The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

I am a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs and I have to do them all at once and I found it difficult to add being a pretty good author.

About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you are 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.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by turns made me laugh out loud, marvel, gape and shake my head at the self-aggrandizing audacity of the entity that was Ms. Gertrude Stein. I am completely enamoured with the Narrator of this work. Be she the accurate conversational voice of Alice, Stein’s acerbic version of her life-long companion or Stein herself – I do not know for certain and I do not mind. Whoever she is is fabulous.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Piazza San Marco, Venice, circa 1908

Anyone who has a vague interest in the artistic world of bohemian Paris in the early 1900s should find something of interest or amusement in this work. Gertrude and Alice were intimates of Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse and Hemingway and here they are described in all their brilliance and banality.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1922. Photo, Man Ray.

And anyone concerned with memoir and the concerted creation of identity will have a field-day with this quasi-autobiography. Several scholars and biographers have tried to get to the so-called bottom of it – the ‘real’ story, the ‘authentic’ version of the life of Gertrude and Alice.

My favourite, Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives is a fascinating investigation of the couple as two elderly lesbian Jews in Nazi-occupied France. Certainly life was not always as exuberant and laissez-faire as those days at 27 Rue de Fleurus and, in light of certain sombre ‘facts’, people have accused The Autobiography of Alice B. as an airy facade.

I think that’s too simplistic. There is no singular, authentic self. It’s all True. It’s all valid. Why should others specify our limits? Why not decide and define who we are and decree to the world that it is so?  This is Stein – writing as Alice – describing herself, Gertrude:

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 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 have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began.

Seriously?! Who else could risk – and get away with – such claims? Why, no-one but a first class genius in all her larger than life, larger than biography identity.

Gertrude Stein, from The Smithsonian archive.


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