Friday, November 6, 2009

Gertrude Stein: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

A Cubist Memoir

 A response to Gertrude Stein's book "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas"

Gertrude Stein is a cubist name dropper! After introducing herself to readers as one of only three true geniuses in her acquaintance, she, as Alice B. Toklas, drops the name Gertrude Stein one to fives times on nearly all of the 252 pages in the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. While it is autobiographical, it is most certainly not about Alice B. Toklas, who 'sits with the wives of geniuses.' Instead it is Stein's own extremely self-reflexive cubist memoir which comments on itself, calls attention to its own materials and production processes, is obsessed with surface, is cyclic rather than linear and offers simultaneous views over time of both its own structure and its autobiographical vignettes. A genus? Yes, indeed.

As Stein clearly states, she is interested in surface versus interior, the outside of things as differing from the inside.  "She always was, she always is, tormented by the problem of the external and the internal," she says of herself on page 119. So with a wink, she writes, with the name and voice of her companion, her own story, dotes on herself as her lover and companion would and tabulates her own talent's progress in the voice of her mate.

Besides surfaces of name, there is also the narrative's surface - what was done and what was said, told with "the refusal of the use of the subconscious," and without emotiveness.  In this way she allows readers to make intellectual conclusions about the emotional nature of the narrative rather than offering a directed vicarious experience of it, so that experience of her life in print is essentially intellectual and analytical rather than emotional. Of writing this way she says "...that listening to the rhythm of his (the dog's) water-drinking made her recognize the difference between sentences and paragraphs, that paragraphs are emotional and the sentences are not."  --- In order for this to be so, one must detach from immediately experienceable emotion in any one sentence, so that the emotion becomes apparent only after the whole of the paragraph is perceived in the mind.

Stein's narrative is not linear but cyclic and gives one the feeling of moving ahead and at the same time going back. Stein was a friend of Picasso and Juan Gris and notes Marcel Ducamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase: on page 113.  It was not surprising to see it mentioned, as it had already come to mind by the second or third time the dinner where the painters sat opposite their paintings was described. This odd familiarity caused a hasty look back to see if I'd lost my place and was rereading the same paragraphs. The same thing happened in other places: the incident where Maitisse gets fried eggs rather than an omelet, the description of William Cook driving a taxi and of Gertrude Stein driving a car for the American Fund for the French Wounded, and the many returns to Paris. Each mention seemed familiar, out just a little off from the last time, with sometimes more and sometimes less of the incident visible, like one of the iterations of the figure's limbs as it descends the stars and seems to move, in Ducamp's painting.

Stein hints at her fascination with lulling repetition and the glint of surface: "It was this summer that Gertrude Stein, delighting int he movement of the  tiny waves on the Antibes shore, wrote the Completed Portrait of Picasso."  In the end, the tide of surfaces recedes and leaves a bit of truth dry on the shore. Stein admits many had badgered her to write an autobiography. In turn she badgered Alice B. Toklas to write one instead.
"About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do. I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it." (pg. 252)
 Of course, like Defoe's work, it is about a stranded traveler and his companion. Yet it is about quite another thing than it purports to be and it glides along tongue in cheek, a surface cleverly concealing and revealing simultaneously.
--- Mad Mar Walker
Original date: Sept. 2003