Book Review: Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
I can’t say I enjoyed this book. Before reading it and after reading it, I had the impression of someone who’d co-opted her life partner’s voice for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. To make matters worse, the book is boring. Gertrude Stein writes about Picasso and Hemingway and Matisse and World War I and life in Paris - sounds intriguing, right? - in mind-dulling ramblings. Presumably she was imitating Alice B. Toklas’ voice, but the minutia is unbearable. For example, “We come in in the street car because it is difficult to get a taxi in Boulogne and we go back in a taxi. Well we came in as usual and didn’t notice anything and when we had finished our shopping and had had our tea we stood on a corner to get a taxi.”
Maybe people who knew Toklas and Stein would have smiled at inside jokes and speech patterns that are “so Alice,” but for someone outside that magic circle, it’s difficult to appreciate.
There were a few moments where I was struck by Stein’s cleverness at giving an external view of herself when, in reality, she only knows herself from the inside. She writes of her theory 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.” And I suppose that’s what she’s given us, an exact reproduction of her outer reality without the clutter of emotion. But it makes for very dry reading. I also wondered if she was imitating Hemingway’s style, but Hemingway conveys powerful emotions in his short descriptions of outer reality.
Every now and then there was a sentence or anecdote that made me smile — or actually kind of like Gertrude Stein — such as her way of keeping"little note-books full of phrases that pleased her.” Or when Stein was eight years old and "tried to write a Shakespearean drama in which she got as far as a stage direction, the courtiers making witty remarks. And then as she could not think of any witty remarks gave it up."
I enjoyed the Maira Kalmon illustrated edition — the drawings are great — but I don’t share Kalman’s romanticized view of the Stein/Toklas relationship. Stein using Toklas’s voice to talk herself up seems self-centered and controlling. (To be fair, long-term partnerships are complex and nuanced, and my understanding of Stein and Toklas's almost 40-year relationship is limited.)
Since Toklas seemed to get short shrift in her "autobiography," I want to read The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. In the introduction, Ruth Reichl writes, “I can’t help wondering if the cookbook might have been a way for this unforgiving woman [Toklas] to get a bit of her own back.”