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A simple but domineering heart

December 19, 2011 12 comments

The Good Anna by Gertrude Stein. 1909. Translated into French by Raymond Schwab. (La brave Anna)

I’ve been to the exhibition Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso… The Stein Family, in Paris. It tells the story of the Stein family and their incredible impact on arts at the beginning of the 20th Century. I thought it was a good opportunity to discover Gertrude Stein as a writer. Wandering in the museum library, I came across The Good Anna, a novella excerpted from the collection Three Lives.

The Good Anna relates the life and death of an American servant of German origin.

The good Anna was a small, spare, German woman, at this time about forty years of age. Her face was worn, her cheeks were thin, her mouth drawn and firm and her light blue eyes were very bright. Sometimes there were full of lightning and sometimes full of humor, but they were always sharp and clear.

She lives a simple life, has a simple but domineering mind. She likes to run her master’s house her own way. This is why Anna always chooses bachelors or spinsters as an employer. She selects fat and lazy women who won’t interfere in her ways. She can do as she pleases. Anna is stubborn, full of principles, scorns the people and animal she loves and don’t behave according to her standards. Her set of rules emphasizes on chastity, hygiene and hard work.

The good Anna had high ideals for canine chastity and discipline

She’s a caretaker though but she can only express her concern through tough love and rough advice. Her life is at other people’s service. Her mistresses, her friends, her family benefit from her energetic work and thrifty demeanor. She’s the kind of generous woman who meddles with your life when she cares for you. She’s the personification of the phrase Hell is paved with good intentions. If you’re an independent and free mind, you feel guilty if you hold a grudge against her because she means well but she gets on your nerves.

The story reminded me of A Simple Heart by Flaubert and I think the reference is intentional. On the one hand, A Simple Heart is a novella included in a volume entitled Three Tales just as The Good Anna is a part of Three Lives. On the second hand, Gertrude Stein nudges the reader in that direction when one of Anna’s employers gives her a parrot. But unlike Félicité, Anna never gets attached to the parrot, preferring her old dog Baby.

The story isn’t new but it’s interesting to read about a servant who’s obliging but not servile. Anna knows her temper and is lucid enough to get around the problem and choose the appropriate masters. I couldn’t help thinking: if Anna had been a man, what kind of life would she have had with such a character?

I’ve learnt at the exhibition that Gertrude Stein’s style was influenced by her relationship with painters. She makes an abundant use of adjectives like touches of paint on a painting. Matisse painted with large and colorful strokes. Stein depicts characters and situation with verbal strokes made of adjectives.

An earthly, uncouth, servile peasant creature old Katy surely was. She stood there on the white stone steps of the little red brick house, with her bony, square dull head with its thin, tanned, toughened skin and its sparse and kinky grizzled hair, and her strong, squat figure a little overmade on the right side, clothed in her blue striped cotton dress, all clean and always washed but rough and harsh to see.

It’s not unpleasant but a little raw, straightforward. Fauve?

Picasso painted Les demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907, de-structuring the usual perspective. In the meanwhile, she was making attempts with the structure of phrases.

Miss Mathilde passait l’océan chaque été et restait absente plusieurs mois. Miss Mathilda every summer went away across the ocean to be gone several months.

I’ve read the novella in French, in a 1954 translation by Raymond Schwab. The sentence puzzled me and I wanted to know how the English sounded like. Doesn’t it sound unusual in English too? Anyway it’s more comprehensible in English than in French. And that one?

Elle ne comprenait pas ce qu’Anna voulait dire par ce qu’elle avait dit. She did not understand what Anna meant by what she said.

In other times, the phrases sounded strange, but only in French, which means the translation isn’t that good.

Maintenant tous les emballages étaient faits et dans quelques jours Miss Mary devait aller dans la nouvelle maison, où les jeunes gens étaient prêts à la recevoir. All the packing was now done and in a few days Miss Mary was to go to the new house, where the young people were ready for her coming.

And I’m not even speaking of translating names and including long forgotten French references such as Uniprix, which always irritates me. I see the point of translating nicknames but changing Peter into Pierre sounds unnecessary and even disturbing.

I enjoyed reading The Good Anna but I’m not in a rush to read another book by her. In any case, I’ll read it in English, that French translation was too bad. I knew she was a writer but couldn’t name one of her books, so now I can. I’m more impressed by her influence as an art patron than by her literary talent. However, I’m glad I‘ve read it and I’m more than grateful for her impact on painting and support to painters.

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