16 August 2011

James Lord

[from James Lord's My Queer War, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010]

I went along to the nearby rue Christine, No. 5, to call on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. The two women had recently been escorted in an army plane around Germany, Miss Stein making speeches to the troops and posing on the blasted terrace of Hitler's hideaway in Berchtesgaden. The GIs apparently enjoyed Gertrude's no-nonsense, didactic but natural talk, and we were encouraged to consider her a folksy mother of us all. . . .

her rue Christine salon was regularly crowded with eager listeners to the cello voice of that imposing lady. And the presence of all those soldiers, like all the Picassos on the walls, seemed to everyone concerned a delightful and self-evident demonstration of cultural inevitability.

Miss Stein took me by the arm into the entry hall. She had read the play and had clearly read it with care. "Your writing reads well," she said, "and maybe someday writing will be a reality for you, and I have one piece of advice to give you that every writer who is going to be a real writer must be given sometime by somebody, and it is to consider your emotions more carefully. A real writer must be very sure of his emotions before putting a pen to paper, so that is what I advise you to do, to consider your emotions more carefully." . . .

Miss Stein returned with Basket on a leash . . . she spoke of the GIs who were already being shipped from home for discharge. Their visits had begun to weary her, but she was sorry to see them go. And sorry for them as well, she added, because never again in their lives would they be so happy.

At that moment there was hardly an American in uniform who didn't long to shed it as quickly as possible. We were sick of the army, sick of the war and its stresses and qualms. I disagreed with Miss Stein and said so.

She stopped abruptly and faced me on the sidewalk in the sun. Repeating what she'd already said, she dogmatically added that war possesses an irresistible appeal for young soldiers caused by the thrill of a superhuman power to kill with impunity, and because of it, because of the naive confidence that no harm can come to them, they have at their fingertips a greater power than ever in their lives they will wield again, and they are like bloodthirsty gods united in the climactic comradeship of killing, and that is why they will never again be so happy.

I was indignant at the pontifical self-assurance of the lady, solid as cement in her tweed suit, and I once more said that I disagreed with her.

She said it didn't matter because I was too young, too inexperienced, and too obutse in my emotions to realize she was right.

I stood there. I was transfixed. And then I said she was not right, she was wrong, she was a stupid old woman and didn't understand anything.

I turned away. Without waiting for her to answer, I turned away abruptly and left her standing there in the street with her white dog on the leash, walked to the rue des Grands Agustins without once glancing back, went around the corner, and I never saw Gertrude Stein again. . . .

I was shaken with anger at having been talked down to by an elderly woman. But I realized she'd been amazingly prescient and had understood the true facts of life of fighting men as well as I did, though she had never faced artillery fire or faced a Nazi tank. My irritation wanted to be vindicated even at the cost of making Miss Stein appear to have been in the wrong. So I climbed the staircase to Picasso's studio and rang the bell. He opened a crack and asked what I wanted at that inconvenient hour. When I replied that his friend Gertrude was talking nonsense, the door swung wide, and he beckoned me inside, saying to tell all, tell all. I may have fiddled with the truth, but this suited Picasso, who muttered, That slut! That pig! He said she'd always been a Fascist, had a weakness for Franco. For P├ętain too. Imagine. An American. A Jew. Fat as a pig; once sent him a photo of herself standing in front of an auto, and you couldn't see the auto she was so fat. As for Toklas, that little witch, why does she wear her hair in bangs? Picasso laughed out loud. She had had a horn in the middle of her forehead. A growth like a rhinoceros. So they made the ideal couple, the hippopotamus and the rhinoceros. But then Alice had the horn cut off and her bangs are supposed to cover up the hole. And Gertrude Stein talks about my pictures as if she'd painted them herself.

His laughter suddenly ceased. He shook himself like a bather who has just emerged from ice-cold water, turned away from me, saying he had important things to do upstairs, I would have to leave.

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James Lord by Balthus