Friday, May 15, 2009

49. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein

History: a 1933 book by Gertrude Stein, written by Stein in the style of an autobiography by her lover, Alice B. Toklas.
Plot: Alice B. Toklas says she was born into an affluent family in San Francisco. Later she met Gertrude Stein's mother during the San Francisco fires, and finally decided to move to Paris in 1907. Alice talks about the important role of Helene, Gertrude's housemaid, in their household in Paris. She mentions the preparation of an art exhibition. She goes on to talk about Picasso and his mistress Fernande. The couple break up and Fernande moves to Montparnasse to teach French. Alice and Gertrude visit her there.
Alice tells of Gertrude and her brother Leo Stein buying paintings by Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse from Ambroise Vollard. They subsequently become friends with them. She then talks about the summer they spend in Fiesole while Picasso goes to Spain. Back in France, Gertrude falls out with Guillaume Apollinaire. Later, Picasso has an argument with Matisse. Alice tells how Gertrude Stein was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, then moved to Vienna, Passy, and finally New York City and California. She then went to college at Radcliff College, where she was taught by William James. She decided to do a Master's degree at Johns Hopkins University but dropped out because she was bored, then moved to London and was bored there too, returned to America, and eventually settled in Paris. Alice tells stories about Matisse, Apollinaire, and many other Cubist artists. She recounts their holidays in Italy and Spain. Finally, they move to England on the eve of the First World War to meet with Gertrude's editor, leaving Mildred Aldrich alone in Paris.
Gertrude and Alice are first in England, then go briefly to France to rescue Gertrude's writings. They then live in Spain for a while and eventually move back to France. There, they volunteer for the American Fund for the French Wounded by driving around France to help the wounded and homeless. By the end of the war, it seems Paris has changed.
Alice tells of Gertrude's argument with T. S. Eliot after he finds one of her writings inappropriate. She talks about her friendship with Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway - the latter helped with the publication of The Making of Americans. They then make friends with a coterie of Russian artists, but it is no real movement. Later, Gertrude gives a lecture at Oxford University. Alice then mentions more parties with artists. Later, they abridge The Making of Americans down to four hundred pages for commercial reasons, and eventually think of the idea of an autobiography.
Review: Written in a mere six week, Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an entertaining document. Written on behalf of Toklas (much as Defoe did for Robinson Crusoe, Stein suggests), the book is certainly as much about Stein as Toklas. While avoiding most mentions of true intimacy, Toklas is presented as a close and keen observer of Stein and her influence in Paris. Supremely self-assured, and convinced of her own genius Stein pulls off this neat feat of being center stage in an autobiography in which the first-person narrator (Alice B.) humbly defers to her. It is fun. Centered on the time that Stein spent in Paris, the autobiography does also fill in some of the details of Stein's youth (as well as a Toklas' origins). It provides a useful, if not entirely reliable, overview of Stein's life.
Once Toklas joins Stein in France the focus is very much on who Stein knows and what role she plays among the artists of the day. The name-dropping and gossip amuse, because these are big and important names and Stein does give us unexpected glimpses of them. However, there is not that much depth to her account -- well and breezily related, it still is little more than idle gossip. It gives an excellent picture of intellectual Europe (and specifically Paris) in the early 1900s, and the cast of characters -- from Picasso to Hemingway to regal Gertrude herself -- is hard to top. This book is essentially about Gertrude Stein, but told through her girlfriend’s eyes, but really through Stein’s eyes. I think that is genious. I also liked the nonfiction part of it, telling about Picasso, and Mattisse, and art shows back in Paris. I loved it.
Opening Line: “I was born in San Francisco, California.”
Closing Line: “And she has and this is it.”
Quotes: “Americans living in Europe before the war never really believed that there was going to be a war.”
Rating: Very Good

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