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The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)

by Gertrude Stein

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What an enjoyable book to read! I can't say that I was really that compelled by the gossip or the who's who, but the words just flowed like a river and carried me along in their current, and I felt like I could just sort of let the sentences and paragraphs roll into my brain and absorb the parts I liked, and not worry about retaining every ounce of the details. It's not my usual type of book, but for some reason it just hit the spot. ( )
1 vote lemontwist | Mar 12, 2014 |
Before I started reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I looked at reviews online. Many, many of them mention how conceited Stein is. They complain that she thinks herself a genius and that her writing is fantastic and groundbreaking and to the writing world what Picasso’s paintings are to the art world.

After reading the book, I would contend that she’s not nearly as much of a braggart as people say she is. The book itself is something of a joke, and throughout, she intersperses self-deprecating remarks with self-aggrandizing ones (which she often makes in an off-hand, tongue-in-cheek manner, anyway).

But even if she were outright conceited in calling herself a genius and placing herself at the forefront of twentieth-century literature, so what?

One thing that always irritated me about modernist authors—even the ones I loved from the beginning, like Hemingway—is that their writing is all so self-consciously genius. “Look at me!” they seem to scream from the page like my four-year-old when I’ve spent too long on the computer. “Look how clever I am!”

Hemingway does this. James Joyce does this. Pablo Picasso does this (I know he’s not an author, but he’s from the same time period, and he never shied away from proclaiming his own genius). But people don’t seem to complain so loudly about the fact that these fellows know they’re geniuses. And I have to think that’s because they’re fellows.

Stein’s writing bridges the gap between nineteenth-century and twentieth-century literature. She made it possible for the amazing writers who came after her—Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce—to be amazing writers and to have an audience for their amazing writing. She broke the ground, and she toiled for years and years with little recognition to do so. If she believes that she’s a genius, then what’s wrong with that?

The only thing I can see wrong with it is that she said it out loud and she said it unapologetically and she said it as a woman rather than as a man.

I really enjoyed The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. The first chapter was absolutely brilliant, and I laughed and nodded with understanding many times in just the scant three pages that make up that shortest chapter.

There’s the opening sentences, with which I could completely relate: “I was born in San Francisco, California. I have in consequence always preferred living in a temperate climate but it is difficult, on the continent of Europe or even in America, to find a temperate climate and live in it.”

Then there was the anecdote about Toklas’s father’s response when his son and a friend had gone horseback riding and one of the horses returned riderless. The mother of the friend became hysterical. “Be calm madam, said my father, perhaps it is my son who has been killed.” I laughed out loud at this and made my spouse listen while I read it to him so he could laugh out loud, too.

It is also in this chapter that Stein, through Toklas as narrator, first refers to herself as a genius. Toklas says that she has only met three “first class geniuses,” Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead. And while this seems a little egotistical on Stein’s part, Toklas throughout the book refers casually to the geniuses in their circle.

At times, it was a little tedious to read so much detail about the lives of all of the many, many friends Stein and Toklas had among the literary and artistic luminaries of their time, but the writing carried me through.

Punctuating these long, detailed passages were gems of writing. Stein clearly had an incredible gift for constructing phrases in which every word packs a punch.

Take a very simple passage: “The geniuses came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me.”

This passage does so much. It shows that Toklas actually believes that they were essentially surrounded by geniuses in Paris, and that there weren’t only three geniuses in the world. It shows that all of the geniuses that came to visit were men. It shows that Toklas does not consider herself one of the geniuses. It shows that she considers herself one of wives of geniuses, which is even more significant because she is the wife of the only female genius in the crowd.

And because it’s actually Stein writing this, it shows that Stein realizes just how marginalized her partner is in the crowds that filled their Paris home on Saturday nights. While the geniuses were crafting twentieth-century art, she was left talking about hats with the sidelined wives. The fact that Stein realizes this and indicates it in writing I find profoundly poignant.

The other thing that drew me through the story is the way the anecdotes are constructed. The chapter titles suggest a linear progression through time, but while the book follows a generally straight path from past to present, it meanders through time all the way through in the style of someone having a conversation, losing her thread, and then picking it back up again. Toklas as narrator will start talking about one subject, get sidetracked, and then pick up the subject again, using nearly identical words to pick up the subject again as she did to introduce it in the first place. There is a very pronounced example of this in Chapter 2, almost as though Stein is trying to get her readers used to the device, but she uses it throughout.

One example towards the end of the book: In Chapter 7, Stein writes about the way that Elliot Paul drifted into their lives and then drifted out again. She introduces the idea by writing, “…actually little by little he appeared and then as slowly he disappeared, and Eugene Jolas and Maria Jolas appeared.”

There follows an interlude in which Stein explains that American soldiers loved the book The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and about Elliot becoming editor of a Paris magazine, until four pages later she picks up the thread and essentially repeats the words she used to introduce the idea: “Elliot Paul slowly disappeared and Eugene and Maria Jolas appeared.” Now we know more about the history and the words mean something a little different now. With the repetition, they also take on a mantra-like quality that brings them even more meaning.

My favorite section was in Chapter 7 when Stein writes about post-war Paris and the young writers that came to visit them, including Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Stein has some very prescient things to say about both. Hemingway she describes as “fragile” and having “been worn by the war.” She suggests a more introspective approach for Hemingway. “But what a book…would be the real story of Hemingway, not those he writes but the confessions of the real Ernest Hemingway…one he should tell himself but alas he never will.” As someone who loves Hemingway’s writing and feels so strongly the tragedy of the inner torment that eventually ended his life, I find Stein’s assessment as haunting as it is loving. And this she wrote in 1932.

Of Fitzgerald, she writes (as Toklas, and so referring to herself, Stein, as “she”), “that it was this book [This Side of Paradise] that really created for the public the new generation…She thinks this equally true of The Great Gatsby. She thinks Fitzgerald will be read when many of his well-known contemporaries are forgotten.” This prediction is less dire but no less accurate than the one she made for Hemingway.

With all of the writing about how egotistical Stein was and this idea of her as a pull-no-punches hardass, I was surprised to find this image of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas as mother hens, both to young writers and artists and to young soldiers during the war. There are few examples of authors who have successfully melded the maternal with literary genius. We hear more about those who were unable to do so, like Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. Although a lot has changed in nearly a hundred years, a lot has also stayed the same; I find this portrait of balance very encouraging.

I began reading classics with a general idea that I would become a better, more rounded thinker, and that I would enhance my experience of reading modern literature by improving my understanding of the literature that came before. Reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I also began to recognize the potential for improving my writing and for—and this seems a little corny to write, but I’m going to do it anyway—creating for myself a community of great writers from among those whose classics I’m reading.

Reading about Stein and Toklas’s social circle and all of the move-and-shaker writers and artists in their midst, I felt jealous. I told my spouse that maybe we should think about starting a Saturday salon, inviting people to come to our home every Saturday night (or, knowing our habit of nodding off by 10pm, maybe Saturday afternoon) to discuss art, literature, politics, and other intellectual topics and just in general share a love of language and of placing disparate elements together and seeing the beauty in the result. My spouse was incredulous and suggested that central Massachusetts in the 2010s is pretty dissimilar from Paris in the 1910s. He has a good point.

But even if a Saturday salon isn’t practical, I can still hang out with Stein, Joyce, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald, as well as Dickens, Woolf, Kafka, Austen, Plath, Lewis, and St. Augustine any time I want to. Using the Internet, I can even invite writers, artists, and other thinkers from the present to join the conversation.

And I don’t have to make hors d’oeuvres or even change out of my pajamas. ( )
  ImperfectCJ | Feb 18, 2014 |
I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this one, but the name dropping and self promotion were to high of hurdles for me. Life is too short. I'm sorry I missed the book discussion on this one. I'd like to know what others thought. ( )
  njcur | Feb 13, 2014 |
Important stylistically and conceptually, but I think the problem is that this is the most accessible of Stein's books. Not fully "readable" but also not as experimental stylistically or structurally as her other books. This makes the book mediocre. ( )
  JWarren42 | Oct 10, 2013 |
This book put two songs in my head*.
Harpers Bizarre - I Love You Alice B. Toklas
Peter Sarstedt - Where Do You Go To My Lovely?** (mentions of the Boulevard Saint Michel)

It's also a reminder that avant-gardes using simplified, faux-naive writing styles (e.g. Tao Lin and alt-lit) are nothing new. I've said quite a few times this year that I don't enjoy these very basic styles, that I feel some writers under-describe - yet I did rather like the Autobiography. It's not a flat sort of basic, conveying depressed anomie, it's an account of interesting things (time spent with artists and writers; experiences of war work) written conversationally.

It was easy enough to read - the sentences were so simple that one can actually apply what Stein says: commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath. (A perverse agreement with the reader who edits in their own head.)
For a while I did also miss semi-colons, colons, brackets and dashes - which after all exist to be used, do they not? Yet after a while I stopped adding imagined punctuation. Except for the question marks; too many sentences needed to be read twice for lack of those.

And most importantly, the book is quite funny.
"...in the centre of the room stood a huge man glooming. This was Vollard cheerful. When he was really cheerless..."

And as it's more of a non-fiction subject, I didn't have the sense of something missing, because facts are conveyed perfectly well in their context. (It is a context of someone talking about people they know, so there isn't much in the way of biographical background. It's unusual to find a Penguin Modern Classics edition with no introduction or footnotes, but this lacks both. It would have been nice to have some notes, especially for the less well-known figures, without having to look them up online. A more casual alternative in keeping with the narrative tone would be to have a few bunches of pictures - of paintings and people - inserted every now and again as in biographies - with some further info as captions.)

And like non-fiction on some subjects, I found it unemotional in a relaxing way (not a failing-to-say-something-about-these-characters way). Something which tallies with Stein's intentions: "the destruction of associational emotion in poetry and prose" (p.228), "exactitude, austerity, absence of variety in light and shade" (p.57, quote from critic Marcel Brion).

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is famously not what it says on the tin, being mostly an account of Gertrude Stein's friendships with painters. Whilst I found it all quite interesting, it would be more so to someone who's a fan of cubism and so forth. Whilst it's obviously interesting as a development, unforunately I've always found it ugly, and if I'd been around at the time I would have been a right middlebrow stick-in-the-mud, preferring Art Deco and Nouveau to sideways blue and yellow cyclopes etc. It's very much a gut reaction which has never changed though I have tried: much cubist and surrealist art gives me a feeling of slight background nausea, headache, fear and sometimes annoyance. (Of the Matisse on the cover, all I like is the little line-portrait of the woman in the top left corner: very elegant.) I was quite delighted to hear snippets, though, about Apollinaire, Bertrand Russell, Jean Cocteau, Satie and Scott Fitzgerald.

What I most want to know is: what did Alice B. Toklas herself think about this book, later in life? Did she edit and amend it? Did she want to?(I admit to being knackered and to making no effort so far to find out, beyond Wikipedia.)... Your partner, a writer, urges you to write an autobiography. You don't get round to it as soon as they'd like so they do it for you - and, whilst they at least get the voice right, they make most of the book about themselves rather than trying to step into your shoes. Bloody cheek. From a more serious stance, it could be interpreted as quite controlling (I wonder if the reason you don't see this mooted is because both partners were women and readers are less likely to [want to] see it that way.) - but to see it as in some way a bad thing could equally be judgemental and a misunderstanding of the dynamics between the two. (I have been lucky to know a few people I consider to be geniuses or near-geniuses - like Alice I think it's something I can tell as soon as I meet a person - but have far too much ego of my own not to feel that the idea would be, secretly or openly, disgruntling.)

This curious project of the Autobiography is part of what makes Stein such a character, a real eccentric with her own unique melange of opinions agreeable and disagreeable, and apparently bulldozer-like confidence/ arrogance. (She even managed to maintain a friendship with Picasso on equal terms which was probably no mean feat; he has always sounded like an absolute arsehole.) When she dropped out of medical school because she was bored, friends pleaded with her to stay because of "the cause of women"; her reply was "you don't know what it is to be bored". She is criticised because of her exceptionalist / queen bee feminism - obviously I'm likely to agree with her to an extent having grown up in a similar tradition (one which can really be boiled down to intellectual snobbery). What Stein does is demonstrate a sense of freedom that disregards gender; feeling like an exception among one's own gender can be a stepping stone to a wider individualism applied to others: to ways that do not consider gender relevant in plenty of situations and to using gender less as a social categorisation for others - an ideal of equality which at least some strands of feminism have forgotten. The friends' collectivist viewpoint (similar to people who think women have more obligation to vote than do men, because of suffragettes) tries to place extra social burdens and duties on an individual woman to which a man would not be subject. Stein's approach seems to have been very successful for her. By considering herself without question to be worthy of the same respect as any man doing the same work, (and by being a forceful and single-minded individual generally), not feeling that respect was something she had to fight for because of being a woman, ("just getting on with it and not wasting time on all those meetings" as I remember hearing a relative put it re. second wave feminism) she achieved it.

Read 9-10 Sep 2013.

* Digression. I have not listened to any music at all since March (as in put on any myself - of course I've overheard radios and such) and hardly any since December. One odd consequence of this previously unconscionable musiclessness is that when I do get songs in my head they tend to stay far longer. I find they are either things I heard a lot in 2012 or else much longer ago from university or earlier - with quite a bit of overlap. One track that particularly plagues me for some reason is 'Runaround Sue', which - especially given its monotonous appearance at various times when I was in pain - I started to think of as my own equivalent to 'Brown Girl in the Ring' in Touching the Void.
** I found out last year via Goodreads that plenty of people apparently hate this record. I have to admit that I love it; it is possible to take the lyrics quite seriously like some beautiful daydream and equally to see it as satirically taking the piss out of same, both of which suit me perfectly at various times. Besides, it just has a lovely sound. ( )
  antonomasia | Sep 12, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 067972463X, Paperback)

Stein's most famous work; one of the richest and most irreverent biographies ever written.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:02:40 -0400)

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Through the eyes of Miss Toklas, Gertrude Stein reviews both of their lives before their meeting and during their years of companionship.

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