October 22, 2017

Stein by Stein-as-Toklas

On this day in 1933, Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her account of her salon life as seen through the devoted eyes of her companion. This ventriloquism allowed her to be Boswell to her own Johnson, as in "It was then that Gertrude Stein said, Hemingway, remarks are not literature." Many in her circle did not appreciate or verify Stein's anecdotes, but the book proved to be popular for its gossip, and more reader-friendly than her usual writing, though still quirky. At the end of the book Stein-as-Toklas explains that many had wanted Stein to write her own autobiography "and she had always replied, not possibly." She did encourage Toklas to write hers but, again according to Stein-as-Toklas, this would have been too difficult:
    I am a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs and I have to do them all at once and I found it difficult to add being a pretty good author.
This left but one clear option:
    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.
The exercise proved so enjoyable or profitable that Stein eventually tried her hand at Everybody's Autobiography, which begins, "Alice B. Toklas did hers and now everybody will do theirs." Even when not writing as somebody or everybody else, Stein found little time for herself: "I am very busy finding out what people mean by what they say," she once commented.

Toklas lived on for two decades after Stein, and she did write her own memoir near the end. What is Remembered is quirky too, but enjoyable, and it has the ring of authenticity. Characteristically, it stops with the death of Stein; among the last things remembered are the problems and pleasures of living in Occupied France -- converting the car to run on wood alcohol, driving about with their dogs to visit others who refused to leave, donating the car to the Red Cross, returning to Paris in it at Liberation, to greet Picasso and his paintings in their apartment. The final paragraph of What is Remembered is given to their last, legendary moment together:
    I sat next to her and she said to me early in the afternoon, What is the answer? I was silent. In that case, she said, what is the question? Then the whole afternoon was troubled, confused and very uncertain, and later in the afternoon they took her away on a wheeled stretcher to the operating room and I never saw her again.

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