During my Modern Poetry class in college, we read some of Tender Buttons and my professor explained Gertrude Stein thus: “Gertrude Stein believed that there was only one great poet of the twentieth century, and it was her. She might admit that Shakespeare was talented as well, but only on a good day.”
Having now read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, I fully support this assessment of Miss Stein. Not that I dislike her – in fact, I find Gertrude Stein to be a fascinating person and I like everything I’ve heard about her. I just. Cannot stand. Her writing.
Based on the description, this book should be amazing: Stein, writing as her companion Alice Toklas, describes their life in Paris, World War One, and the various artists and writers who visited their famous salon at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Hemingway is here, as is Picasso, TS Eliot, Max Jacob, Henri Matisse, George Braques, and countless others. A story about all of these people living and working and making art together in Paris in the early 20th century should be incredible, right? Wrong.
The main problem is that Alice B. Toklas isn’t a very good narrator (And I name her as the narrator of the book only because the title insists that this is her biography – for a clue about who this book’s real focus is, compare sizes of the photos of Stein and Toklas on the cover). Rather than dishing out the dirt on these famous men and women (as Hemingway did in A Moveable Feast), she chooses instead to just rattle off the names of people who visited her and Gertrude Stein, sprinkled with little anecdotes that are either boring despite themselves (according to this book, World War One really wasn’t so bad at all, and Toklas spends the most time telling us how hard it was to go on vacation during the war because she had trouble with her passport), or are just plain boring: “Glenway left behind him a silk cigarette case with his initials, we kept it until he came back again and then gave it to him.” Hemingway’s snippy gossip may not have been true, but at least it was entertaining.
Also there’s the fact that Toklas always remains on the fringe of this great group. Stein is right in the middle of it, helping Hemingway with his writing and discussing punctuation with TS Eliot, but Toklas freely admits that she isn’t an artist, and always keeps herself apart: “The genuises came and talked to Gertrude Stein and the wives sat with me. How they unroll, an endless vista through the years. I began with Fernande and then there was Madame Matisse and Marcelle Braque and Josette Gris and Eve Picasso and Bridget Gibb and Marjory Gibb and Hadley and Pauline Hemingway and Mrs. Sherwood Anderson and Mrs. Bravig Imbs and the Mrs. Ford Maddox Ford and endless others, geniuses, near geniuses, and might be geniuses, all having wives, and I have sat and talked with them all all the wives and later on, well later on too, I have sat and talked with all.”
For God’s sake. It’s like if Diane Keaton’s character from The Godfather wrote a book about her experiences with the mob. She was there for some of it, and she saw everybody who was important, but then the door slams shut in her face at the end and we realize that she doesn’t really know anything at all, and won’t ever know.
Verdict: one out of five stars