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Gertrude Stein All the Time, Time, Time, and Time

by Morten Høi Jensen on February 1, 2014

Caolan Madden and baby Jane

Caolan Madden reading aloud at Triple Canopy’s third annual marathon reading of Gertrude Stein’s “The Making of Americans” (photo courtesy Triple Canopy)

If you are going to read Gertrude Stein’s titanic novel The Making of Americans — the Dalkey paperback is a little over 900 pages long — why not spare your eyes and have someone read it to you? This past weekend, the magazine Triple Canopy offered to do just that: for the third year running it staged a marathon reading of Stein’s “enormously long and allegedly unreadable novel,” beginning Friday night and concluding, somewhat ominously, “sometime around 10pm” on Sunday evening (it ended up being closer to 8pm). A who’s-who of Brooklyn book wonks, artists, and scholars read for approximately fifteen minutes each, with longer gaps of time allotted for walk-ins and the odd musical interlude. Mushroom sandwiches from the Alice B. Toklas cookbook, to say nothing of welcome shelter from the numbing cold, were likewise on offer.

For those of us who mostly tuned in via Triple Canopy’s fuzzy live stream, the event was as much about the coming and going of the audience as it was about Stein’s modernist assault on prose. In a largely bare room with American flags draped on the walls, several rows of folding chairs faced a solitary reading table. Large speakers projected the somber voices into the silence as they went about shoveling their way through Stein’s anti-prose. (At one point, as if from exhaustion, the camera keeled over and streamed an odd angle of the ceiling for two hours). Some audience members broadcast their reactions on Twitter: “Oh shit Louis CK just walked in maybe he’ll take a slot?”

A word or two about the novel itself. Stein wrote most of it in the first decade of the twentieth century, though it remained unpublished until 1925, when an edition of 500 copies appeared courtesy of the Paris-based Contact Press. (Ironically, given its title, it was not published in America until 1934, and then only in an abridged version). A few stalwarts of Franco-American Modernism, including Pound and Hemingway, had initially encouraged Stein to publish an excerpt in Ford Madox Ford’s transatlantic review, which allowed for comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses. But for a modernist novel, The Making of Americans belongs to some little bubble of time all its own; from the sound of it, and by the standards of Modernism, the vocabulary rather spare. Even its non-linearity suggests Tristam Shandy rather than, say, Faulkner. Then there is the issue of its metafictionality; Stein occasionally comments on the peculiarities of the narrative, even lamenting the labor of it. As Janet Malcolm wittily observes in her book on Gertrude Stein, “The anti-novel seems to be turning into a kind of nervous breakdown.”

I ought to confess that ever since I bought the book many years ago I have ached not to read it. Brief excursions into other Stein texts — Tender Buttons, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the elusive little How to Write, which taught me nothing about writing — have only strengthened my resolve to continue using The Making of Americans as a (commendably sturdy) bookend. No doubt this says more about me than about the book, but so be it. When an audience member remarked on Twitter, “dear god [The Making of Americans] is brutal and largely joyless,” I nodded mightily in assent. Several other listeners, I noticed, likewise commented with varying degrees of approval on the novel’s length and endless repetitions. (In this regard we were all in good company; even Edmund Wilson had to confess, in Axel’s Castle, no less, that “I have not read this book all through, and I do not know whether it is possible to do so.”)

Carl Van Vechten, "Portrait of Gertrude Stein" (1934) (via loc.gov)

Carl Van Vechten, “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” (1934) (via loc.gov)

Listening to the reading, one did wonder from time to time if Stein had taken upon herself the Kierkegaardian task of finding out whether true repetition is possible. By staging a marathon reading of the same novel once every year, you might argue that Triple Canopy is honoring that ambition. This is in itself commendable. A professor at California State University, Kathryn Hohlwein, has argued that marathon readings are “a counterpoint to the culture of Twitter or the sound bite.” A marathon reading of The Making of Americans, so often described as a kind of proto-digital novel, is taking it a step further: Twitter and Livestream are subverted, in a sense, because they are being used for purposes contrary to themselves. This all seems very appropriate to the novel itself. In fact, a marathon reading of The Making of Americans seems about as far as it could ever go in terms of acquiring a readership. The Paula Cooper Gallery, along with John Cage and Alison Knowles, were presumably the first to think so: they staged similar marathon readings of Stein’s novel between 1974 and 2000. By picking up that mantle, Triple Canopy continues to pay The Making of Americans the finest tribute possible.

Triple Canopy’s marathon reading of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans took place January 24–26 at 155 Freeman Street (Greenpoint, Brooklyn).

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