Review: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas- Gertrude Stein

What a busy month it’s been since my last post.

I’ve spent most of it writing essays and revising, and it’s always hectic anyway around christmas. Since then I’m also definitely going to Edinburgh and London this year, which is always good (: Revising was how I actually got around to reading this book as it was meant to come up on the exam. It didn’t, and I spent three hours in a panic uselessly trying to relate it to a question on violence on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. But that’s not the point.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a suprising, intriguing read. The autobiography is told from the viewpoint of Stein’s lover Toklas, and is actually an autobiography of American writer Gertrude Stein herself.  Stein and Toklas lived in Paris in the early 20th century, during a time of great innovation and inspiration in art and literature. Stein gives an absorbing first hand account of living in a time when great movements were progressing, and have had an everlasting  impact since then; some of which are cubism, impressionism and surrealism.

‘Against the wall was an enormous picture, a strange picture of light and dark colours…in a sort of red brown, of three women, square and posturing, all of it rather frightening… I cannot say I realised anything but I felt there was something painful and beautiful there and oppresive but imprisoned.’

Stein and Toklas’ life in Paris revolved around the Saturday evenings at the rue de Fleurus, and we are left with the impression that it was ‘the’ place to be in early 20th century Paris. In Stein’s own words, she records that

‘the geniuses came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me [Toklas]…geniuses, near geniuses and might be geniuses, all having wives, and I have sat and talked to them all.’

It’s at the rue de Fleurus where Stein meets so many popular modernist artists and writers, that are familiar to the modern reader.  She gives a deeply interesting and intricate account of her acquaintance and friendship with them and how they formed a huge part of her life,  including Picasso, Hemmingway, Ezra Pound, Matisse and Mina Loy.  We are given a glimpse into a fascinating world of painters, poets, authors and writers, all striving to make their names known in this exciting time of great change and possibility.

Stein writes in a witty, amusing style, and its light-hearted manner is somehow infectious, commanding the attention of its readers. Even her memory of the war is told in an optimistic and amusing way, as she describes how she and Toklas travelled around France in their Ford, volunteering for the American Fund for French Wounded. Stein’s writing style is also told in the third person and without the use of puncuation marks, perhaps as a reflection of the changes in art that were going on in the early 20th century. Rather than an annoyance however, this style of writing was very masterfully used in her autobiography.

The autobiography is broken down into seven chapters; what disappointed me was that although the first part of the text kept me gripped, the second half did not maintain my interest or attention. I enjoyed reading Stein’s account of living in Paris and how life was in France during the war. However after this, I felt that her autobiography became slightly boring and repetitive as she continously listed those who came to visit the rue de Fleurus; Stein seems to like reminding the reader that she was a great influence on other modernist writers in the literary sphere. If readers are looking for an autobiography that relates in-depth to her literary career, then the text does not provide this. Otherwise, the reader is given a compelling account of Stein’s life in Paris, against the backdrop of war and great changes in art and literature.

Rating: 2/5

Do I recommend you to read it? Yes to those with an interest in Modernist art and literature, and it is also a great read for readers interested in celebrity life with a twist.

Genre: autobiography