Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas

Gertrude Stein is a genius. She tells us so herself, almost from the opening page: “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.” I suppose, by way of excusing her immodesty, Stein can claim that it is in fact Alice B. Toklas, her lover and life partner, cook and secretary, whose opinion she is sharing with us, but this “autobiography” is no such thing; it is a memoir, really, told from the perspective of Alice Toklas through the writing of Gertrude Stein. Evidently, it was intended only as an amusement, a way to pass the time and recall old friends and amusements, but given that Stein and Toklas lived in Paris in the early 20th century – through two World Wars – and their salon was the de facto meeting room for poets, painters and artists of all stripes, from Matisse and Picasso to Hemingway, Pound and Fitzgerald, their memories offer readers an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of some of the 20th century’s most accomplished artisans. The wider world recognized this, and made The Autobiography Of Alice B. Toklas an instant bestseller, Stein’s greatest commercial success.

The book reads like a journal, written in chronological order, of the experiences of Alice B. Toklas in Paris; the style is conversational, with a minimum of punctuation, and shot through with anecdotes and character judgments. Though Toklas is the “I” of the memoir, her thoughts and opinions take a decisive backseat to those of Gertrude Stein. “I like a view,” Toklas tells us early on, “but I like to sit with my back turned to it.” It’s easy to imagine Toklas as the silent but attentive spectator at a dinner table with Picasso and Stein and a handful of other artists dominating the talk, and therefore fitting that her autobiography should, in fact, be written by Stein. That makes passages such as the following, filled with praise for Stein, doubly amusing to the reader: “The young often when they have learnt all they can accuse her [Stein] of an inordinate amount of pride. She says yes of course. She knows that in english literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.” Prideful, certainly, but perhaps not inordinately so, at least when you consider Stein’s accomplishments, both as an artist and as an appreciator of art. Long before Picasso was known to the world, Stein was accumulating his paintings and drawings, certain of his genius. It was a running joke among their friends and acquaintances, how often Stein would have to re-arrange the paintings on the walls of her infamous salon, to accommodate her latest purchase, and her art collection – had it been kept together, and not divided by her squabbling family after her death (it was willed to Toklas, but her greedy relatives successfully challenged the will) – would today be priceless.

Outside of Toklas and Stein, the figure who looms largest in these pages is Pablo Picasso, who evidently held Stein in very high regard, and maintained a close but tumultuous friendship with her throughout her life. The two are forever in conversation about art and aesthetics, and Stein demonstrates her loyalty to him, on numerous occasions, by discreetly defusing tensions between him and his latest female companion. The insights into their friendship are one of the greatest delights of this book:

She [Stein] understands very well the basis of creation and therefore her advice and criticism is invaluable to all her friends. How often have I heard Picasso say to her when she has said something about a picture of his and then illustrated by something she was trying to do, racontez-moi cela. In other words tell me about it. These two even to-day have long solitary conversations. They sit in two little low chairs up in his apartment studio, knee to knee and Picasso says, expliquez-moi cela. And they explain to each other. They talk about everything, about pictures, about dogs, about death, about unhappiness. Because Picasso is a spaniard and life is tragic and bitter and unhappy. Gertrude Stein often comes down to me and says, Pablo has been persuading me that I am as unhappy as he is. He insists that I am and with as much cause. But are you, I ask. Well I don’t think I look it, do I, and she laughs. He says, she says, that I don’t look it because I have more courage, but I don’t think I am, she says, no I don’t think I am.

The above passage fairly represents the rambling, relaxed style of the book, but there are moments of genuine poetry, too – moments that remind you of Stein’s powers as a writer. Here, for example, is an arresting description of their first sighting of a World War I battlefield:

Soon we came to the battle-fields and the lines of trenches of both sides. To any one who did not see it as it was then it is impossible to imagine it. It was not terrifying it was strange. We were used to ruined houses and even ruines towns but this was different. It was a landscape. And it belonged to no country.

“It was a landscape. And it belonged to no country.” Stein is said to have been hugely influential on Hemingway, and those quoted lines – two short, declarative sentences, with all the power of a gunshot – show why. “Sentences not only words but sentences and always sentences have been Gertrude Stein’s life long passion.” That’s Stein, via Toklas, giving us a kind of manifesto, and this book is an enduring proof of that same passion.