From E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927).

I’m not a fan of Stein’s work, but neither am I inclined to go along with Forster and categorically doom to failure the sort of experiments with time and chronology that she undertook. Other views?


Stefanie said...

I've never thought of Stein as attempting to abolish time before. I've always thought of her as attempting to do in writing what Picasso was doing in painting. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, but it is always interesting.

Kate S. said...


I don't think I would conceptualize her work as an attempt to abolish time either. However it's been at least twenty years since I read any of her work so I appreciate hearing from others who are better acquainted with it than I am! Perhaps it's time I gave it another try.

Dorothy W. said...

I am torn about this question. I'm interested in experimentation on the one hand; I think it's valuable to play around with the elements of fiction. On the other hand, if it's not pleasurable to read, then something vital is missing. On the other hand, there are different kinds of pleasures to be had in reading, some of which are complicated and take a lot of effort. Stein may be a writer who requires that effort.

I've only read Stein's Tender Buttons, although I'd like to read some fiction. But I'm hesitant, I think, because I know it's likely to be a bit difficult. I like Tender Buttons a lot, but that's poetry not fiction, and so a different matter.

OLEG said...

It is the difference in the mediums of painting and the written word that E.M. Forster is implying in his critique of Stein's experimentation in "Tender Buttons". The very act of looking at a painting vs. reading the word are different; one you can take in immediately, the other it is necessary to read word after word, line after line in a chronological order. No matter how much Gertrude Stein had shuffled the words, she failed, as Forster succinctly put it.

Nice post. I'm glad I stumbled upon it.


Kimberly Castanon said...

Yes, I agree, Stein is the cubist writer - that's what Portraits is all about, not just what the flat surface looks like, but what's on the other side and the other and the other. If you haven't read How writing is Written, it will open your eyes to yet another dimension of Stein, she is the human kaleidoscope.