The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas


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A fascinating insight into the vibrant culture of Modernism, and the rich artistic world of Paris's Left Bank, Gertrude Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas includes an introduction by Thomas Fensch in Penguin Modern Classics. For Gertrude Stein and her wife Alice B. Toklas, life in Paris was based upon the rue de Fleurus and the Saturday evenings and 'it was like a kaleidoscope slowly turning'. Picasso was there with 'his high whinnying Spanish giggle', as were Cezanne and Matisse, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. As ...

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Jul 20, 2008

There is art and then there is official art

I do have a confession to make regarding Gertrude Stein. You may not know this but the woman is a genius. Why you may ask? Because she tells us this over and over and over again in the book. I do have to admit that at first I had to suppress the urge to shred this book/autobiography/memoir to shreds. I grew immensely jaded reading the raw prose with not a hint of of emotion throughout.

Thankfully, I eventually saw the light. It finally clicked.

Gertrude Stein was a woman in the time of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Matisse, Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot. Quite simply she needed to stand out as a literary figure. Historians would later call this artistic time period the Roarin' Twenties. Stein needed a way to disconnect with other prominent figures and still remain in the literary circle. She did this by well executing this book.

Though "seemingly" told through the perspective of her partner Alice B. Toklas, truly we are hearing Stein's. Her memories of meeting fascinating artists and writers in Paris are mind boggling. She adores the Parisian culture but also loves to be an American. Stein is very clever with how she formulates sentences in this book. She remarks on more than one occasion her obsession with the English language. Specifically the use of sounds. She begins to - paint - a novel with her words. Like the artist Picasso, who she is most fascinated with, her novel begins to paint a sort of cubist realism. There is no fluff here. And despite the very limited way she describes characters we eventually begin to see a full picture of them through Toklas/Stein's written words. Her words in way merge words, ideas, sounds, and create art.

We also see how certain artists inspire other artists. Picasso and Matisse were inspired by African art but they made in into their own by what they created. Picasso, upon seeing a camouflaged cannon, remarked to Stein that THEY created this. Artists created this perception of hiding something within plain sight.

Stein discusses nationalism constantly. She remarks on many occasions that Spaniards and Americans can understand one another because they can "realize abstraction." The americans do this with machinery and literature, and the spaniards with the ritualistic bullfighting and bloodshed. In that way, both are also abstract and cruel. She also hashes it out with germans, parisians, italians, polish, etc. She categorizes people and their personality traits by their national identity.

I really enjoyed that everyone came to her villa, that she shared with Tolkas, and asked for her advice on their literary work. She inspired much reverence by her companions and peers.

This by far is one of her more readable and enjoyable books. My advice is to go in with an open mind and truly appreciate her genius for what it is. I came in with stubborn intentions and almost missed out on a fantastic work of art.


Jun 17, 2007

Picasso, Stein and American Art

What was it about early 20th C.painters, writers, musicians, philosophers, performers in Paris? Why did they captivate Gertrude Stein's attention? What was it about Picasso, Matisse etc. that prompted Stein and her brother to be earliest collectors of the groundbreaking art which defined achievements of American artists in the twentieth century? This rambling account is filled with insights suggesting what caught the attention of American artists, writers and led them to Gertrude Stein. Fascinating details of the social lives lived in and out of the Gertrude Stein salon, perspective on Stein, Toklas, and friends' contribution to World War I war effort in England, France and particularly Paris.
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas details a wholly creative time in Paris, describing some of the most daily routines in the twenty-five year span covered--like feeding Matisse fried eggs instead of a souffle when he commits, in the cook housekeeper's eyes, a faux pas. Since he is French, she maintained to Toklas and Stein, he would understand the full significance of this. Descriptions of Montmartre parties, teas, discussions, art events, artist rivalries and disagreement suggesting to today's Paris visitor topoics to further study and explore as no guide book could.

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