A review of Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

Tender Buttons
By Gertrude Stein 
Dover Publications, March 1998 
ISBN: 9780486298979

Originally published in 1914, Tender Buttons is one of Stein’s most radical and uncompromising works. It is set out in three sections, entitled respectively ‘Objects’, ‘Food’ and ‘Rooms’; and you will notice that the section titles refer to things and enclosures, but not people; nothing live or vital. The last section, ‘Rooms’, is an uninterrupted prose piece of some 10 pages; the other two sections consist of several short prose pieces, in essence pen portraits, that describe ‘A Red Stamp’ and ‘A Seltzer Bottle’ (to take two entries from ‘Objects’), ‘Eggs’ and ‘Cucumber’. They vary in length, these entries; some consist of a single sentence, while others are several paragraphs long. Just what are we to make of them?

I’ve always found the term ‘experimental literature’ to be unsatisfactory, since it begs so many questions. For a start, what hypothesis is being tested? Then again, how would you know that the experiment – if such it is – has been successful? Only if the hypothesis has been confirmed? Yet what if the experiment had done its job, by providing a rigorous trial?

Another approach to Stein’s work, and to Tender Buttons in particular, is to view it as an investigation into reality. She wants to jettison custom and habit here, in so far as that’s possible, to clear away the dust and perceive things (or Things, to go all Rilkean) as they are. To this end, she is attempting to use words in such a way that they better represent reality, or at any rate her vision of it, her emergent truth. If you were to say that Stein is engaged in a metaphysical enterprise, you wouldn’t be far wrong.

And because Stein wrote Tender Buttons primarily for herself, you feel sometimes when reading it as though you were gate-crashing on a private party.

Perhaps the best way to get a handle on the entries in the first two sections is to see them as portraits or still lifes; we know that Stein had an interest in art, and in particular Cubism; indeed, she did much to promote Picasso and Braque’s work. Viewed in this light, some are fiendishly apt. Here as a for instance is ‘Water Raining’:

Water astonishing and difficult altogether makes a meadow and a stroke.

There is also ‘Celery’, which hits the spot to my way of thinking:

Celery tastes tastes where in curled lashes and little bits and mostly in remains.

A green acre is so selfish and so pure and so enlivened.

Among the rest I especially love ‘Dirt and not Copper’, about colour or the most important ingredient in paint; ‘A Substance in a Cushion’, because simply as a choice of subject it indicates genius; ‘A White Hunter’, for its prudent qualification. As well, a number of others piqued my interest and took my fancy.

But they didn’t all work for me, some did not quite gel. In a sense, these short prose pieces are puzzles with no solutions provided. Some you can get or guess at, others leave you cold and perplexed. Reading them aloud helps, mind, since there’s a discernible rhythm and momentum to the writing.

More than anything, the last section, ‘Rooms’, represents a process of questioning and an attempt at comprehending the world.

Apparently Stein regarded Tender Buttons as not prose but poetry; and it is certainly highly rhetorical, a kind of Euphuism you could say, the longer pieces in particular make use of alliteration and assonance, rhyme and repetition (anaphora especially). You get the sense, as you often do in Ben Marcus’s writings for example, that words are being used with a different meaning to normal. Or perhaps that words are an inadequate means to fully grasp the real, or at any rate the quotidian minutiae of Stein’s existence.

This book is, of course, a milestone of modernist literature and every person should read and explore and puzzle over it at some point in their lives.

One wonders, after reading it, whether Gertrude Stein ever dunked biscuits in her tea before eating them. I expect she did, but secretly.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com