The Autobiography of Mister Litlove

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.

29 thoughts on “The Autobiography of Mister Litlove

  1. Is this really Mister Litlove, or is it Litlove pretending to be Mister Litlove in order to experiment with a different voice a la Gertrude Stein writing as Alice B. Toklas? I can’t tell. But either way, it’s a very clever and entertaining post! And it’s making me want to read “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” though I must confess that up until now Stein is someone who I’ve been more interested in reading about than in reading. But I did buy three of her books once in an ambitious moment, so perhaps it’s time I took one down off the shelf and dived in.

  2. Somehow this seems like the perfect post for a book like The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. I’ve always been a little afraid of Gertrude Stein, but put like this, I might just have to give her/the book a try. I can’t really imagine Litlove saying Gertrude can really kick ass, but it makes her so much more approachable (that’s Gertrude of course, not Litlove, as Litlove is always approachable). You guys work very well together–you should do this more often!

  3. Bookboxed and I have just been laughing about the part which reads, “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.” We also have an odd familiarity with the reply about the poetry where you mention the dispute over the floor design and the difficulty of finding a matching colour to go with the tiles. Needless to say we are having a patio put down in a week or so and the flag colour remains to be decided. Fortunately Bookboxed always has the good sense to see my point of view in artistic matters. Now I only have to await his taste in gorgeous swimsuits, which I hope is better than the summer shirts he materialised in a few years ago! He tells me, though I almost forgot, that he read the Stein book long ago when he was in a Sartre phase – roads to freedom and all that – and he hardly remembers it, so perhaps a reread is in order.

  4. Wonderful post! I’d say this was Litlove in disguise: that bit about “trying the patience” has the Litlovian water-mark of self-deprecation; no-one would else would say that. Kudos though to Mister Litlove as well: anyone who can make, or inspire, that remark about “jaw-dropping pretension” deserves it. Whoever wrote it – and don’t feel compelled to resolve the mystery – did it most entertaingly. Thanks.

  5. Great job here! I really got a kick out of this post, what a fun way to write up this book. I think “human bulldozer” is a wonderfully apt description, too.

  6. Dear Mr. Litlove, I must say I was falling hook, line, and sinker into thinking, “Wow! The Litloves are two fabulously talented writers.” But then (and I am sorry if I am horribly sexist in saying this) I read on and found I just don’t believe you could possibly have written this. You can blame it on Mr. Barton, if you’d like, because maybe I’m just generalizing to all husbands based on his behavior. However, either you are an extremely special sort of man/husband, or I have to doubt (well, unless you know shorthand and were taking dictation) that you could ever possibly have written this line, “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 just don’t believe any man listens so well and so intently to what his wife is saying that he could channel the way she writes so beautifully (even when he’s listening in order to be able to write it all down). Then again, maybe you two have been living together so long you’ve just learned to speak and write like her? No matter. I still find myself going to the shelves to see if this is in the Stein collection we have, and I will humbly, humbly apologize if I am wrong, and you did indeed write this marvelous piece. Otherwise, I will say, “Kudos, Ms. Litlove. This is even more brilliant than your usual brilliant self.”

  7. Very fun, indeed! (Have you read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong? a novel abt Stein and Toklas that I read totally blind to who/what, etc. I still have yet to explore more but it was fascinating.)

  8. Very, very funny! I’ve always wanted to read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, but (like Danielle above) was a little afraid of Gertrude Stein. You’ve created the perfect inducement, however, in this post, and I’ll be off to get a copy soon. And by the way, Mr. Litlove, just what is a router?

  9. hahahaha you are too funny, Litlove. Thanks for the good laugh, with a good Gertrude review thrown in, complete with anecdotes. Was this one of your class assignments? I give it an A+!!

  10. Oh, I love this! I love the Picasso story, I love Litlove’s barrage of significant looks, and I l-o-v-e M. Litlove’s perfect line! This is actually the best thing that’s happened to me all day. I mean that very sincerely. What a team – I too am intrigued to the point of feeling itchy about the post’s author. And I’ll have to add this to my list. I just finished Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood – I could use a laugh with Gertie.

  11. Really enjoyed this post, be it be by Mr Litlove or Litlove imitating him a la Gertrude Stein. I will have to read this pronto, and will be interested to see how it compares with Hemingway’s A Movable Feast.

  12. Wonderfully fun and clever – I enjoyed both the writing and learning about Gertrude Stein. A long time ago, I did read this novel and had a similar reaction to it.

  13. Bravo! I love the barrage of significant looks and Mr. Litlove daydreaming about a router! What a perfect post for the book, which, btw, I read in college and loved. It has to be one of the most charming books ever and it sealed my affection for Stein and Toklas forever even if I know the reality doesn’t quite match up to the autobiography.

  14. Very clever, Litlove. You had me going…I think…but I’m not quite sure…yeah, it was you…I’m sure…right?…No?…It’s easy to mess with my head!

  15. Ha! I loved this. I love imagining Mr. Litlove writing this and ALSO imagining Litlove writing this. I want it to be both ways, somehow. I will say, Mr. Litlove comes across as quite charming here, and whether that’s because he wrote it or Litlove wrote it, I’m not sure it matters!

  16. Kate – you are indeed right to be sceptical of my literary credentials. Litlove is the literary genius of this household. I do my best, however.

    Danielle – I can assure you there are a few misdemeanours that render Litlove unapproachable but I do my best to avoid them. I don’t think our relationship could survive too many joint posts but it was an honour this time.

    Lilian – Can you guess who?? 🙂

    Bookboxed – Thank you for the solidarity Mrs Bookboxed. Like me you are indeed blessed to have such a competent literary guide. Good luck with the patio tiles!

    Lokesh – Litlove is tickled by the adjective ‘Litlovian’. To me it conjures up something on the lines of ‘Kafkaesque’. As an engineer my tolerance for pretension is generally lower that that of the academics!

    Nicole – It’s a great phrase, but I fear Litlove might have used it about me first! 😉

    Ms Make Tea – Litlove thanks you!

    Emily – Litlove has told me that my blessing in this marriage is that I am slowly becoming more like her and her curse is that she is becoming more like me. However, I must say that although I like to think I am an extremely special kind of man/husband, I have to admit that I am most like Mr Barton and your thoughts on the matter are uncannily accurate….

    Emily – Ooops! 🙂

    Care – thank you and I will pass the recommendation on. Or maybe not, we do have an awful lot of books.

    Gentle Reader – the router is the preferred power tool of the ambitious amateur woodworker. Litlove hopes very much that you enjoy Gertrude Stein and wants to know what you think of it!

  17. Qugrainne – Litlove is looking very smug – she always was a girlie swot!

    Doctordi – That’s not a bad guess about the router. But I use mine for cutting grooves in pieces of wood. Litlove is very glad to have improved your day and says her work here is done. 🙂

    DevotedReader – that’s a bit literary for me, and I am out of my depth. But Litlove says she is sure if you enjoyed one, you’ll enjoy the other.

    Apiece – I do feel it’s best to approach this arty stuff with some sense of proportion. Thank you for your nice comment.

    Verbivore – thank you very much! 🙂

    Stefanie – Alas reality rarely matches up to its representation, even on this blog. But the bit about daydreaming is absolutely true. 😉

    Grad – Litlove would tell you, but I’m rather enjoying my new air of mystique. Not that we want to mess with your head too much!

    Dorothy – Why thank you. Some aspects of this post are true! 😉 But you can definitely have it both ways. After your positive reaction I am thinking seriously about starting my own blog, but Litlove says she hasn’t got the time to write it……

  18. a post is a post is a post
    “Mister Litlove” has gotten an awful lot from litlove’s creative writing class, it seems. Well done! Shall I blame him for the newly inspired need to go off and read The Autobiography of Alice B.?

  19. Ah, I can only echo the Bravos and Brilliants. You really had me fooled for the first half and then when I started reading the comments, I thought: No way! But a tour-de-force from start to finish. Is that the right phrase? Who cares. I will have to do a post in P’s voice since she will never write one on her own. Great review too.

  20. ds – Litlove often makes me read books I would otherwise leave on the shelf, so you have my sympathy!

    david – that’s very kind, but Litlove says she would rather not have Mister Litlove sit on her knee because he’s 6’4″ and plays a lot of sport. 😉

    Pete – thank you, and you may just have caught me out, although entertainingly enough, Mister Litlove’s real hand was more evident in the comments than anywhere else….

    Qugrainne – I can assure you Litlove is the definitive definition of the girly swot! 🙂

  21. Mr. Litlove is a good sport, but I’m a bit disappointed that I thought the router he was daydreaming about was a piece of computer equipment, he being an engineer.

    As I wandered through about a dozen museums in Paris a few weeks ago, I thought about that story about Picasso. It’s one of my favorites.

  22. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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