When Titans Clash: The James Joyce/Gertrude Stein Feud

September 13, 2017

(Gertrude Stein) did not want to talk about Anderson’s works any more than she would about Joyce.  If you brought up Joyce twice, you would not be invited back.   It was like mentioning one general favorably to another general.
– Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

Kate Buss brought lots of people to the house. She brought Djuna Barnes and Mina Loy and they had wanted to bring James Joyce, but they didn’t.
– Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

The feud that raged between James Joyce and Gertrude Stein in Paris between the years 1921 and 1939 is without doubt one of one most significant spats of any era. That these two powerful personalities coexisted in the same city at the same time is alone worthy of our close scrutiny, evoking as it does the disturbing image of a pair of unruly knockwursts vying for space on a single bun.  But records of the relationship are virtually non-existent and mark a curious ellipsis in 20th century letters.

Despite the bitterness and intellectual violence that came to characterize the relationship, it is probably worth mentioning that things actually got off to a promising start between them.   At first, mutual acquaintances even hoped that Joyce and Stein would become close friends. In the beginning the two would sometimes meet at the Paris zoo, a favorite haunt of Joyce’s, although already at this point his eyesight was such that he often mistook the backs of people’s heads for wildlife — usually Coco the Brown Bear, or on some occasions, for the crippled wildebeest, “Jacques.”

It was not until a year later that things first came to a head between them. They had been strolling together as they so often did, discussing the creative process and whether it could be patented, when Stein confided in Joyce that she had composed most of the poems in her book Tenderbuttons while “on a sugar high you would not believe.”  On hearing this, Joyce immediately pinched Stein’s abdomen, saying that from the general look of things she had been eating lots of sugar lately, hadn’t she?   “What was it?” he asked impatiently, “caramels?”   With this Stein immediately lost her composure and berated Joyce for his breach of etiquette, but Joyce refused to back down.   “Aha,” he continued, “so it was caramels after all!”   That evening Stein told Alice Toklas that if Joyce should call at the house to inform him that Miss Stein was not at home and, if possible, to pinch him in the abdomen.

Meanwhile Joyce found himself growing bitterly jealous of Stein’s literary output.   While he struggled for weeks to produce a single paragraph of prose, Stein seemed to pop off one book after another as though she were exhaling smoke rings.   Their attitudes toward writing were clearly different. Whereas Joyce was obsessed with matters of spelling and punctuation — he admitted having once spent all of Lent with a jeweler’s loupe and a pair of mischievous semi-colons — Stein seemed to be deliberately careless, sometimes reading her proofs at a distance of twenty paces with a weak flashlight.

In an effort to distract her from her work, Joyce invited Stein to his house one afternoon for cognac.   Joyce behaved like a model host, assiduously refilling Stein’s snifter at every opportunity, but, unbeknownst to her, pouring his own drinks into a concealed spittoon.  When she began to feel drowsy, Joyce invited Stein to take a nap on his couch, and when he was satisfied that she was fast asleep, he placed her hand in a bowl of warm water and retired to a secret place behind the drapes to watch the fireworks.

During his first year in Paris, Joyce pulled pranks like this all the time, but the book he was working on didn’t seem to get anywhere nearer completion.  Nora Joyce believed it was because her husband never stuck to his original plans, and it was true that Finnegan’s Wake strayed considerably from his original intentions of it as a “light, accessible whodunit.”  But it was also true that Joyce’s work evolved as he went along-for instance his book Portrait of the Artist was first conceived as a children’s book about a clumsy unicorn, while Dubliners had begun life as a how-to book on whitewater rafting.

News of the feud between the two giants immediately rocked the literary world, and as time passed, many people got a big kick out of it.   One evening at a literary soiree, Joyce made a statement to the effect that Stein’s sweet-tooth kept more than one Parisian pattissier in the financial pink.   Stein took offense at this suggestion, vehemently poo-poohing her alleged passion for strudel and marzipan, particularly of the cheaper store-bought variety.  But Joyce countered smoothly. “Oh, I see,” he said, “Then perhaps this is an optical illusion, n’est pas?” patting her ample belly and looking around the room for the big laugh.

People who remember such episodes all vouch for Joyce’s incredible sense of timing with a joke, the way he would pause to let it sink in and then jump in with his own cackling laughter to encourage any titters among his audience.  Stein usually remained aloof to such kidding, but sometimes she would chuckle along, slapping her thigh and stamping her foot good-naturedly, although at this point Joyce could be counted on to feign fright and grab onto the furniture as though an earthquake were taking place.

Many people felt that these shenanigans were in poor taste, but coming from an intellect like James Joyce, such childishness was a refreshing change of pace and it was impossible to keep from giggling.  It got to the point where with mere mention of the word “blubber,” and then with the “bl” sound alone, Joyce could send any room into a drunken spin.  Even Ezra Pound, who publicly disapproved of such pedestrian antics, privately admitted that he “could see what Joyce was getting at.”

Friends and acquaintances seemed comfortable with the intellectual back-and-forth, but balked when things got physical, as on the night Ezra Pound and Ford Madox Ford suggested chicken fights. There was a lovely fountain just off the Boulevard St. Germain with a small wading pool and before anyone knew what was happening, everyone had rolled up their pants and was getting into the water.  Joyce immediately jumped on Ford’s back and Pound jumped on Stein, while Alice Toklas held Stein’s purse.  Ford was a large, powerful man, and Joyce was very light, and together they easily outmaneuvered the confused duo of Stein and Pound.  Pound was quick to buckle in situations of pressure and this time he snapped immediately, windmill-beating Stein about the head and blocking her vision, so that for most of the contest they only circled around inanely, while Joyce and Ford snuck up from behind and took potshots.  Frightened onlookers decided to call it a draw before things got too out of hand, although it was nearly dawn before anyone could peel the shaken Pound from Stein’s back.

Most people hoped this ugly episode would soon be forgotten, but Stein couldn’t seem to get it out of her mind.   How out of shape she was!  It seemed only yesterday she’d been a young girl turning cartwheels outside her parent’s home in Pennsylvania… Where had the years gone?  For nearly a month afterward she moped around the apartment at 21 rue de fleurus, bemoaning her poor performance. Then one morning at the crack of dawn, she showed up in the doorway of Hemingway’s favorite gym, demanding a fresh towel and some talcum powder.  People who remember her that day say she had on a large hooded sweatshirt that, in concert with her short hair, gave the austere yet somehow comical impression of a Capuchin monk.  But before any of the regulars in the gym could issue a wisecrack, Stein was leaping around the room like a wild animal — jumping rope, working the heavy bag — there seemed to be no end to her energy, and by the time Ernest Hemingway strolled in she was a mere blur on the pommel horse, executing leg-cuts with an intensity unheard of in French literary circles.

The change of heart was dramatic.  For several hours she kept up the punishing pace, and in the afternoon she stepped into the ring with Hemingway and his young wife, Hadley. The three of them sparred vigorously for several rounds, although at one point a stinging hook by Stein opened up an old wound between the Hemingways, and they left in a huff.

Although Stein continued to work out like this for several weeks, she eventually came to feel dissatisfied. She complained that the gym was much too enclosed — it had a roof and four walls — and the people there were forever perspiring.  She longed to find a freer means of physical expression — something that, like her writing, was liberated from the old-fashioned constraints of meter and rhyme. Then one bright January day while she was walking along the frozen Seine with Alice and their little dog — the one who would later bite Hemingway — she observed a pair of skaters gliding effortlessly over the ice and before Alice could stop her Stein had rented a pair of skates and was staggering across the river like a blindfolded sailor with two peg-legs.

In the weeks that followed, Stein skated up a storm.  She confessed to a sense of freedom and happiness unlike anything she had ever experienced.  Alice bragged that Stein had taken to the ice like a duck to water, although Stein was quick to point out that ice was merely frozen water, and that alas, Alice’s well-intentioned analogy had made her out to be a frozen duck!  But she was enjoying herself immensely, and that was the main thing.   Joyce bitterly scoffed at the whole affair, saying, “If only that monstrous nose of hers resembled a carrot more, she might make a plausible snowman, eh?”  But Stein was unstoppable now, and on the ice she was pure Stein — terse, intelligent, and devoted to the Cubist movement.

For the remainder of the winter Stein wore her skates everywhere.  She refused to go out of doors with regular shoes, arguing that it would weaken her ankles.   Alice could often be seen nervously ushering Stein through the busy snow-covered streets, steadying her now and again where there were difficult curbs to negotiate.  The effect of this on the Parisian literary world was incalculable.  Wherever one looked one saw aspiring poets and writers skating about the city — one could hardly consider oneself a proper Bohemian without a decent pair of figure skates.

Stein once persuaded Picasso and Cezanne into crouching on the ice while she leapt over them.   She was always involving others in her antics, whereas Joyce was something of a lone wolf, and he would often skulk around on the shore secretly observing her with a periscope.  Stein liked the idea of leaping over Picasso and Cezanne so much that she made a regular habit out of it, sometimes recruiting lesser-known painters whom she thought possessed talent.  The idea snow-balled, and in time Stein boasted plans to leap a dozen modernists.  Joyce was convinced such a feat was impossible, and he argued his point eloquently in a well-received monograph entitled, “On the Gravitational Limits of Some Planetary Bodies, Ahem,” which appeared in a special pop-up issue of the Transatlantic Review.

On the appointed day, a large crowd had turned out for the event, and it was said that if Stein made the leap it would better her previous mark by three Cubists.   When the time came and the twelve modernists had assembled themselves on the ice, Alice fired the signal shot to start Stein, but the ice was slick that day, and the recoil from the weapon propelled her speedily away from the action.  The crowd held its breath, and Stein leapt, easily clearing her mark.  But her robust figure was too much for the thawing March ice, and when she landed it gave way under her with a loud pop.  Immediately all twelve modernists were on their feet ooh-ing and ah-ing over her predicament.  Presently Cezanne scooted off to fetch a length of rope, while Magritte pirouetted in the direction of a gendarme, but in the end it took Juan Gris and a human chain of eight minor poets nearly three-quarters of an hour to fish her out.

Toward the end of their lives, most of their time together was reduced to chance encounters on the street, and here, due to Joyce’s failing eyesight, Stein had the advantage.   At first she avoided him by standing still until he passed, but as time went on she grew bolder, and once, by cleverly disguising her voice she wheedled him into subscribing to a defunct quarterly.

The two were last seen together in 1939, only a few weeks before the publication of Joyce’s masterwork Finnegan’s Wake.   Stein had been walking along, the street, whistling in that giddy, girlish way she had, when she saw Joyce walking toward her on the sidewalk.   For some reason she was in an especially playful mood that day and, knowing Joyce loathed cats, she got down on all fours and watched him approaching. Just as he was upon her, though, it occurred to Stein that Sherwood Anderson was the one with the aversion to cats, not Joyce.   But now it was too late, and she would have to go through with it.   Passersby began to take notice of the situation.   “Isn’t that Gertrude Stein?” one asked. “Why, yes. I’m sure it is!” another answered, “And isn’t that gentleman with her James Joyce?”   A crowd formed.

“Here, kitty, kitty,” Joyce was saying, “that’s a good kitty,” as the burly author of Three Lives arched her back and meowed.