Book Review: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

First line: “I was born in San Francisco, California.”  Now, we don’t know
if that means that Alice B. Toklas was, or if the author, Gertrude Stein was.
(it was Alice)   That first line is just about the only information we get on
Alice!  The rest of the book is about Gertrude Stein!

I guess stranger things have happened, but generally speaking an
autobiography is written by the subject.  Still, with Gertrude doing the
writing, it gave her a good chance to toot her own horn.  She uses Alice to
proclaim that she (Gertrude) is a genius.  “Alice” says that in her life she
has known three geniuses:  Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and (you don’t
care about the other one.)

This book is a runaway lark of the goings-on at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris
from 1903 to 1932.  Name an artist from that time, name a poet, name a
writer, name almost anyone! and yes, that person came (and brought
friends!) at one time or another or often to 27 rue de Fleurus to visit
Gertrude and Alice.

G collected art–she and her brother actually–and she liked what she saw
when she looked at early examples of Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Gris,
Braque–fill in the blanks with a hundred other names.  And she accepted
visitors, provided the salon, served food and drink, made the introductions
and was a one-woman hostess with the mostess.

Gertrude was born in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, but moved to California
at an early age.  She went to school, then Radcliffe and three years of
med school at Johns Hopkins in the US, but spent almost her
entire life in France.  She couldn’t/didn’t want to speak or read French–
spoke only English.

In reading this book we get a pretty darned good review of the art stages
in the early 1900s—from Impressionism and Luminism to Fauvism,
Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and Art Deco.   We join starving artists waiting
for a break and toast the ones who make it into the big Paris exhibitions.

During this time, Stein was also finding her way as a writer.  She prided
herself on her writing style.  “Alice” says that ‘Sentences not only words
but sentences and always sentences have been Gertrude Stein’s lifelong
passion.”   Many critics found her writing difficult to follow or understand.
( Hey! she didn’t use commas!)   In Stein’s obituary in the New York
Times in 1946, reviewer Clifton Fadiman dismissed her work: “Miss Stein
is ‘the Mamma of Dada.'”

Let me quote a typical sentence from this very book on page 223:  “We
now in Bilignin are enjoying using the furniture from the house of
Brillat-Savarin which house belongs to the owner of this house.”
Occasionally you just have to drift over these examples.

I liked the part of the book describing Gertrude and Alice’s
volunteer work during World War II–driving around to hospitals
visiting wounded soldiers.  This part put some dimension in their
otherwise rather selfish lives.

The final fourth of the book became a little flat with similar
stories of who they met and where, etc, but overall it was an
interesting read.

I like the title of one of Stein’s poems: “Before the Flowers of
Friendship Faded Friendship Faded”.  I’ll have to look that one up.
And I plan to read my Christmas gift copy of Tender Buttons by
Gertrude very soon.  About things.  We’ll see.

So, anyway, if you feel like hobnobbing with Apollonaire, and Gauguin,
Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, give this book a whirl.

You can hardly go wrong reading about Paris.

the autobiography of alice b toklas 003


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8 Responses to Book Review: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

  1. bandanalover says:

    tempted to go to Paris and walk by the salon

  2. FictionFan says:

    Welcome to your new home! (Can’t find a follow button, though…)

    I loved the sample sentence – it took three reads before I understood what she was saying. But then, I love commas… 😉

    • booksandbuttons says:

      I’m working on that follow button. Very stressing to move!
      p.s. I’m fond of a comma, too! Thanks for keeping in touch.

  3. Stefanie says:

    Isn’t the book a hoot? I read it long ago but remember enjoying it very much.

  4. L. Paris says:

    These comments are not for all, but for those preferring intellectual and artistic value in their reading entertainment, be assured Stein’s “Autobiography…” offers much more than this review suggests. The interest of time/space necessitate overly reductive remarks, but hope to offer at least dim illumination the reader’s own engagement will strengthen to individual and varying degrees of bright. Stein clearly enjoys shameless self-indulgence throughout most readers will likely find either amusing or off-putting, AND simultaneously achieves – not through speculation, discussion, or discourse, but in DOING, a disregard to boundary and border, both conceptual and concrete, including: literary genre; artistic style & period; national; personal; even time. Consider, as examples: 1. the number of times throughout the book “Guillaume Apollinaire IS dead” [emphasis added] placing it always firmly in the present thus, in part, maintaining its emotional impact, its artistic and literary significance; 2. her descriptions of “doughboys,” their uniforms and camouflage, marching from and through various Western European nations without impediment of literal (i.e. national) or literary borders.

    While her omission of commas at times creates long, unwieldy sentences difficult to access, the difficulty stems more from unfamiliarity than ineffective or “tricky” writing techniques both because and as it more accurately reflects our habits in informal, verbal conversation. Many beg, and benefit by being, read aloud. Doing so with conscious attention to its impact on the reader and listener’s reception of content and perception of meaning while remembering to notice if, when and where you pause (generally, in daily conversation a pause occurs when and because we need air, not because we’ve deemed it most useful to the listener or the most grammatically correct place to insert a comma or otherwise punctuate our own remarks; in fact, little do our thoughts include such matters, much less decide them. Even so, most of us are quite capable of understanding fully the demands and deferments, compliments and criticisms we daily fling and receive; therefore…) may aid an appreciation of, and greater access to, a sentence whose length exceeds an entire page. Permit the note here that these suggestions neither intend nor achieve any absolute explanation of either intent or effect: as to commas, a sentence several pages in length simultaneously disallows a merely comma-imposed boundary and circumvents our general impulse to allow conventionally accepted lengths and looks of paragraphs and pages to function essentially as pre-existing borders to which we unwillingly yet unprotestingly, and sadly even unconsciously, submit. The effects of such submission, particularly confronted in a literary work which, while situated in Paris, is about such substantive matters and concepts as politics and war, humanism and humanitarianism, art and our decidedly human flaws, follies and relationships, shouldn’t be ignored. At least not by the thinking reader. Finally, while the characters who cross and re-cross these pages are many, they are carefully and specifically selected to serve the writer’s overarching claims and concerns. Nothing in this work is random or simple; rather, its complexity lies within its embrace of the unfamiliar, its move away from familiar form in which its subject cannot be contained.

    • booksandbuttons says:

      Gertrude Stein prided herself on being a writer with a
      capital W. She had competition, didn’t she, in Proust
      and Joyce . . .
      I appreciate the time you must have taken to write this
      comment! I’ll read subsequent Gertrude Stein with a
      keener eye! And yet, I did enjoy this book, too.

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