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Saturday, July 16, 2011

A Few Comments on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

While at VCCA (Virginia Center for the Creative Arts) this past June, one of the poets I met--Therese Halscheid--suggested I read Gertrude Stein's Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Supposedly it had oodles of literary gossip from the early 1900's in Paris when Matisse, Juan Gris, Cezanne, Picasso, etc...were first trying to make it on their own as artists. This was a time when Gertrude Stein and her brother could pick up a few Cezanne's from the art dealer Vollard as one might buy vintage dresses or skirts from a second-hand shop today--very off-hand, nonchalant purchases as none of these artists were yet known. Thus, I've begun to dip into it and it is written in a whimsical, unapologetic tone. You find out details such as Picasso's wife at the time, Fernande, only cared about hats and perfume and could talk of little else although she was very beautiful. You find out about the maid at Gertrude Stein's house, Helene, and how she disliked Matisse for having asked to stay one night for dinner after inquiring about what was on the menu. You also find out how people wanted to actually scratch a painting of Matisse's they found ugly and offensive when it was first displayed at a public salon, a picture of a woman with a fan. Interesting how new versions of beauty can so terrify.

Just for your morning, noon or evening reading pleasure, here is a brief excerpt from this "Autobiography," which is really Stein talking about her own life through the literary protagonist she's created in Toklas. Thus, this is Alice/Stein talking--a rather complicated double-image of an "I" in this autobiography, but definitely an accessible work by Stein if you forgive her unorthodox punctuation and refusal to use quotations marks:

"...Fernande was the first wife of a genius I sat with and she was not the least amusing. We talked hats. Fernande has two subjects hats and perfumes. This first day we talked hats. She liked hats, she had the true french feeling about a hat, if a hat did not provoke some witticism from a man on the street the hat was not a success. Later on once in Montmartre she and I were walking together. She had on a large yellow hat and I had on a much smaller blue one. As we were walking along a workman stopped and called out, there go the sun and the moon shining together. Ah, said Fernande to me with a radiant smile, you see our hats are a success." (pp. 14-15 Vintage Books Edition, March 1990).

Just one of the many quirky moments and spontaneous ramblings this books seems filled with. It also brings to life this time in Paris (such as how people actually got fit walking up and down the many flights of stairs to their ateliers since there were no elevators yet installed, etc...), and since Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is also re-envisioning this same time period this summer, it seems extra appropriate and fun to read this autobiography now.