Over the past thirty years, there has been a growing attention to the figure and work of Gertrude Stein. While scholars are still coming [End Page 221] to terms with Stein’s experimental project, another question has surfaced, that of Stein’s politics during the Second World War. Stein survived the war as a Jewish lesbian American writer, living in a Vichy France that collaborated with Nazi Germany. She translated Philippe Pétain’s speeches into English and was presumably protected by her friend, the Americanist and French professor, Bernard Faÿ, who, as Antoine Compagnon has recently shown in Le Cas Bernard Faÿ, was in fact a collaborator and an SS agent. Barbara Will hones in on Stein’s “unlikely collaboration” with Faÿ and the Vichy regime: how is it that a writer whose oeuvre is generally seen to be experimental, open-ended, and at times unruly came to be involved with right-wing political reactionism?
More than a straightforward account of Stein’s and Faÿ’s unlikely collaboration, Will focuses on the likely dilemmas their friendship entailed. Through her thorough analysis of an enormous wealth of archival material, which is reflected in more than fifty pages of end-notes, Will refrains from either an apologetic or a condemning story, and instead explores the “grey zone” of Stein’s and Faÿ’s politics. Indeed, one of her central concerns, as she writes in the introduction, is to “determin[e] the level of commitment as well as differences of thought and action” between her two protagonists (xv). Nevertheless, Will leaves little doubt as to the question whether Stein was collaborating with Vichy: she was, and voluntarily so. As Will asserts, “Stein’s efforts to lend her support to Pétain were both heartfelt and dogged” (118); “she chose to commit her writing and her name to the service of the Vichy regime. She chose it out of conviction and out of hope” (145).
Contrary to what the title may suggest, Will’s work elegantly demonstrates that Stein’s collaboration with Faÿ and with Vichy was not entirely improbable. Stein and Faÿ proclaimed themselves geniuses, shared an interest in American history, and glorified the eighteenth-century pre-Revolutionary past. As Will perceptively argues, their “fascination with pre-Revolutionary America overlapped with—even inspired—a militant commitment to European fascism, both signifying a potent form of antimodern and anticapitalist reaction” (48). Moreover, it is not surprising that both authors, who had participated in the First World War, put their trust in Marshal Pétain, the hero of Verdun, who had brought victory to France and now aimed to safeguard the peace by collaborating with Germany. Pétain’s ideas of a traditional, rural life chimed with Stein’s emphasis on the routine of everyday living and her aversion to a capitalist system. According to Will, Stein’s translations of Pétain’s speeches were not meant to guarantee her safety during the Second World War, but were instead aimed to inspire change in an increasingly capitalist America. [End Page 222]
Unlikely Collaboration offers a well-structured, eminently readable, and detailed portrait of the Stein-Faÿ connection. The first part traces the interaction between Faÿ and Stein from the mid-twenties to the mid-thirties by discussing both authors in tandem, while the second part breaks up their close relation by means of alternate chapters on Stein and Faÿ, echoing the “downward curve” of their friendship (181). Interesting cases are being made regarding Stein’s ambiguous relation toward Judaism and Christianity, her submissiveness to an authoritarian regime signaled by her literal translations of the Pétain speeches, and the appeal of a heroic figure like Pétain to Stein’s inner child. However, Will’s well-argued account leaves little space for an extensive discussion of Stein’s aesthetics. Although Will claims to read Stein’s work “through the prism of her friendship with Bernard Faÿ,” her focus is more on the friendship than on Stein’s writings, resulting in a well-founded historical, rather than an aesthetic, account (xiv...