Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Sunday Book: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas - Gertrude Stein

This is an odd little book. Odd and lovely. It made up part of my holiday reading and it suited the scorching sun. The title, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, might lead you to suppose that is is an autobiography. It isn't. Well, it kind of is. It is Alice's autobiography in that it is her story in her supposed voice but it is written by Gertrude Stein and focuses predominantly on Alice and Stein's life together and Stein's life prior to their meeting. This sounds rather narcissistic on Stein's part but it doesn't come off like that, it feels sweet and loving and teasing. Stein thought that Alice should write an autobiography but Alice kept putting it off and putting it off and being busy so eventually Stein just wrote it for her. Alice B. Toklas, btw, was Gertrude Stein's more or less lifetime companion; they met in 1907, Alice moved into Stein's Paris flat in 1910 and the pair lived and traveled together until Stein's death in 1946. I'm assuming, and yes, I know I know, this can be dangerous and anachronistic, that they were lovers but the gentle loveliness of the book didn't encourage me to pry into the matter. This isn't a loud-mouthed, attention seeking, bare-all ghostwritten celebrity autobiography in the style of today (Debo's memoirs and others obviously excepted), it doesn't really discuss Stein and Toklas's personal life but rather focuses on their social life and their friends and the birth of modern art that they were at the heart of. 

If you are interested in art, literature or history I would suggest you pick up this book. That seems like a pretty wide sweep of people but Stein and Toklas lived in Europe through two world wars, driving French hospital supplies through WW1. They nurtured young unknown artists, buying the early works of Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir, Braque, Rousseau, Bonnard, Juan Gris... Picasso was a particularly close friend and painted Stein in 1906. They held friendly, open salons and exhibitions and dinners where the best and brightest gathered to debate the burning issues of the day. They lived in and loved early twentieth century Paris but they also traveled extensively around the French countryside, Italy, Spain and Majorca. They were friends with Ford Maddox Ford, Edith Sitwell and Hemingway and Stein's work had a huge impact on modernist literature. Embarrassingly I have never read any of her other work but she comes up again and again as an influence, a critic and a thinker.

Stein's reputation as an intellectual may feel off putting and I've heard that most of her other work is fairly heavy going but Alice B. Toklas is lovely to read. It takes a little while to get used to the author-imitating-lover-talking-about-author thing and the voice and manner of speaking is quite distinctive but you really get the sense that this is how Alice talks and communicates. After so many years together Stein must have known her verbal idiosyncrasies backwards and it comes through beautifully and Alice is someone you want in your life. Because this is life the book isn't plot heavy but the writing is a pleasure and it is ridiculously rich in characters and atmosphere. Delightful and delicious.

Chuck x


  1. This looks like a really interesting book - thanks for the introduction!

  2. This does look good! I've never read any of Stein's work, but her reputation suggests that I should!

  3. Sounds interesting but please review The Three Emperors next as another that has been on my wishlist for a looong time. x

  4. i love gertrude! & interesting write-up...i want to read it now.