Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

"I am a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs and I have to do them all at once and I found it difficult to add being a pretty good author. About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography.  You know what I am going to do.  I am going to write it for you.  I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe.  And she has and this is it."
~Gertrude Stein

It takes a certain kind of person to write someone's autobiography for them, & to have the autobiography subject make statements about the author such as "I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius...Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, & Alfred Whitehead."

For those of you who don't know, Alice Babette Toklas was the longtime companion of Gertrude Stein, in whose salon germinated the talents of Hemingway, Picasso, & most of the Lost Generation (when they were on speaking terms). Alice was "a background figure" at 27 Rue de Fleurus; Gertrude talked to the artists, & Alice entertained the wives. After the death of Stein, whom Toklas outlived by twenty years, Toklas actually published her own memoirs, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook & What Is Remembered, which I hope have a little more Alice & a little less Gertrude in them.  Stein & Toklas are buried side by side at Père Lachaise Cemetery, with Toklas' name engraved on the back of Stein's headstone.

The autobiography Stein created for Toklas, while a bit Stein heavy ("so Gertrude Stein says", "Gertrude Stein was at that time writing", "Gertrude Stein liked country-house visiting less than I did"), is a wonderful history of the era. The chapters range from "Before I Came to Paris" & "1907-1914" to "The War" & "After the War - 1919-1932".  The book seems a faithful description of the famous salon, even to a record of quarrels & falling-outs; everyone who was anyone in those years gets a mention, from artists to writers & then some. During the war, Stein & Toklas did their part for the war effort, & after, they traveled to Mallorca & other locales, though always returning to France.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a deceptively simple book. Gertrude Stein employs a simple & direct sentence structure for the most part, almost flat, the written equivalent of a monotone.  Still, having adopted this voice for Alice, Gertrude can't resist throwing in the occasional wordplay: "...The wives of geniuses I have sat with. I have sat with so many. I have sat with wives who were not wives, of geniuses who were real geniuses.  I have sat with real wives of geniuses who were not really geniuses.  I have sat with wives of geniuses, of near geniuses, of would be geniuses, in short I have sat very often & very long with many wives and wives of many geniuses." & a rose is a rose is a rose.

You may learn more about Gertrude Stein than about Alice B. Toklas in this autobiography, but it will not fail to entertain anyone interested in the period of Paris' Luminous Years.

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