I suppose I had noticed that Litlove hasn’t been blogging so much this week. I get so used to seeing her typing away at the keyboard that even when she isn’t I almost see her in my mind’s eye as if she is. But I was pretty stunned I can tell you when she said she wanted me to write her next post. It’s really appropriate that you do so, she told me. I’ve been reading a book by Gertrude Stein called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and trust me, it’ll be much more apt if this review comes from you. At that point I reminded her that one of the reasons I married her was to avoid having to write letters, Christmas cards and thank yous ever again, but she was insistent. I’ll help you out with what to put, she said, there’s nothing to it. For instance, you don’t know who Gertrude Stein is, do you? Just ask me about her and we’ll be off and running. I felt I could probably have lived without needing to know who Gertrude Stein was, but you don’t argue with Litlove when she’s in that sort of a mood.
And so I learned that Gertrude Stein was one of the grande dames of American literature, and that she wrote very very difficult prose at the start of the century. She came from a rich family and moved to Paris for the ambiance, which is where she met Alice B. Toklas who became her life-long companion. They lived together in the rue de Fleurus and entertained lots of painters and writers who eventually became tremendously famous and Stein and her brother snapped up lots of modern art and made a small killing with it. A sort of early artistic form of insider trading, if you like. Anyhow, the years went by and Stein did not become famous as she wanted to until she hit on the bright idea of writing a very different kind of book, an autobiography written in a highly conversational style with little punctuation but so rhythmically accurate to the cadences of normal speech that it wouldn’t bother the reader. I joked that our son was about to write the next groundbreaking work of literature in that case, and we had a laugh about that. Stein apparently said she learned about rhythm in writing from listening to her dog lap up a bowl of water, which sounds like the kind of detail that delights my wife but which seems on the verge of jaw-dropping pretension to me; still I kept quiet about that. But she also did something else eccentric and quite clever, Litlove said, in that she wrote the autobiography from her companion, Alice’s, point of view. I told her she’d lost me. How could you write someone else’s autobiography? It gave her the option of trying out this other voice, Litlove said, and it fooled the reader in an amusing sort of way, and it gave Stein the opportunity of putting words in Toklas’s mouth, like for instance, the fact that she was a genius which, she said with a significant look at me, is an oversight that even the most loving partner might make when writing about them. You have to understand I live under what can only be described as a barrage of significant looks from Litlove and it’s not my fault if I only understand one in five of them.
So what’s this book about? I asked. Would I like it? I think it’s a bit plotless on the whole for you, Litlove replied. It does cover Stein’s early life and her time as a psychology student working with William James, which she found yawningly tedious, despite the fact that she excelled at her studies. And then she came to Paris and most of the book is anecdotal reminiscence, lots and lots of stories, most quite funny and insightful and brief about all the amazing artists they hung out with like Picasso and Hemingway and Matisse and Carl van Vechten and Ford Maddox Ford and Guillaume Apollinaire and Marie Laurencin….I risked a little daydreaming at this point about a really superb router I’d been looking at online because she’d lost me shortly after Picasso. I know a good Picasso story, she said suddenly snapping me out of my reverie. Do you want to hear it? Picasso’s on a train and he falls into conversation with the man sitting opposite him, who complains as so many people do, that modern art distorts reality. So Picasso asks him what a really faithful representation of reality would look like. The man gets a photo out of his wallet and hands it over saying, that’s his wife and that’s really what she looks like. Picasso scrutinizes the photo from all directions and says, She’s awfully small. And flat. Is that one of the anecdotes from the book, I ask her? Oh no, says Litlove, I just read it somewhere and liked it. I forgive her, because I am kind that way, but honestly, she’d try the patience of a saint. There are lots of good stories in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas though, she continues. It’s very interesting because as a reader, you don’t get in depth portraits of the people Stein and Toklas know, just lots of scraps and snippets, told off the cuff exactly as if you were sitting in the rue de Fleurus listening to the two of them talk. So I suppose it’s a very modern book in that it seeks to give the reader an experience, rather than knowledge, of being transported to this particular, vibrant period in time.
So you enjoyed it, then? I ask her. Oh I did she says very much. Gertrude Stein’s deadpan humour is hilarious and she and Toklas make such an entertaining couple. Toklas is nervy and anxious and worries about everything and Stein’s just like this human bulldozer. She gets what she wants. I particularly enjoyed the section detailing their exploits in the First World War. To begin with they’re having a rotten time so they decide to get out for a while and go to Mallorca. I mean, this is the First World War and no one’s going anywhere, but Toklas and Stein toddle off to the passport office and Stein talks the officials into a corner and the next thing you know, they’re arriving in Palma. I found it was a book I couldn’t read very much of in one sitting, but I always came back to it because it’s tremendously soothing. It’s like the literary equivalent of John Lewis. I ask her whatever she means by this. Well, I once read all these answers in a magazine to the question of what you would do if the four-minute warning sounded and one response was to run into the department store John Lewis on the grounds that nothing unpleasant could ever happen there. This book is like that; Gertrude Stein always wins the day because she’s having such fun and she can really kick ass. It’s completely free of unpleasantness. She lay back in her chair and that dreamy look that I know so well came over her face. Do you think one day you will write my biography, she asks me? And create me as a character who had a lot of fun with other artists and kicked ass and wrote groundbreaking books? Would you publish a book about me like that? I had to consider this for a moment but I was rather pleased with my response in the end. Only if you write it yourself, I said.