Monday, October 26, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS” by Gertrude Stein (first published 1933)
“There once was a family called Stein
There was Gert, there was Ep, there was Ein
Gert’s writing was bunk
Ep’s sculpture was junk
And no-one could understand Ein.”
Albert Einstein has been canonised as the Great Brain of the 20th century, even if most of us can understand him only in popularised form. Jacob Epstein’s sculpture still looks pretty good to me (especially Saint Michael triumphing over the Devil on the side of Coventry Cathedral). But there is indeed a very, very big problem with Gertrude Stein (1874-1946).
Of course every literate person has heard of her. We all remember her “a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. She’s one of the canonical Modernists along with Eliot, Joyce, Pound and the gang, and she’s mentioned in every literary history and memoir of the period. But does anybody much (apart from doctoral students and Eng Lit careerists) actually read what she wrote, even to the extent that we read other Modernists? Probably not. I make the confession that, apart from the book under review this week, all I have read of Gertrude Stein is her long short-story Mildred’s Thoughts (because I happen to own a 1928 copy of the anthology The American Caravan) and her faux naïf kiddie book The World is Round. I also once listened respectfully to a radio broadcast of her High Camp Four Saints in Three Acts with music by Virgil Thomson. But that’s it for Gertie Stein as far as my reading and listening goes – and I suspect that’s as well as you know her works too, dear reader.
There is another way she is now known. On Gay and Lesbian websites she is celebrated as a Lesbian Icon because of her forty-year partnership with her lover Alice B. Toklas. So, goes the legend, she was “out and proud” long before it was easy to be so. Such websites (and I have accessed a number of them) know something about the relationship, but don’t have much to say about the writing. And, while Gertrude Stein and Alice B. [Babette] Toklas were indeed a Famous Lesbian Couple, I think some of those websites actually misconstrue the nature of the relationship. Of which more later. (As a piece of impertinent irrelevance, I should also add that Alice B. Toklas was a name bandied about by the hippie generation in the 1960s because, when she was old and needed the money in the 1950s, Toklas compiled a cook book that included a recipe for cannabis cookies.)
So at last to this book – probably the one piece of writing by Gertrude Stein that became a hit with a large readership. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is not a short book. It runs to about 330 pages in the 1930s Bodley Head edition I have in front of me. It was written hastily and quite frankly to make money and gain a popular readership. On the last page “Alice” tells us that, after having been nagged by Ford Madox Ford and Gertrude Stein to write her memoirs, she decided she was no author and:
“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 did and this is it.”
The “autobiography” is in the sub-genre of “literary-memoir-set-in-Paris”, which you have encountered before on this blog. I have dealt with George Moore’s Hail and Farewell trilogy, which deals mainly with Ireland, but does have some literary memories of Paris in the early 1900s. Then there’s Wyndham Lewis’s Blastingand Bombardiering, which divides itself between his service at the front in the First World War and literary Paris and London in the early 1920s. And there’s Ernest Hemingway’s frequently vindictive A Moveable Feast, written over thirty years after the event but dealing with the Paris of the mid-1920s. One very noticeable thing about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written when Stein was almost sixty, is that it has a larger time frame than the other memoirs. Stein arrived in Paris in 1903 and Toklas joined her there in 1907. In effect, she was established there, in her Rue de Fleurus apartment, well before the First World War and for the best part of two decades before the “lost generation” crowd turned up in the 1920s. The book covers at least thirty years of her Paris residence. (Indeed Stein stayed in France until her death in 1946, longer than any other expatriate Anglophone writer.)
It must be said at once that there is something very arch about a book in which the author writes about herself in the third person. (For a more recent and very bad example of this, see Salman Rushdie’s overlong third-person memoir Joseph Anton.) Gertrude Stein has worked at making “Alice’s” narration sound like the voice of a straightforward and uncomplicated non-literary person. This artful artlessness includes the habit of, French-style, not capitalising adjectives referring to nationalities (“french”, “english”, “polish” etc.) and making minimal use of commas, so that sentences are either staccato-brief or dash on madly without punctuation, like a gossipy chatterbox. But it never gets so incomprehensible as to deter the desired mass readership.
Nevertheless, much of it does have the effect of the author using the voice of “Alice” to praise herself out of the mouth of another, with “Alice” so often recounting who came to pay respectful court to this American sage in her Paris apartment or what wonderful things Gertrude said. Gertrude is very proud that, through the Sitwells, she gets to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge to enthusiastic young students. We are told how wittily she handled hecklers. We are also told that “she always contends no artist needs criticism, he only needs appreciation. If he needs criticism he is not an artist.” (Chapter 7). Obviously Gertrude Stein is one of the artists who do not need criticism. Later, Bernard Fay, Gertrude Stein’s (extremely right-wing) French admirer and translator (he translated The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas into French) told Gertrude that she, Picasso and Andre Gide were the only people “of first rate importance” he had met in his life. Gertrude replied “Why include Gide?” You can get away with this sort of self-promotion if you are pretending somebody else is writing it.
I am bound to report that some contemporary reviewers said that Gertrude Stein was faithfully recording Alice B. Toklas’s opinions and way of speaking, but I have my doubts and still find it arch.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas begins with “Alice” giving a brief account of herself living in San Francisco before coming to Paris. Chapter Two is another short chapter about her first meeting with Gertrude Stein in Paris in 1907, and ends with the statement “And now I will tell you how two americans happened to be in the heart of the art movement of which the outside world at that time knew nothing.” Chapter Three doubles back to give an account of Gertrude Stein in Paris in the four years before she met Alice (1903-1907). It has Stein and her brother Leo (obviously with a big family chequebook to help them – money is one unmentioned hero of the book) coming to Paris and “discovering” the young and unknown Pablo Picasso and “making” the American reputation of Matisse and beginning the large collection that was to hang on Gertrude’s apartment walls. Gertrude spends a long time posing for Picasso’s famous portrait of her. Chapter Four doubles further back to Stein’s life before she came to Paris. Born in Pennsylvania. Moving to California in childhood. Reading voraciously, having read all of Shakespeare by the time she was ten, and reading Richardson’s Clarissa when she was fifteen. Having terrible handwriting. Going to Radcliffe. Idolising her lecturer William James. Scraping her way into Johns Hopkins Medical School and then flunking out from medicine because she was “bored”. (And if, after reading Chapters 3 and 4 you still think this is the voice of Alice B. Toklas – who would not have seen anything these two chapters relate – then all I can say is, bless you.) And so to three long chapters Chapter Five – their life together from 1907 to 1914; Chapter 6 – their war service as auxiliary ambulance drivers; and Chapter 7 - everything from 1919 to 1932,when the book was written.
As Gertrude Stein in her Parisian reign met many people, many, many names are dropped. To give a brief compendium, before 1907 it’s Picasso and Braque and Matisse. Some of the Bloomsberries flutter in before 1914. Roger Fry, little Nancy Cunard and her mum, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Wyndham Lewis (who would not have considered himself a Bloomsberry). Just before the war Guillaume Apollonaire, Juan Gris, Andre Gide, Siegfried Sassoon, Mabel Dodge, Marcel Duchamp, Carl Van Vechten, John Reed. During the war (with a visit to England) Lytton Strachey, George Moore, Bertrand Russell, Alfred North Whitehead, Ford Madox Ford. After the war Tristan Tzara, Edith Sitwell (who was “beautiful with the most distinguished nose I have ever seen on any human being”, Chapter 7) and Erik Satie, but also the deluge of Americans – Man Ray, Sylvia Beach (whose name “Alice” consistently spells “Beech”), Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, e.e.cummings, Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles, Aaron Copeland, Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald (who is mentioned favourably, but only in passing) and lesser lights. Clearly Gertrude Stein was part of the itinerary for any arty American, at least after the Great War. But it is noticeable how different the cast of characters is after the war, although the ongoing rivalry of Picasso and Matisse is a recurring theme, as is Gertrude Stein’s repeated break-ups and reconciliations with each artist and as is the chronicle of Picasso’s changing wives and mistresses. It’s fair to note that not all names cited are accompanied by memorable anecdotes. We know we are in for having a lot of names dropped as soon as “Alice” first encounters Gertrude’s art collection and remarks:
“At that time there was a great deal of Matisse, Picasso, Renoir, Cezanne, but there were also a great many other things There were two Gaugins, there were Manguins, there was a big nude by Valloton that felt like it only it was not like the Odalisque of Manet, there was a Toulouse Lautrec.” (Chapter 2)
For all the names dropped, one frequently has the impression that this whole narrative takes place in an hermetically-sealed milieu of leisured people, and often people of considerable means. It is no secret that the artistic and literary avant-garde of the era had to rely on rich patrons to bankroll the “little magazines” in which they could be published (“The Criterion”, “The Dial”, “transition” etc.); added to this, Gertrude Stein, coming from a wealthy background, had a strong sense of entitlement and lived most of her forty years in Paris on inherited funds. Gertrude and Alice often float over events that the general population around them had to just endure. In the First World War, they visit a journalist friend, Mildred Aldrich, who has a house near the Marne in the military zone. But then, when the war gets a little too scary (there are Zeppelin raids on Paris), they bully their way into getting passports issued and “We decided we would go to Palma… and forget the war a little.” (Chapter 6) So they proceed to have a very pleasant extended holiday in neutral Spain. They had the money to afford to do this. Only when they read in Spanish newspapers of the long, bloody Battle of Verdun do they return to France and offer their services to the American Fund for French Wounded – meaning that they set about being a taxi service for French (and later American) soldiers.
To that extent, they did become engaged in the world’s upheavals.
But reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, you would hardly know that the Depression was on when the book was being written or that there was great political violence in Europe. There is only one very oblique reference to the Russian Revolution, in an anecdote about an American journalist who had been involved in famine relief in Russia, and who was worried that his car was being followed, as he had had experience of Russia’s secret police. (Chapter 7) There is also one poignantly prophetic comment made by a French soldier at the Armistice in 1918: “The french soldiers in the hospitals were relieved rather than glad. They seemed not to feel that it was going to be such a lasting peace. I remember one of them saying to Gertrude Stein, well here is peace, at least for twenty years, he said.” (Chapter 6) But that’s it for Alice’s and Gertrude’s reactions to poverty, unemployment, political extremism, Communism, Fascism etc. Those things simply do not exist.
Coupled with this, and perhaps surprising to people who assume that a cultural avant-garde must be socially “progressive”, both “Alice” and Gertrude often express what would now be thought very old-fashioned values. (Is it significant that “Alice” tells us that Gertrude’s favourite phonograph record was the sentimental commercial hillbilly ballad “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine”?) We have to remember that their generation of artists were as swept up in the war as any other part of the population. (Current mythology assumes the artistic community will always be somehow “anti-war”.) Gertrude and Alice wept with joy when the French army, at the Battle of the Marne, turned back the German armies threatening Paris; and they were enthused when a Parisian taxi-driver told how taxicabs had been requisitioned to transport troops to the front. (Chapter 6) They took seriously the orders and decorations the French government gave for war work, they were both decorated for their volunteer activities, and they campaigned (successfully) to get the Legion of Honour awarded to Mildred Aldrich after the war. It will also seem quaint that, though none of them were churchgoers, they took it for granted that they had to find an Episcopalian church to have Ernest Hemingway’s baby son baptised in. (Chapter 7)
All of this can be put down to the manners of the age – autres temps, autres moeurs – but we do cringe a little when Gertrude Stein presumes to lecture Paul Robeson:
“Gertrude Stein did not like him singing spirituals. They do not belong to you any more than anything else, so why claim them, she said. He did not answer…. Gertrude Stein concluded that negroes were not suffering from persecution, they were suffering from nothingness. She always contends that the African is not primitive, he has a very ancient but very narrow culture and there it remains. Consequently nothing does or can happen.” (Chapter 7)
It is in this context of solidly old-fashioned values of her own time that I consider the nature of her relationship with Alice B. Toklas. Regarding lesbianism, one does sometimes wonder about the nature of her relationship with women friends who come into the memoir (Kate Buss, Djuna Barnes and others now identified as lesbians), but there is certainly no polemicizing for homosexual relationships in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. There is definitely no explicit sex or even sexual allusions (they would have been censorable in 1933 anyway) and there is nothing to make the Common Reader of 1933 see anything other than a couple of eccentric women swanning around Paris and environs. “Old maids”, some readers would doubtless have called them, even if the literati knew otherwise.
Gertrude Stein clearly saw herself as the “husband” in her ménage, with Alice as the housekeeping “wife”. Gertrude rejoiced in her own mannishness and saw “masculinity” as the key to creativity – a view which later feminists would probably denounce as some form of essentialism. “Alice” notes that when literary luminaries visited “The geniuses came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me.” (Chapter 5) Clearly Gertrude Stein very much enjoyed male company in the sense of identifying with males. This is especially clear in Chapter 6 where she gets on very well with soldiers (French and American – I do not think one single British soldier comes into the book). When asked to nominate her favourite American hero, she named the bluff, hard-drinking soldier-president Ulysses S. Grant.
Of course in her “mannishness” and in her delight in the company of soldiers, Stein could also make imperious and patronising remarks, as in the following awkward example:
“The french are so accustomed to revolutions, they have had so many, that when anything happens they immediately think and say, revolution. Indeed Gertrude Stein once said impatiently to some french soldiers when they said something about a revolution, you are silly, you have had one perfectly good revolution and several not quite so good ones; for an intelligent people it seems to me foolish always thinking of repeating yourselves. They looked vey sheepish and said bien sur mademoiselle, in other words, sure, you’re right.” (Chapter 6)
For those eagerly seeking such information, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, does say some things about Gertrude Stein’s aesthetic ambitions and writing techniques. We are told how she often pulled all-nighters, writing frantically until dawn after guests had gone. (Chapter 3)
“She is passionately addicted to what the french call metier and she contends that one can have one metier as well as one can only have one language. Her metier is writing and her language is english. Observation and construction make imagination, that is granting the possession of imagination, is what she has taught many young writers.” (Chapter 4)
We get closest to a minimalist creed – a more highbrow version of the stuff Hemingway attempted – when we are told:
“Gertrude Stein, in her work, has always been possessed by the intellectual passion for exactitude in the description of inner and outer reality. She has produced a simplification by this concentration, and as a result the destruction of associational emotion in poetry and prose. She knows that beauty, music, decoration, the result of emotion should never be the cause, even events should not be the cause of emotion nor should they be the material of poetry and prose. Nor should emotion itself be the cause of poetry or prose. They should consist of an exact reproduction of either an outer or inner reality.” (Chapter 7)
(To me this seems an over-elaborated way of saying “Show, don’t tell”).
However, the book says much more about her frustrated dealings with publishers and her clear desire to have more of her works published. This involves trying to arouse John Lane’s interest in London and getting Carl Van Vechten to negotiate with Knopf in New York, usually without success. Gertrude Stein uses the cover of “Alice’s” narration, in Chapter 7, to vent her annoyance that the Atlantic Monthly will not print her work.
Well now, after the name-dropping, the implicit money and privilege, the quietism about public affairs, the conventional values in many areas, the unstated lesbianism and the minimal comment on Gertrude Stein’s writing itself, what in the end does The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas offer to us?
Mainly the pleasure of gossip.
Some of the gossip is waspish and malicious as when we are told of one Andrew Green “He went away before I came to Paris and he came back eighteen years later and he was very dull”. (Chapter 3) Or that “everybody found the futurists very dull” (Chapter 5)
Some of it is a little back-handed but generally approving. Thus:
“Guillaume [Apollonaire] was extraordinarily brilliant and no matter what subject was started, if he knew anything about it or not, he quickly saw the whole meaning of the thing and elaborated it by his wit and fancy carrying it further than anybody knowing anything about it could have done, and oddly enough generally correctly.” (Chapter 3)
Of the painter Robert Delaunay, we are told of his one big success and then:
“After that his pictures lost all quality, they grew big and empty or small and empty. I remember his bringing one of these small ones to the house saying, look, I am bringing you a small picture, a jewel. It is small, said Gertrude Stein, but is it a jewel.” (Chapter 5)
Some of the gossip is simply funny. When some enthusiast gave the impoverished Matisse a triumphant laurel wreath, Matisse’s practical wife took it to make a soup (Chapter 5). A raucous party was held for the modest and timid Douanier Rousseau, with young Apollonaire the life of the party, rushing around to concoct a meal after one was ordered but not delivered. (Chapter 5) As part of the pre-war avant-garde, Alice and Gertrude heard of the effect of the Armory Show in New York in 1913, and they were present at an early performance of The Rite of Spring where “we could hear nothing” because of the hisses and applause of rival claques. (Chapter 5)
“Alice” remarks of Ezra Pound: “Gertrude Stein liked him but did not find him amusing. She said he was a village explainer, excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.” (Chapter 7) Of T.S.Eliot’s visit, she observes: “Eliot and Gertrude had a solemn conversation, mostly about split infinitives and other grammatical solecisms and why Gertrude Stein used them.” (Chapter 7)
There is a very ambiguous attitude towards Hemingway. Gertrude Stein first meets him when he is a handsome 23-year-old and admires his brashness. “Alice” claims that Stein was the first person to interest Hemingway in bullfighting. But there is a falling out, and a long discussion in which Stein and Sherwood Anderson (Hemingway’s first real literary mentor) rip Hemingway’s reputation to shreds. Stein tells Hemingway that “remarks are not literature”, and opines of his work “he looks like a modern but smells of the museum”. (Chapter 7) This makes it more understandable that Hemingway much later got his revenge by producing a dismissive portrait of Gertrude Stein in A Moveable Feast.
And then, from her earliest days in Paris to the time the book was written, there is all the goss. about Picasso. Picasso liked American funny papers and was particularly impressed with the Katzenjammer Kids (Chapter 2). When Picasso first saw a field-gun painted for camouflage, he said, with reference to Cubism, “c’est nous qui avons fait cela” [“We made that.”] (Chapter 5) There’s a funny story about Picasso going to Spain and giving an interview in Catalan to a Barcelona paper. He thought the interview would not be translated into French, so he said rude things about Jean Cocteau and his work. Later, to his mortification, the interview was translated into French and appeared in a Paris newspaper. Picasso had to apologise abjectly to Cocteau’s mum when he met her in a theatre. (Chapter 7)
And so, chitter-chatteringly, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas moves on. The gossip is what really makes it attractive, and makes it a source-book for literary historians and biographers, as all such memoirs are. The gossip also makes it easy and attractive reading for the mass audience for whom it was written. Here’s the irony that the experimental, avant-garde Modernist writer found a big audience at last by giving the hoi-polloi what it wanted. An easy entrée into the alien and exotic world of Modernism without having to wade through much overtly Modernist prose.
On the other hand, could you or I write such a long and readable memoir in a mere six weeks?
I doubt it.