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.