Book 200: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein

Stein, Gertrude - The Autobiography of Alice B. ToklasThe writing in this book is quite possibly the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read. The premise of the book, however, is incredibly convoluted. Regardless, I am glad I read the book because it counts for multiple challenges this year (Back to the Classics Reading Challenge and Mount TBR Reading Challenge).

When I first thought about reading this novel, I knew it wasn’t an autobiography, but I wasn’t quite sure where this fit into the myriad genres available. Ultimately, this book falls into some gray area between biography and autobiography. This felt like Gertrude Stein’s biography told through Alice B. Toklas but written by Gertrude Stein. And what I found out while reading this was that Paris was an incredibly small place and everyone knew everyone. It was incredibly strange how everyone was connected, but at the same time it was awesome the people who stumbled in and out of the novel including numerous painters and authors.

However, even with all of these people I was still overwhelmed at the beauty of Stein’s writing. It’s hard to describe the writing as it was often times effortlessly beautiful and engaging, and yet at the same time there were some laborious sentences which Stein/Toklas humorously discuss

“Gertrude Stein said commas were unnecessary, the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath.” (132)

And it is this frankness about how other people should react to and interact with her (Stein’s) work which made it refreshing. Never having read anything by Stein before I couldn’t tell you whether this type of writing mimicked Toklas’ conversational style (as the book and many reviewers stated, but I can tell you that the conversational style only added to the effortless read.

Apart from the beauty of the writing, there was very little else of note in the book with the exception of the historicity of the book. The book covers the early 1900s through the 1930s and includes many notable artists such as Pablo Picasso, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Ambroise Vollard and writers such as Mildred Alrdrich, T. S. Eliot, Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway.

If there was one thing I didn’t enjoy about the book, it was the apparent lack of direction and purpose. Although this added to the whimsy of the book, I felt it detracted from the, often, seriousness of the subject matter. This book wasn’t a full biography of Stein and it definitely was not a full biography of Toklas. It covered a finite period and only occasionally alluded to times outside of the roughly 30 years covered in this book.

Recommendation: I think it’s worth a read. The writing is so beautiful that you can’t help but appreciate it regardless of your interest in the subject. Having never read anything else of Stein’s I cannot compare it, but I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading this work.

Opening Line: “I was born in San Francisco, California.”

Closing Line: “I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

Additional Quotes from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
“Sure, she said, as Pablo once remarked, when you make a thing, it is so complicated making it that it is bound to be ugly, but those that do it after you they don’t have to worry about making it and they can make it pretty, and so everybody can like it when the others make it.” (23)

“She [Gertrude Stein] says it is a good thing to have no sense of how it is done in the things that amuse you. You should have one absorbing occupation and as for the other things in life for full enjoyment you should only contemplate results. In this way you are bound to feel more about it than those who know a little of how it is done.” (76)

“He said he did not come before because he had been told by some one to whom she had said it, that she was bored sitting for him, Oh hell, she said, listen I am fairly well known for saying things about any one and anything, I say them about people, I say them to people,I say them when I please and how I please but as I mostly say what I think, the least that you or anybody else can do is to rest content with what I say to you.” (203)

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6 thoughts on “Book 200: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas – Gertrude Stein

    • I think that’s my convoluted response 😀 The story itself was rather straightforward, but whose story it was supposed to be was confusing. It was more the story of Stein, but told by Toklas, but written by Stein – it was quite existential now I think about it.

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  2. I love that whole period in Paris, but I’d heard Stein’s book wasn’t worth reading. I’ll have to pick it up if I see it now!

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    • Well I did put that as a caveat as I’ve not read anything else by her. But if the critics panned this book and I thought it was that well written I can only imagine her more successful books.

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