Barbara Will

 

On her book Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ, and the Vichy Dilemma

Cover Interview of October 24, 2011

A close-up

The intense, warm, almost passionate friendship of Gertrude Stein and Bernard Faÿ can be seen in a couple of exchanges during the 1930s.  This is a letter Stein wrote to Faÿ in 1933 after hearing him lecture:

“My dear Bernard,

When I got home just a little tired I realized fully how moved and passionately interested I had been.  It was an extraordinary experience.  I was living in you and living in the thing and for once in my life almost not living in myself.  A strange and very moving xperience and giving me quite a new point of view toward life…contact with your mind is comforting and stimulating, and nothing is more deeply satisfying to me than that.  We do mean a great deal to each other.

Always, Gtde”

The style here is more than a little reminiscent of sentimental Victorian exchanges between female friends, a genre that Stein herself experimented with in her early lesbian novella Q.E.D.  In her letter to Faÿ, Stein, like a lover, presents herself as a supplicant and pupil to her beloved: it is Faÿ who gives Stein “a new point of view toward life” much like the protagonist toward her lover in Q.E.D.

This dynamic, I argue, also lies at the heart of Stein and Faÿ’s mutual and mutually-reinforcing attraction to reactionary politics.  According to James Laughlin, a friend of Stein and Faÿ, the two old friends enjoyed conversing with one another and conversation often veered toward politics:

“An exchange I heard one night troubled me…They got on the subject of Hitler, speaking of him as a great man, one perhaps to be compared with Napoleon.  I was stunned.  Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was well publicized in France by that time, and Miss Stein was a jew.  Faÿ, in his turn, had nearly gotten himself killed fighting the Germans in World War I.  I couldn’t forget that strange exchange.”

For Laughlin, it was strange, disconcerting, and altogether unlikely to hear the two friends talk of Hitler’s greatness.  But for Stein, at least, conversing with Bernard Faÿ could be a seductive and liberating thing.  In a letter from the early 1930s, she writes perhaps her most significant sentence about their friendship: “and of course I see politics but from one angle which is yours.”