"[W]hatever happens to the beasts,
soon happens to man."
-Chief Sealth


The turn of the last century saw an explosion in the arts. In Europe, the Cubist movement was steam-rolling ahead, smack dab into the middle of the Expressionists who in turn were feeling elbowed by Impressionists, with nascent Abstract, Dada and Existentialist movements chomping at their heels. Alongside art, literature too was being turned on its head. Writers were getting jiggy with poetry, replacing romantic pulp with stark realism. The world, connected by industry as it'd never been before, was having a palpable influence on artists everywhere - whether they set to creating through pen, brush or performance - and their work reflected it. It was a time that purposely sought to up-end convention, and for the bold, one of possible reward.

by William Faulkner
Dell Publishing, 1962
.50, 288 pp

Renowned for novels, short stories, screenplays, poetry, essays, and even a play, William Faulkner's a Nobel Prize laureate, Pulitzer Prize recipient (twice), and has three titles on the Modern Library's list of 100 best English-language novels of the 20th-century. Impressive, for sure. Unfortunately, Mosquitoes is not one of them.

Bohemian Rhapsody
Set in 1920s New Orleans, Faulkner paints a vibrant city abuzz with art and commerce. The rich are portrayed as artist wannabes - or more specifically, artist life-style wannabes - in pursuit of a Bohemian existence they know nothing about, and have far too much wealth to genuinely achieve. By rubbing elbows with the artists of the city, they create a sense of inclusion for themselves where none exists.

On the flip-side to the rich, Faulkner provides the starving artist. Penniless, and emasculated by his patrons, he is as lost in the world of wealthy New Orleans as the wealthy are in his.

The novel opens on Mr. Talliaferro, a slight, fastidious man, constantly over-thinking the one object of his obsession: sex. Faulkner describes him as ". . . often mus[ing] with regret on the degree of intimacy he might have established with his artistic acquaintances had he but acquired the habit of masturbation in his youth." In this instance, as he muses over masturbation, he is in the studio of his friend Gordon, a sculptor by trade, with a body hard as the marble from which he chisels. Mr. Talliaferro is there under the pretense of extending an invitation to Gordon from a certain Mrs. Maurier to join her and a handful of guests on her yacht for a four-day excursion. Mrs. Maurier is the epitome of the arts patron - an American-side-of-the-pond Gertrude Stein (without the talent for art or literature) - rich, persistent and bejeweled:

    She was under full sail and accompanied by [her niece] when she saw him, but she tacked at once and came about in a hushed swishing of silk and an expensive clashing of impediments - handbag and chains and beads. Her hand bloomed flatly through bracelets, ringed and manicured, and her hothouse face wore an expression of infantile trusting astonishment.
Ship of Fools
The hour of departure finds the deck of Mrs. Maurier's yacht festooned with guests in colorful garb. The guest-list, a hodge-podge of artists, writers, inventors and entrepreneurs, was hand-picked by Mrs. Maurier herself, each more clever to a man than the last. Whatever the topic of conversation, there was an expert (or experts) tripping over themselves to impress, abuzz like a swarm of mosquitoes. Pages of it. This was going to be a long cruise.

Just about the time as a reader you're pulling your hair out, the novel takes a turn at a side-story, a welcome respite from life onboard. Guests Jenny and Dave hook up and sneak ashore in a poorly conceived attempt to elope. What begins with excitement - like the yachting party - quickly deteriorates into a chore. The couple find themselves wandering a mosquito-infested swamp without the means to get themselves out, suffering in the hot sun. Are we intrigued? Do we care? Sort of, not really. So much for spontaneity.

Onboard the Nausikaa, the situation is deteriorating as well. The party is up to their ears in grapefruit, and the captain has lost steering, helpless to prevent the heaping hulk from grounding, and a sense of panic ensues. Unfortunately, with the grounding of the yacht, the plot gets hung up too, and we don't really care if the party - this ship of foolish trend-setters - ever gets buoyant again.

I'd like to say Mosquitoes redeems itself in its final pages. But no. Mrs. Maurier returns her guests safely back to the Latin Quarter to pursue their art, rubbing elbows, retreating to favorite watering holes, whatever. Nothing really changes for the characters. Ever. And maybe that was Faulkner's point. Life is only as fluid as you let it. No matter how much fuss you make over the machinations of society, whether recognizing class distinction or denying it, when it comes down to it, without action our clever ideas and smart talk amount to nothing more than a swarm of buzzing bugs.

On the flip-side to the rich, Faulkner provides the starving artist.

Penniless, and emasculated by his patrons, he is as lost in the

world of wealthy New Orleans as the wealthy are in his.

The story closes on our anti-hero, Mr. Talliaferro, who thinks he has finally figured out how to win a girl. Being kind hasn't worked, so in an Aha! moment he determines the man needs to admonish the girl, and put her in her place:
    The trick, the only trick, is to bully them, to dominate them from the start - never employ wiles and never allow them the opportunity to employ wiles. The oldest technique in the world: a club. By God, that's it.
On that note, we're pretty sure Mr. Talliaferro's never getting laid.

Everybody Who Was Anybody: A Biography of Gertrude Stein
by Janet Hobhouse
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1975
244 pp

By all accounts, Gertrude Stein was a force of nature. Born in 1874, she was fiercely American, reflected in her approach to life. Her America was the oldest country in the world. Having been first to enter the twentieth century with industrialization in the 1880s, made it so. As such, it was America's - and Gertrude's - birthright to press the concept of America on the rest of the world.

An American in Paris
The youngest child of successful German immigrants, Stein felt a sense of entitlement early on in life. She was barely a year old when her father dissolved his business partnership in Baltimore and moved the family to Vienna. By all accounts, the Stein children lived a life of privilege in Austria, with a full staff to address their every whim. On this time she reflects, "One should always be the youngest member of the family. It saves you a lot of bother, everybody takes care of you." This philosophy would serve her well throughout her life, eventually saving her skin in Nazi-occupied France.

Stein began collecting around 1897. She lived at the time with her brother Leo, and they discovered they shared the same passion for art, furniture and books. Trailblazers, they were drawn to the undiscovered and under-appreciated. Within twelve years, they had amassed one of the most impressive private collections in the world. It included, Picassos, Matisses, Gauguins, Renoirs and Cezannes. With each new piece the collection gained notice, and before long the Steins' reputation as collectors preceded them. And Gertrude's reputation as the Parisian art patron to see and be seen with was all but set in stone.

World War One changed everything. Stein, and her life-long companion Alice B. Toklas (of cookbook fame) happened to be in London at the onset of war. Facing uncertainty, they remained there until things were sorted out, specifically, until England answered Germany's aggression with their own declaration of war. Having never experienced war first-hand, Stein and Toklas naively returned to Paris. The cosmopolitan city they'd left just a few short weeks earlier had been transformed. Her friends who were eligible to serve in the French army, did; those eligible to serve under another's flag, did. Her German friends were exiled, their art confiscated, and a general watchfulness of one's words and actions fell over the city. Not the good time Stein and Toklas had in mind.

Farewell to Arms
Upon the conclusion of WWI, a sense of normalcy returned to Paris. It was a deceitful sense, though, as the war had turned the art world on its ear. The death of Cubism sent Picasso and his Cubist ilk scrambling for re-definition. Dadaism and Surrealism were on the rise, movements rooted in nihilistic tendencies, void of any sense of fraternal communality. Stein never fully embraced these trends, doubling down instead on literature, which was going through a transformative period of its own. She became an active patron of writers, particularly ex-pats who never found their way home after German bombs ceased to fall. Writers, scarred by the wiles of war, she would dub The Lost Generation, chief among them a young, insecure writer named Ernest Hemmingway.

Hobhouse has done an outstanding job covering the life of Gertrude Stein. Everybody Who Was Anybody covers the controversial patron/artist/author through her death in 1946. Thoroughly researched, with extensive footnotes and bibliography, you'll be disappointed if you crack it for entertainment. Hobhouse avoids sentimentality and sensationalism. As a researcher, she deals in the facts dealt her. Crack the book for that, and you'll not be disappointed in the story that unfolds of this American, twentieth century pioneer. Lots of full-color illustrations.

posted 01/20/20