Gertrude And Ernest, Paris 1926
Mark Victor Young, December 7, 2022
There was a message from Gertrude Stein the day he arrived back in Paris. The desk clerk at his hotel gave him the card. It had a picture of a farmer’s market somewhere in the 17th arrondissement, and said: “Ernest. Looking forward to seeing you. Let’s meet on Friday. Gertrude.” It was Friday, and the message had been there for some time. He had just returned from New York with the final proof of his novel. His publisher was looking for the last set of corrections. He had a fifth of whiskey in his case. He pushed his notes and the manuscript underneath his fishing gear and checked them at the desk with his case without even going up to the room. He asked to use the phone.
”Will your wife be joining you?” said the clerk.
“No,” he said, pulling a card from his jacket.
He phoned for reservations at Les Deux Magots. Whenever Gertrude or he returned to Paris they met at the café. He had finished two saucers when she arrived. Alone. No Hadley, so no Alice, he guessed. Maybe it was more than that. There was a reason he no longer received invitations to their home at 27 rue de Fleurus. Alice believed that he wanted to sleep with Gertrude, which was true. Those feelings were natural and brought no shame.
“How are you, Mr. Hemingway?”
“Fine. I ordered the usual.”
“Excellent.” She tasted her drink. “How was Pamplona?”
“Beyond compare,” he said.
“Did you go to the bullfights?”
“Good. One can’t go too often.” She looked away and sipped her drink. “Such noble creatures… such a vital, timeless struggle between man and beast. It has been too long since I was in Spain.”
He nodded and finished his drink.
“I heard about the business with Hadley.”
He grunted and signaled the waiter for another.
“Most unfortunate. Is she back in New York to stay?”
“Yes. We’re filing for divorce.”
“Oh,” she said. He couldn’t tell if she approved of this or not. “How is the novel coming?”
“I’m just going over the final proof right now.”
“I have to get working myself,” she said with an uneasy laugh. “My publisher is pressuring me for my next manuscript.”
“And your fans, I expect.” He tried a smile.
“That’s not fair,” she said. “We try our best. Making of Americans sold a hundred copies in the first month alone.”
“Great. If only it’d sell like that for a few months in a row.”
“You know I don’t have a wide appeal. The work is still important to me. Why are you trying to start something?”
“I’m not. I liked it. I’m the one who put the first sections out in the Review, remember?”
The meal arrived. She ate her coq au vin in silence. He made small talk over his steak. He had two more saucers. “Is there anything you’d like to do for the next week or so?” he said.
“I don’t care. Only for a few days, though. I really have to get started.”
She never kept to a timetable. The waiter collected their plates. He ordered coffee.
“What are you working on?” he said.
“It’s a collection of my lectures on composition and my theory of automatic writing.”
“Not going to try another novel?”
“Not yet. But I believe the process of gathering my thoughts on all these lectures will begin the journey to a spontaneous eruption of feeling that will be … well, I’m not there, yet.”
His coffee arrived and he stirred it without adding milk.
“Well, good luck,” he said. “There’s a new exhibit at Galerie au Sacre du Printemps. Should we give it a try?”
“If it’s the best Paris has to offer.”
“I don’t know that it is.”
He showered and changed at his hotel. The cab ride to the other side of the city was noisy and lonely. It was Friday and Paris was busy. The taxi stopped and he got out to pay. The show was billed as a study of ugliness in nature. Gertrude was waiting at the door. He paid and they went inside. They looked at some pictures without speaking. They were charcoal sketches of dead trees and storms and barren mountains. There was a table with wine and cheese at the back. He headed toward it.
“Like some wine?” he asked Gertrude when she joined him.
“Yes, please. I don’t like the pictures. They’re so prosaic. Unchallenging. Well -xecuted, I suppose you could say.”
“I’m glad you made the distinction. The best ideas in the world won’t matter at all if the execution is sloppy or haphazard.”
“I disagree. The subject matter is the most important thing. Competent photography that doesn’t convey an idea or image of beauty is worthless. Same with writing.”
He shook his head. “I can’t believe that. The love of fine precision work must not die.”
“Yes, but look at the great things that Man Ray is doing with photography.”
“Great things like portraits of you, you mean?” he said.
She glared at him. “Don’t be an ass, Ernest.”
He made a gesture of mollification with his hand. He sipped his wine.
She still had flared nostrils and an insistent look, but she continued. “As I was saying, Man Ray’s work is finely crafted, as you say, but the subject is nuanced with surrealistic tones and forces the viewer to reconsider the whole notion of form.”
They had wandered into a room full of paintings. Neither of them noticed. “I love what he’s doing. And Pablo. Both of them are craftsmen first, who then take liberties with form and abstraction to challenge us. But some of these so-called abstract artists I see in Paris today seem to have skipped the step of apprenticeship and think they can go right into a haphazard jumble of shapes and colours and call themselves Masters. There’s too much abstraction going on.”
He said nothing.
“But this is a riot against the Victorian mindset that said art was polite and pretty. We’ve had too much sense-making. This is a new, altered consciousness that has arisen from the old. It is even happening in writing, at last.”
He laughed. “Stream of consciousness writing is some of the worst of it.”
She looked at him. “Do you refer to anyone in particular?”
“I wasn’t speaking of your work, but even there. I find I liked your novel and the early stories far better than your automatic writing, ‘rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.’” He felt fuzzy from the drink. He wasn’t making sense to himself. But he felt that what he was saying was important. He pressed forward, butting up against her mind like it was an object in his way. “The best writers are still those who use concrete observation and description to get at what’s in a character’s mind.”
Her colour had risen and her cheeks were red. It was an impressive sight. She was a big woman and an imposing presence. “You speak narrow-mindedly of fools who pander to climb above other authors, not stylistically, but journalistically,” she said, not even looking at the art on the walls any more. “Paragraphs like newspaper columns: who, what, when.”
“If a fool is someone who strives for perfection,” he said. “then that is what I am. A great boxer is not content to be a name on the card … he wants to be the champ. The best. I want books that will stand the test of time.”
“You’re a pompous fool as well if you think you’ve achieved that,” she said. She had turned to face me and her hands were clenching and unclenching. She had big hands.
He couldn’t help what came next. He said, “We’ll see if your books stand the test of even two months.”
She looked at him. Then she dropped her wine glass and punched him in the mouth. He didn’t stop her as she walked to the door. She knocked over a small table and some papers. He touched his lip and wiped away a little blood. The other patrons were staring at him. Just some idiot who dared to taunt the great Gertrude Stein. He smiled at them and finished his wine.
Another cab brought him back and he climbed the stairs to his hotel room. He closed the door, took off his jacket, and sat on the bed. His lip was swollen. There was no way he could have prevented the falling out. It could have been less dramatic. They’d always had their differences of opinion. He phoned the bellboy for some ice. He tipped the kid, closed the door, and sat down at the desk. He flipped through his notes and scrawled a few ideas in the margins. He left them on the desk for the next day.
His days off were fewer than he had expected. Paris would be less interesting without Gertrude. He had learned a lot from her, but he couldn’t be her protegé any more. He had finally aired his views to her. His new book would be great and it would stand on its own terms. He lay down on the bed and switched off the light. He felt around his mouth. It would be a reminder.
The swollen lip lasted two days. He never spoke to her again. Not because she had hit him. Because he hadn’t hit her.
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