Thursday, February 28, 2008

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor

DETECTIVE STORIES are not my favorite genre, though in remote antiquity I raced through the Dorothy Sayers list, and there was a time, forty years ago, when we enjoyed watching Perry Mason, god save us.

Going through the Stein shelves, though, I reflected that I'd never read Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, and got it down to look it over. It's a curious book, written in 1933 after a six-month writer's block, an extraordinarily rare even in Stein's life. I read it because I had just read Monique Truong's novel The Book of Salt, whose central figure is the Vietnamese cook Stein and Toklas employed for years at about that same time.

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor is "about" a couple of mysterious events, one involving the unexplained death of a local hotel-keeper, in and around the town of Bilignin, where Stein and Toklas had taken a country house for their summers. We visited that house in the summer of 1974, when it was empty. The gates were unlocked, so we simply walked into the property, not daring to enter the house of course, but walking around behind to a terrace overlooking a magnificent view west across the valley below; to the north in the distance a hilltop castle.

It's a quiet village, hardly more than a few farmsteads and a cemetery to the south, and here, in 1933, Stein and Toklas settled into the country summertime routine you may know best from Wars I Have Seen, which recounts daily life there. Recently the Bilignin house has taken on a darker side: Stein apparently obtained the lease through the assistance of Bernard Fa├┐, later a collaborator in the Vichy government; somehow she and Toklas, hardly Aryan, were left alone there throughout World War II.

But that's in the future: at the time of Blood on the Dining-Room Floor Stein was undergoing a writer's crisis. Having begun writing relatively conventionally in 1903 and '04 with Q.E.D. and Fernhurst,, unpublished and unknown until 1950, she moved to her more ruminative style in her first early masterpiece, Three Lives, finished in 1906. In the next two years The Making of Americans finished off any conventional fictional narrative interest in her writer's mind, and her immersion in Cubism, as it was being evolved by her friend Pablo Picasso and his colleague Georges Braque, permanently influenced her own work. The first published examples of this were her portraits of Picasso and Matisse, in Alfred Stieglitz's review Camera Work, in 1912; Tender Buttons, written that year and published in 1914, is perhaps the early peak of this style.

Stein continued the style through the plays and portraits of the 'teens and '20s, gathered in Geography and Plays(1922) and Operas and Plays(1932), but continued to meditate in her writing on writing itself, in Useful Knowledge(1929) and How to Write(1931).

Then came the interruption of the celebrated Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas(1933), which made her popular and led to her return to a lecture tour of the United States in 1934 and 1935. I think this sudden fame and popularity combined with her dedication to her craft and her awareness of the lasting significance of the Cubist moment — which precipitated a deep divide between abstraction and representationalism among writers as well as painters and composers — had something to do with the crisis that resulted in Blood on the Dining-Room Floor.

In any case, in that book Stein returns to a Cubist sort of interpenetration of two planes: one of meditation on the act of writing; the other the observations, seen and overheard, of ordinary events of daily life — in this case, in a small village in the French countryside.

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor is probably best read twice: once quickly through, on its own terms; then again with thought given to various annotations. The edition I have was published by the Creative Arts Book Company (Berkeley) in 1982 in an edition with a helpful afterword by John Herbert Gill; it has been made available on the Internet. The first time through you'll perhaps be irritated and/or bored; this is a frequent response to Stein's writing. One reads a new book (new to the reader, I mean) burdened with the experience of all that prior reading, and most of that prior reading is pretty commonplace. Not the content of the texts, perhaps; but certainly the form or style. Even Henry James remains "difficult"; not that many readers go past, say, Mrs. Dalloway.

But I find Blood on the Dining-Room Floor a charming book, read not terribly closely, say in bed. The crime, if it was a crime, let alone its perpetrator, never really appears; the entire affair's presented as if a matter of village gossip, narrated through innuendo and arched eyebrow, certainly not laid out in at-first-and-then sequential narrative.

A closer reading introduces two major matters of interest: Stein's technique — what you might call composition as composition — and the significance of that technique as a witness to the intellectual revolution of her time, a revolution that is still proceeding and has yet to be noticed, let alone understood, by the vast majority of readers.

Among the other Internet annotations of Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, Craig Dworkin's Five Words In A Stein, addresses the first of these matters. I like it, partly because I'm drawn to language-play. Dworkin makes a case, and the pun's intended, for reading Blood as a text influenced by Stein's early family language, presumably as German as it was English; and he's alert, perhaps too alert, to subtle implications of the words and phrases that occupy Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, as restless guests occupy a country hotel. (Or refugees occupy an occupied zone.)

The second matter is the subject of Joan Retallack's Writers – Readers – Performers / Partners in Crime (published in How2, vol. 1 no. 6, Fall 2001), a paper given within a colloquy on "The Politics of Presence: Re-reading the Writing Subject in “Live” and Electronic Performance, Theatre and Film Poetry." Where Dworkin concentrates on a reading, even a deciphering of Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, though, Retallack goes much further, using Stein's book as a launch pad for an interesting sketch of a proposal, that while
…literature is an engagement with possible forms of life — as all language games (written or spoken or performed) must be
the fact remains that
…the explosion of forms that we've seen throughout the 20th century… poses difficulties for traditionalists — e.g., narrators of coherency, tidy story-tellers as guardians of logics of identity and convention.
The next sentence is crucial:
Ther narrator of continuity is (albeit often unawares) at odds in a world whose vulnerabilities have more to do with contiguity. Contiguity is the spatial dimension of coincidence.
Stein's crisis, in the months before Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, was born of the mutual incompatibility of "narrative coherence" and awareness of contiguity, particularly of the dislocating Cubist appearance of contiguity. Blood on the Dining-Room Floor is a meditation on the disruption of daily life that is a constant characteristic of daily life. (It's tempting to consider the dialectic between Toklas as daily life and Stein as meditation; Stein's nightly writing "miracle" as quotidian and Toklas's morning typing as a completion, almost a repair, of the interruption which is Stein's work.)

The Moment of Cubism, to use John Berger's apt and memorable formula, was a historical moment on the scale of the Enlightenment, the expression of a handful of visionaries who refused to let convention or authority (and the two are politically synonymous) cloud their eyes as they looked at a world of human consciousness (and subconsciousness) that had changed. Language, whether verbal, pictorial, or musical, always reflects the "interruptions" of such moments. ("Interruption" in quotes, because it's an interruption that connects.) A fascinating example of this was posted the other day on Mark Liberman's Language Log: time and distance themselves have changed in the human consciousness, as is testified by the history of our words.

I can't think of a more pleasant way of entering a contemplation of all these matters than a reading of Blood on the Dining-Room Floor. It's already led me to Useful Knowledge, and soon back via Geography and Plays, I suspect, to the Geographical History of America. In which case I'll report back here.

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