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The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Gertrude Stein
Published by Modern Library in 1993

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2003


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Gertrude Stein ends this book by explaining how she came to write it using the voice of Alice to tell her own story. She had been dropping hints that Alice should write an autobiography of her life, perhaps calling it Wives of Geniuses I have Met or some such. Finally Alice told her she was already keeping the house, the dogs, the garden, doing secretary and editing work, doing them all at once, and couldn't add being an author. In the final paragraph of the book, Stein writes, using Alice's voice:

[page 342] 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.

Daniel Defoe began Robinson Crusoe thus, "I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull."

Gertrude Stein begins this book thus, "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."

With this simple idea, she went on to write this best-selling book, and closed it by crediting the author who inspired the approach she took to the book. The big difference is that Robinson Crusoe was a fictional person and both Alice and Gertrude were real. But they spent so much of their time together that Alice could easily have had access to all the details of Gertrude's life that she is supposed to be writing of, and Gertrude to the intimate thoughts that Alice is supposed to be sharing with the reader. So the book is a paradox: an autobiography that is not written by the author - it is the type of play on ideas and words that so delights Gertrude Stein and endears her writing to me. I had only read her book How to Write before this one, which is full of more contorted sentences than the one that appears on page 55 of this book, "Sentences not only words but sentences and always sentences have been Gertrude Stein's life long passion." I was delighted to find a more conventional form of writing in this book, thanks perhaps to her writing it in Alice's voice. That use of voice also permitted Stein to have Alice say that she had only met three geniuses in her life, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead. That would be like Robinson Crusoe naming Daniel Defoe as a great novelist.

Attempting to list the great names that appear in this book would be like trying to replicate a Who's Who in Art and Literature in the First Quarter of the 20th Century: Picasso, Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Henri Matisse, Juan Gris, Seurat, Auden, Ezra Pond, Guillaume Appollinaire, Rousseau, William James, Henry James, Jean Cocteau, Eric Satie, Cézanne, and many more. Most of them came to sit and talk with Gertrude Stein in Paris where she lived most of her adult life.

Reading the book is like an Easter egg hunt, where on any one page some delightful anecdote like this one might pop into view:

[page 106] William James delighted her. His personality and his teaching and his way of amusing himself with himself and his students all pleased her. Keep your mind open, he used to say, and when some one objected, but Professor James, this that I say, is true. Yes, said James, it is abjectly true.

She studied with William James at Harvard, and came to greatly admire his brother Henry later in her life, calling him "the only nineteenth century writer who being an american felt the method of the twentieth century." One wonders at the close of the twentieth century who might be the writers today who being an American feel the method of the twenty-first century. [Note: in Stein's writing, country names are capitalized, but used as adjectives they were not: e.g., Greece, but greek. My spell checker wants me to capitalize it Greek.]

With so many friends that were beginning painters, Gertrude managed to collect at least one painting from each of them. One night she held a large dinner for all the painters and had them seated at the dinner table so that each one was facing his own painting that was hung on the wall. None of them noticed, she said, but they were all very happy that night. Well, Matisse looked back into the room as he made ready to leave and noticed what she had done. These were the early days of their painting and none of these now famous painters were well-known. She tells how Seurat, famous pointillist, had to hang his pictures in an exhibition room where the rain rained in. Because of this Seurat caught his fatal cold. [Note: this means the artist who is known for painting in tiny drops of color was killed by an excess of tiny drops of water.]

Someone commented to her about an exhibition that the Picassos were rather awful and the others were not.

[page 30] Sure, she said, as Pablo once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don't have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it.

This is one of the best descriptions of what happens when a true artist X comes along who destroys the sameness of kitsch in his field and liberates exciting possibilities. Soon Y, an imitator of X's avant garde style comes along, and people will say, "Oh, don't you think that Y is even better than X?" First art is apt to be ugly, cluttered by the destruction of the old form and the remnants of the scaffolding of the new form. Perhaps this is why:

[page 69] In those days she never asked any one what they thought of her work, but were they interested enough to read it. Now she says if they can bring themselves to read it they will be interested.

As a child she lived in France and Germany until the age of four and learned to speak both languages, "but she had never read until she read english" - as a result she always read and wrote in English, even though she was living in France and speaking French daily. Someone asked her if she never read French:

[page 94] No, she replied, you see I feel with my eyes and it does not make any difference to me what language I hear, I don't hear a language, I hear tones of voice and rhythms, but with my eyes I see words and sentences and there is for me only one language and that is english.

And there have been few finer writers in English in this century. A case can be made that she taught Hemingway how to write, as well as other young writers.

[page 103] Once when Hemingway wrote in one of his stories that Gertrude Stein always knew what was good in a Cézanne, she looked at him and said, Hemingway, remarks are not literature.

Gertrude Stein went all the way through the study of medicine and found it dreadfully boring, but in spite of not knowing the answers to simple questions that every medical student knew, the professors, aware of her reputation for scientific work, thought she didn't consider the question worth answering. The result was that, in spite of her meager achievements, but for one professor who flunked her in his course, she would have become a medical doctor. She thanked him for saving her from possibly studying pathological psychology, because as Alice's voice tells us:

[page 112] She always says she dislikes the abnormal, it is so obvious. She says the normal is so much more simply complicated and interesting.

Gertrude loved her painters, and said about young painters that the adventure is before everyone knows they are good.

[page 119] And adds Picasso with a sigh, even after everybody knows they are good not any more people really like them than they did when only the few knew they were good.

Alice and Gertrude spent many hours in various locations in France proofreading Stein's manuscripts, a daunting task when French copywriters are producing the galley's and some of Stein's sentences ran over several pages. It was very easy for a whole line of the sentence to be left out. Here's what Alice said about proofreading.

[page 153] I always say that you cannot tell what a picture really is or what an object really is until you dust it every day and you cannot tell what a book is until you type it or proof-read it.

On her radical punctuation almost completely bereft of commas, Alice's voice said:

[page 179] Gertrude Stein said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise 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.

During the war Alice and Gertrude made themselves useful by traveling all over France delivering soldiers and clothes and whatever other kind of help was required. In choosing a name for the small Ford truck that was to carry a Red Cross emblem on its side as they drove through the war-torn countryside, they showed an astuteness of naming that I admire, having learned through experience that the name one gives, even to inanimate objects, affects their performance.

[page 233-234] Our little ford was almost ready. She was later to be called Aunty after Gertrude Stein's aunt Pauline who always behaved admirably in emergencies and behaved fairly well most times if she was properly flattered.

Gertrude Stein understood art at a depth that few other people in the first quarter of the twentieth century did, and perhaps since. If you doubt this, read what she says on camouflage.

[page 254-255] Another thing that interested us enormously was how different the camouflage of the french looked from the camouflage of the germans, and then once we came across some very neat camouflage and it was american. The idea was the same but as after all it was different nationalities who did it the difference was inevitable. The colour schemes were different, the way of placing them was different, it made plain the whole theory of art and its inevitability.

Her salubrious advice that pushed Hemingway from his newspaper job into a full-time career as a writer is given here in her own words.

[page 289] If you keep on doing newspaper work you will never see things, you will only see words and that will not do, that is of course if you intend to be a writer.

For herself Gertrude Stein could never get enough glory.

[page 319] After all, as she always contends, no artist needs criticism, he only needs appreciation. If he needs criticism, he is no artist.

She never wrote for critics nor did she pay much attention to them. She said that the critics that panned her writing, who called it appalling, usually quoted it and quoted it exactly. The writers these same critics said they liked, they never quoted. One comes to understand that Gertrude Stein was both a writer and a true artist, intent on destroying the sameness, the kitsch, of what passed for English writing, up until her time. As a writer her style was as strange and fresh to the reader's ear as the cubists paintings were to the viewer's eye. There was a blocking an overlap of words a run-on of sentences without markers for when to breath and the reader was left abandoned to learn the meaning that could be found within was both new and strange and breathlessly interesting. Did Gertrude Stein write for her critics? I think not, just as Picasso didn't paint for his critics. As she puts it:

[page 94] I write for myself and strangers.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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