Oh Stein! O Toklas! Biographies and Autobiographies

You know, titling things as something other than they are might be my favorite tired metaliterary joke. I guess Eggers started the recent iteration of that trend with his Heartbreaking Work. Then there was Willett’s book, then Banksy’s movie, and this morning I’ve been flipping through Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, that Escheresque ourobouros of nonfictional genres. It’s an “autobiography” of Toklas which is actually a “biography” of Stein, except that it’s written by Stein in Toklas’ voice. I want Shari Lewis and Lambchop to read the entire thing out loud.

The Autobiography is ridiculously fun and parts of it are magical, megalomaniacal exercises. Sample view (in Toklas’ voice, obviously):

The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Alfred Whitehead. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken. In this way my new full life began.

What virtuosic panache! Establishing Toklas as the authority guaranteeing her (Stein’s) genius! Writing yourself as the instrument of someone’s “full new life!” Imagine imagining your lover’s inner life this way! What verve! What delicious, delusional hubris!

And maybe fake, but maybe not. One story claims Stein begged Toklas for years to write her autobiography. When she wouldn’t, Stein announced that she’d buy the flowers herself, so to speak. Another story holds that Stein needed money and wrote the piece in six weeks, intending it to be a commercial hit. It’s rife with tabloid fodder—a cleverly fictionalized expose of the art world would fly off the shelves.

Whatever the real story behind the story is or was, what’s true is this: the name that shows up the most is Gertrude Stein. Not Gertrude, not Stein, but Gertrude Stein, always and forever, and always in a reverential tone.

A 1934 review of the autobiography addresses the pitfalls of this approach with kindly restraint:

“Altogether the most challenging estimate found in the book is that which the author makes of herself. ‘She realises,’ so the reader is informed, ‘that in english literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.'” He calls this opinion “preposterous” but says the Autobiography “mirrors the vigorous mind and the strong and engaging personality which have left their imprint on those with whom she has associated.”

My favorite part of the Autobiography might be this:

“In the story Ada in Geography and Plays Gertrude Stein has given a very good description of me as I was at that time.”

Outdoing Leonard Woolf, who heavily edited Virginia’s diaries, and Ted Hughes, who destroyed much of Plath’s unpublished work, Stein omits Toklas altogether. She praises her own description of Toklas without actually giving it.

Brava, Firecracker. Brava.

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