The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an engaging and somewhat strange book. It is, actually, the autobiography of Gertrude Stein, but written from the perspective of her partner/lover/wife*, Alice Toklas, as if it is her autobiography. Even though it isn’t, because it’s about Stein rather than about her.
I’ll be honest, the above paragraph makes it sound more complicated than it is.
Gertrude Stein, if you don’t know who she is, was an influential art collector, writer and socialite (that’s probably the wrong word), who lived in Paris throughout much of the first half of the 20th century. Essentially, she was friends with everyone of any cultural-artistic importance. Recurring characters in this book (and her life) include Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Sylvia Beach, Edith Sitwell, Ford Madox Ford, Jean Cocteau… And characters who turn up and are mentioned once include James Joyce, Paul Bowles, F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others who, I’m sure, would have been equally as name-droppable when the book was published.
Stein writes in a loose stream-of-conscious style, though this book is famously meant to be her “accessible” one. Punctuation is relaxed and meaning sometimes shifts mid-paragraph, but the way this is done is almost always subtle. There are paragraphs and normal-length sentences, though no page breaks other than every 60 pages or so. But that’s fine. I have a straight-edged bookmark. There is a certain terseness to the writing too, and though this was written after Hemingway had made a name for himself, the fact that Stein assisted him with the development of his style is believable.
The book is a series of anecdotes, of stories. Not just bragging about Stein and Toklas’ “salon” at 27 Rue de Fleurus, but a lot about their travels through Europe, about the growth of Stein’s reputation, about the personal relationships of their friends (particularly Picasso), about life in France during the First World War, about technological developments and about the publishing industry and the political climate at the time. And, of course, the growth of the art market and the rise within it of the artists championed and collected by Stein.
One thing that isn’t addressed, in fact is conspicuous by its absence, is discussion of money. Other than needing some urgent wire-finds whilst trapped in England when Germany and France declare war, Stein and Toklas never have to worry about funds. They are always there. The house, the servants, the art, the food, the self-published of books, everything is paid for with no explanation. And Stein doesn’t acknowledge this, doesn’t comment on this, it is very much accepted as normal. Which is always a little disappointing to see.
The other strange thing is the use of Toklas’ voice. Toklas lavishes praise on Stein throughout, which I suppose makes sense because some people do feel pride in their partner’s achievements, but one must then remember that it is Stein who’s actually writing the book. Toklas isn’t praising Stein, Stein is praising herself and her work over and over again. There is something posturing about it, I felt. “If I pretend to be my wife, I can say whatever I like about my importance to the worlds of Art and letters.” Only she isn’t pretending to be her wife – Stein’s name has been attached to every edition and she even admits this on the last page. This is Stein on Stein through a loose and non-hidden veil. And Stein is very, very complimentary.
HOWEVER, this note of arrogance shouldn’t be allowed to diminish anyone’s enthusiasm for reading the book, because The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an excellent, gentle Modernist piece exploring an interesting part of recent cultural history. Stein’s salon is famous, and here it is captured with much more warmth than in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, here people are friends and names, rather than just the latter.
For anyone interested in literary Paris, I’d highly recommend it. For anyone interested in high-concept weird autobiography**, I’d recommend it too.
A solid read.
* In calling her a “wife”, am I being heteronormative or liberal???
** Tbh, I think, of everyone I know, that’s just me…
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