Barbara Will


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

Cover Interview of October 23, 2011


As a literary critic and an historian, I am interested in the way that authors and their works function within and against their times.  One of the striking aspects of the early twentieth-century period known as modernism—from Picasso to Pound, from Kandinsky to Stravinsky—is the self-conscious way in which writers and artists were against their age.  This lies behind the famous tension between “modernism” (artistic expression) and “modernity” (a socio-cultural historical moment). 

Yet for too long we have tended to assume that the stance of modernist resistance or rebellion is by definition progressive—adopted in the service of a future-oriented transformation of modernity.  Many modernist artists and writers did see their work as breaking through tradition or norms in order to arrive at something newer/better/as-yet-unrealized.  Yet just as many modernist artists and writers hoped that their work would bring back to life a world lost to the depredations of modernity.

My hope with this book is, first, to resituate Stein where I think she belongs—in the latter camp of reactionary modernism.  It simplifies her work and falsifies her life to misread both in the service of our own progressive agendas.  The dilemmas of her life, and the realities of her actions and convictions, require careful and objective understanding.

This also applies to our understanding of the man who was once known in France as “the unofficial ambassador to the New World,” Bernard Faÿ.  That this erudite, cosmopolitan, Americanophile could have turned into a Vichy regime functionary is surprising to this day.  Again, the case studies of both Stein and Faÿ test the limits of what we conventionally know and believe about this period in history.

Finally, I have written this book in order to contribute to our larger understanding of the affinities and disparities between modernism and fascism.