Gertrude Stein on Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein on Gertrude Stein

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I once said, “A rose is a rose is a rose.” This is the most modernist of statements. Its meaning lies in its rhythm and repetition. It brings language back to life. It makes us see the rose anew, this rose that has become so hackneyed by romantic poetry.
And The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is the most modernist of autobiographies because it plays with the genre of autobiography itself. As we have seen in our conversations concerning Hemingway, Breton, and Carrington, it is difficult to distinguish between autobiography and fiction. The narrative play in my work emphasizes the fine line between “truth” and fiction.
In fact, as one critic points out, my autobiography revolutionizes the genre entirely. Traditional autobiographies are concerned with self-discovery and self-knowledge. My self, on the other hand, seems fragmented and multiple.In this sense, we could see it as the literary equivalent of cubism. In my work, I attempt to parallel the theories of Cubism, specifically in her concentration on the illumination of the present moment (for which she often relied on the present perfect tense) and her use of slightly varied repetitions and extreme simplification and fragmentation.
Narrative Strategy
That I have created the character of Alice B. Toklas to tell the story of Gertrude Stein is an unusual and innovative narrative strategy. One of the effects of this strategy is to give the impression of objectivity—I seems to be presented from the outside. But it is clear that the my subjective voice has created Alice’s narrative. On one level, this strategy is a kind of joke I shares with the reader—since we are in on it, we are likely to enjoy the game I am playing with you: Consider the concluding passages in the Autobiography:
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 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 has and this is it.
This suggests that Alice B. Toklas is no more an independently functioning person than is Robinson Crusoe—she is, in other words, a character in a piece of fiction. When this work first came out, my name was absent from the title page. You had to read to the very end to discover the truth. And then you had to re-think the work entirely. And perhaps read it again.
And then there is the more complex emergence of a double voice. Because of the dual nature of the narrative voice (Stein as Toklas on Stein), the question of self-identity is put into question.
Now, we all know that any good author must assume the voice of her character. And this book is written in the voice of Alice. It’s understated, conversational and approachable. At the same time it is a voice of two-people-as one; this is a story told by Gertrude and Alice together.
My Salon in Paris
I said in the Autobiography, "And now I will tell you how two Americans happened to be in the heart of an art movement of which the world at that time knew nothing."
And I also said : "Paris was the place," "that suited us who were to create the twentieth century art and literature."
And I also said of Paris: "This is the place of places and it is here."
What do you think it is about Paris that is so important to me?
It is very important to understand that although the Paris intellectuals and artists are often associated with cafes, it was my home that was a central meeting place in the 20s and earlier. As the American artist Marsden Hartley said, "It is so good to be in that room with such good things." The avant-garde and domestic space were coextensive. And like the Autobiography the mood was of good humor, good nature, and openness to the new.
Like a café, my home was open to a continuous stream of strangers. As Alice notes, I would always greet guests at the door with the phrase "De la part de qui venez-vous?" ("Who sent you?"). The response, however, did not matter: the guest was always admitted.
As my friend Marsden Hartley said, it was a place in which one felt accepted, "really in," whereas " most places one goes one remains forever at the gate.” I reinvented the salon form from that associated with the aristocracy to one associated with democracy. And in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, my way of writing permits you, the reader, to join my salon as well. Would you like to be my guest?
I consider myself a creator in multiple ways: a creator of literature and a creator of people.
As you know, my brother Leo and I were early champions of Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne. We had the ability to see the future in the present.
And today, our salon is the center of the most important creative activity of the day. As a matron of the arts, it is my role to nurture and enable the artistic talent gathered here.
My Autobiography draws portraits of some of the most central figures of the time. In this way, we might consider it not a self-portrait, but a portrait of the period and its artists. How do these portraits of various artists shed lights on the times as a whole? In what way do the individuals and relationship symbolize larger phenomena?
The Invention of Gertrude Stein
I said in the Autobiography: "The young often when they have learnt all they can learn accuse her of an inordinate pride. She says yes of course. She realizes that in English literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it." (77)
I have also said about myself : “Einstein was the creative philosophic mind of the century, and I have been the creative literary mind of the century.”
I have also said: "I think the reason I am important is that I know everything."
And “Let me listen to me and not to them.”
I make sure, in the Autobiography, to have Alice refer to the famous by name, and leaveanonymous most of the others. This allows me to become the focus of a circle of luminaries. My Alice is also clearly devoted to me especially, which becomes a kind of letter of recommendation to our readers.
That Alice is making much of me, means I do not have to do myself. But of course, I am doing it myself! Am I egotistical? Do I lean forward too much?
Is this autobiography an "advertisement for myself" cleverly hidden by the narrative persona of Alice? Do you see me as enormously egotistic or someone who values and advances her talent? Should I have been more self-effacing?
But although I seem to be surrounded famous names and faces, I feel my work is also about the value of each day on every place on earth, the pleasures of everyday life and language. As I once said, “Anything one does every day is important and imposing and anywhere one lives is interesting and beautiful.” In my life, I like put myself forward, yes, but in my writing I also like to lose myself in the world and in others who are not especially famous or successful.
As Shari Benstock points out in Women of the Left Bank, lesbianism took on two major forms in the 1920s: women appropriating male norms and women celebrating femininity. The first group sported flapper cuts, donned pants, and smoked cigarettes. The second belonged to Natalie Barney’s salon and participated in a female universe of mythological rites and rituals.
Alice and I kept pretty much to ourselves. Our union was a private one. I did not actively participate in the women’s movement. In the Autobiography, my friend in Baltimore encouraged me to remember the cause of women, but I said you don’t know what it is to be bored and it does not happen to be my business. What did I mean by this? Why did I resist association with the cause of women?
Paradoxically, however, I wrote the libretto for the opera by Virgil Thomson, The Mother of us all, based on the life of feminist Susan B. Anthony. And a great early success, Three Lives, memorialized the lives of three everyday American women with great sympathy and insight.
Some have critiqued the Autobiography on the grounds that it perpetuates heteronormative relationships. It has been said that Alice and I play typical gender roles, that I play the role of the husband and Alice the wife . How did you feel about the fact that the women visited with Alice, but that I held court with the (male) artists and writers? Was this wrong? Why did I want things this way?

And perhaps it could as easily be suggested that Alice and I were to a degree like mother and child: I once famously said, “During childhood you are privileged, nobody can do anything but take care of you, that is the way I was and that is the way I still am, and any one who is like that necessarily liked it. I did and I do."

Alice did run the house and typed out all of my writing. She was also an expert cook, and eventually published her own cookbook, illustrated by our friend the artist Francis Rose. As James Beard said, "Alice was one of the really great cooks of all time. "She went all over Paris to find the right ingredients for her meals. She had endless specialities, but her chicken dishes were especially magnificent. The secret of her talent was great pains and a remarkable palate." Alice was not only my intimate lifelong friend, she is, in her own way, an artist. I am not reluctant to acknowledge how full my life is with my beloved friend and how empty my life would be without her.

Did you form an impression of Alice? What kind of person is she? This may be difficult, because in this autobiography we are difficult to pry apart; we do not remain as individuals but create a couple, and merge and mingle in a way that makes it difficult to sort us into conventional roles. This narrative is a double fantasy, a double portrait. You might call us "Gertrice" or "Altrude."

A Little About Later

Here is what Alice Toklas wrote about me at the hour of my death. My comment, like so many of my other remarks, has become very famous: "I sat next to her and she said to me early in the afternoon, What is the answer? I was silent. In that case, she said, what is the question?"

Finally, in her own (real) autobiography, Alice called me what I had called Susan B. Anthony in my play: "the mother of us all." Am I?
My Other Writings: a Sampler
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was my most commercially successful book; it is also my most conventional one. But I am considered as much a poet as a prose writer and my work was in the vanguard of experimental writing in my time. A number of my more experimental writings are referenced by Alice, but below is a sample. I am also including a few lines of mine that many have heard, but few know I was who said it first.

"If the communication is perfect, the words have life, and that is all there is to good writing, putting down on the paper words which dance and weep and make love and fight and kiss and perform miracles."
"A Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. ?Loveliness extreme. ?Extra gaiters. Loveliness extreme. ?Sweetest ice-cream.? Pages ages page ages page ages."
"The Fifth of November: On the fifth of November we have been told that she will go either here or there in company with some one who will attempt to be of aid in any difficulty that may be pronounced as at all likely to occur."
"If you can’t say anything nice about anyone else, come sit next to me."
"You look ridiculous if you dance. You look ridiculous if you don’t dance. So you might as well dance."
"One must dare to be happy."
"We are always the same age inside."
"I do want to get rich but I never want to do what there is to get rich. "
Aside from the questions threaded throughout the above, here are some further questions to consider:
How would you describe the relationship between Stein and Toklas? How might the narrative form of the Autobiography provide a metaphor for their union?
What is Paris to Gertrude Stein? What is the point of her salon?
Study the character sketches or “portraits” of Picasso Matisse Apollinaire and Hemingway What strikes you about the way in which Stein depicts these great artists and writers? What role does Stein play in their artistic development???
Stein is not exactly modest in her self-assessment. Is her determination to proclaim herself a genius an asset or a liability?
For example
• There are a lot of elements that I would like to touch upon, but I’ll begin with the narrative style since it struck me as being so unusual. Even though Alice was a real person who truly did experience these events, I was reminded of Andre Breton’s Nadja, who seemed to be an extension of his own persona.It seemed as if by writing in the perspective of Alice, Gertrude Stein separated herself from her own identity. There was a level of detachment, especially when she was describing herself.

As a result, I was somewhat skeptical about what was real or imagined, although that may have been Stein’s intention. There was always a level of separation, and I often wondered what the real Gertrude or Alice would have thought. However, Alice was described to have typed Gertrude’s manuscripts, so if that was in fact true, then in many ways this book could have been a collaborative project. Or at least, it would have likely been approved by the real-life Alice.

Yet despite my skepticism, by using a detached voice, Gertrude Stein echoed the artistic vision of the 1920’s, which was often an act of self-forgetting and recreating in the post-war era. Identities were stripped, and “The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas” is a reflection of that. In this regard, the decision to use a distanced narrative voice was a very clever choice.

Alice was on the outskirts of the events that Gertrude held in Paris, usually in the “housewife” role, and therefore, Alice’s perspective was of an outsider looking in, just like the reader. Similar to A Moveable Feast, Stein’s book incorporates many major figures and artist’s from the 1920’s in Paris, and by describing the events through Alice’s voice, the text became more about the various people in the book than it was about Alice or Gertrude herself.



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