Friday 4 April 2014

Blood on the Dining-Room Floor by Gertrude Stein

If Swallows and Amazons is a great book to be reading while the brain is a bit confuzzled, then Blood on the Dining-Room Floor (1948) probably isn't.  But it came to mind the other day when Dorothy Richardson was mentioned - simply because I'd mixed up who wrote it - but by then I'd pulled it off the shelf, and the fab Picasso cover, combined with the book's brevity, meant I thought I'd give it a whirl.

Every great writer has, I imagine, been called a fraud - and many frauds have been called great writers.  Which is Gertrude Stein?  I haven't read anything else by her, and the introduction to this edition more or less says that Blood on the Dining-Room Floor wasn't a success, but I spent the whole time thinking 'Emperor's New Clothes'.  But then I thought... there are plenty of people who say that about Virginia Woolf's fiction, which I think is sublimely brilliant - so it's just as likely that this novella is brilliant and I simply don't get it.  Here's a sample sentence:
A little come they which they can they will they can be married to a man, a young enough man an old man and a young enough man.
Well, sure, Gertrude, why not?  Not all the novella is that obfuscatory, but it's also far from unique in the narrative.  In theory, I'm not anti experimental writing - but as I get further and further from my undergraduate days, my tolerance for unconventional grammar and deliberately cloaked meaning gets lower and lower.

And what's it about?  Well, the writer of the blurb optimistically calls Blood on the Dining-Room Floor a detective novel, but since it's more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor (a more prominent death in the book is the maybe-sleepwalker who fell out a window), then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.

An interesting experiment to read, and it's always possible that my cold-ridden delirium played its part, but... I can't call myself a Stein fan as of yet.  Anybody read this, or any of Stein's more famous work?  Could I be yet persuaded?


  1. I *have* read this (review here: Stein is not an easy read - if you want something more straightforward try "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas". There's deconstruction and complete meaninglessness and I still haven't quite worked out where Stein falls. Because despite the seemingly obscure sentences I did get a little something out of this book. And you'll be reading along when suddenly it clicks in and bits make sense. I think the jury's still out here!

  2. Hello Simon! I hope your cold is better. I am impressed that you're still blogging while under the weather...

    I read 'Blood on the Dining Room Floor' about 100 years ago when I was young and keen and I loved it. But I loved anything experimental with a love that was entirely uncritical. I wonder what I would make of it now? For my second Stein has come rather a cropper. I was reading 'Three Lives' and the prose is much, much more readable than that, but for some reason - perhaps it's because my copy is actually stinky - I put it down and never picked it up again and I don't feel like starting from the beginning again. I mean it was good and I appreciated what she was doing but I just lost enthusiasm. But it was during a bad reading time anyway...

    So I am thinking of having a stab at Alice B. Toklas, that's the one most people have read, isn't it? And maybe you could read 'Three Lives' for me, heh heh!

  3. My first thought when reading the sample sentence was, "life is too short!" :)

  4. I'm with Susan on this one, I'm afraid. Prose like that just makes me weary. I admire Gertrude Stein enormously as a patron of the arts and dynamic kicker-of-butts of other literary geniuses (and a lot of that has to do with the way she is portrayed in "Midnight in Paris") but I just can't seem to summon up any interest in her as a writer. Interesting to read about her on your blog, however - and so kind of you to do all the hard work for us :)

  5. I can cope with experimental books as long as they are readable, so you lost me with this one!

  6. I don't think Gertrude Stein is for me either, at least not for the moment.

  7. I read this six years ago - - and rather liked it. It pleased me that it was based on real blood on Gertrude's floor.


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