[17 February 2014]
Gertrude Stein’s The World Is Round was a problematic book for many readers when it was originally published in 1939, and will doubtless remain difficult for many 75 years later. Stein’s take on the “children’s story” often seems built on an airy foundation of linguistic playfulness, with little in the way of traditional story elements such as plot. Sure, there are characters, especially protagonist Rose, but even she is characterized in ways that are markedly unusual. The looping, repetitive wordplay takes so much of the reader’s attention that there is little left for anything else, while the books bright pink paper and heavy blue font, provide distractions of their own.
Of course, whether any of this unapologetic iconoclasm will bother the book’s intended audience – children – is an open question. Without a doubt, The World Is Round is unique. Whether its uniqueness strikes the reader as delightful, or tiresome, will be a matter of personal taste. I have to admit, I found it to be a good deal of both.
HarperCollins’s 75th anniversary edition reproduces the unorthodox original version, right down to the pink paper and blue font, which were dropped from subsequent editions. It also adds a brief introduction from Thacher Hurd, son of illustrator Clement Hurd, whose whimsical line drawings are also reproduced here, and a much longer postscript by Edith Thacher Hurd, the artist’s widow (originally written in 1985). Hurd’s pictures add much to the lighthearted tone and dreamy quality of the story, while Edith’s postscript offers an interesting look into the publishing scene of the ‘30s that gave rise to this most unusual story.
Just how unusual is it? Well, there’s a girl named Rose, and her cousin named Willie. They think about things, and often their thoughts run in a circular, repetitive pattern: “Rose was her name and would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose. She used to think and then she used to think again. Would she have been Rose if her name had not been Rose and would she have been Rose if she had been a twin.” There is a lot of this.
There isn’t much of a narrative arc here, although there are events. Rose carries a blue chair up a mountain in order to place it at the top. Rose also has a dog named Love. Her cousin Willie has a lion, at least for a time, named Billie. There are other animals too, mainly elephants, and there is a great deal of musing about the color blue and the color pink. With such little actual incident taking place, there is much fixating on small details and meandering into linguistic side alleys.
All of this is accompanied by Stein’s there-and-back-again prose: “Her name is Rose and blue is her favorite color. But of course a lion is not blue. Rose knew that of course a lion is not blue but blue was her favorite color.” At one point, when Rose is lugging her blue chair up the mountainside, we are told that “she began to smile she was climbing all the while climbing not like on a stair but climbing a little higher everywhere and then she saw a lovely tree and she thought yes it is round but all around I am going to cut Rose is a Rose is a Rose and so it is there and not anywhere can I hear anything which will give me a scare.”
These extracts are unfair in a way, because it sounds as if they are being excerpted and taken out of context so that they sound silly. The fact is, the context from which they are taken is very much more of the same, and the extracts here don’t sound any sillier than the balance of the book. In other words, if these excerpts make you roll your eyes, then the book as a whole will likely do the same, only more so. On the other hand, if you enjoy the rhythms and playfulness of these passages, then step right up, because there are many, many more where they came from.
Rose’s story isn’t long – only 66 pages, broken into 34 chapters and fleshed out with copious illustrations – but it feels considerably longer because the prose is so dense and slow-moving. In her useful postscript, Edith Thacher Hurd quotes from the contemporary New York Times Book Review assessment of the book, which mentions in an offhand way that the book is “meant to be read aloud, a little at a time, and the adult who does so will find himself saying ‘I remember thinking like this’ and succumbing to the seductive quality of phrases…”
This is good advice, and it might even be true. In any case, thinking of Stein’s work in traditional storytelling terms is an exercise in futility. In short doses, Stein’s prose is whimsical and mellifluous, much more akin to poetry (or perhaps the oral tradition of storytelling) than conventional written prose, a similarity made all the stronger by the lack of commas. As I can attest from personal experience, trying to sit and plough through 20 or 30 pages of this book will leave the reader’s eyes glazed and head overstuffed with rhyme.
Love it or hate it – or both – readers will find Stein’s book to be one of a kind. Whether or not that’s a good thing, of course, is up to the individual. Readers with young but literate children are encouraged to drop a copy into the little ones’ hands, just to see what happens.