Review: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Even for the most determined fiction lover, a careful foray into the land of non-fiction is always a good idea.  This week I read Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a cheerfully disorganized account of Stein and Toklas’s adventures in early twentieth-century Paris where they collected art, wrote great works of literature, and generally had a really good time.
As can be expected of a writer like Stein, the book’s aesthetic form takes some getting used to. While much more accessible than texts such as Tender Buttons, The Autobiography can be rather confusing if one tries to resist Stein’s disregard of narrative rules. While the book’s title suggests that its content consists of Toklas’s experiences, and she acts as a narrator throughout, the text is still written by Stein. Once you get over the fact that Stein talks about herself in third person as a “genius”, The Autobiography becomes a hugely enjoyable read.


Although one may argue that Paris-focused nostalgia reached its peak with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s film La Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, The Autobiography offers a delicious account of bohemian life in the most romantic city on earth. Supported by obscure sources of funding Stein and Toklas enjoy all the city has to offer, organising a lively salon in their home and planning their next vacation immediately after returning from their last break. This is a story about two women who massively enjoy life, and while their lifestyle may not be within reach for most of us, reading about their adventures surely is a lot of fun.


Of course Stein did work, albeit not always with great monetary result. Observed and supported by Toklas, she struggled to write and publish the works of literature now mostly read and discussed in academic circles. I vividly remember trying to teach Tender Buttons to a group of first-year students, succeeding only when I admitted that I found the text as challenging as the next person. If you’re the type of reader who loves to read about writing, this is the book for you.


And then there’s the glorious namedropping and gossip. Stein was friends with virtually every painter, writer and bohemian wandering about Paris at the time. The book describes her close friendship with Picasso, her distaste of the vegetarian habits of Kees van Dongen’s wife, and her tender feelings about Juan Gris. It’s a great complement to more serious accounts of art history which often omit details of the artist’s personal life. This book humanizes the creators of the art that still dominates museums today.


After its first publication, the book was a commercial success, but Stein was criticized by some of the people that appeared in it. Understandably, some were not flattered by Stein’s depiction of their personalities and wives and criticized her for diverting from her usual modernist experimentation. For me, this controversy only adds to the book’s appeal. If you’re looking for an entertaining trip to a different world that doesn’t exist anymore, or a gateway to Stein’s more challenging texts, this is a great start. For me, that famous portrait Picasso painted of her will never be the same again, now I know all about the bickering that produced it.

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