When I was growing up, phrases such as ‘no-one likes a show-off’ and ‘pride comes before a fall’ were common family currency, ‘getting above yourself’ was a crime, and punishment by being ‘taken down a peg or two’ was swift and inevitable. In short, as a child I was taught not to place too high a value on myself.
I’m guessing the same could not be said of Gertrude Stein, or that she was much more resilient, because she writes “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius…The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.”
A small part of my brain was wondering who Alfred Whitehead was (he’s a mathematician and philosopher) while the main chunk of it was screaming: “did she really just proclaim herself a ‘genius’? Because, despite the title, The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas was written by Stein, about Stein i.e. it’s Stein’s autobiography. (Alice B Toklas was actually Stein’s life partner.)
I don’t intend to belittle Stein, or suggest she wasn’t influential. An American writer and art collector, Stein moved to Paris in the early 1900s and hosted a creative ‘salon’. Her friends and acquaintances read like a who’s who of modern art and literature: Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Hemmingway, Pound, Eliot. Picasso painted her portrait, and it was reading about her in John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso Volume 1 (the subject of my last blog post) that inspired me to read Autobiography.
Stein championed a style of writing that makes heavy use of repetition, eschews punctuation for the most part, and avoids words with ‘too much association’ – as she saw it, the literary equivalent of Cubism, which sounds interesting but, well, judge for yourself: ‘there are a great many things to tell of what was happening then and what had happened before, which led up to then, but now I must describe what I saw when I came”. Do you see what I mean?
Stein gives equal emphasis to humdrum matters and important events alike. Now, in the hands of Carol Shields, say, this elevation of the ordinary works brilliantly. In Stein’s, combined with her stylistic choices, it can be a bit like reading Genesis chapter 5 (so-and-so lived for so many years and begat someone else, who lived for however long and begat whoever…and on and on.)
Perhaps I’m being a tad unfair. Richardson describes Autobiography as ‘deservedly admired’ (although in the same sentence he refers to Stein’s ‘personality cult’); and it made the cut in Modern Library’s 100 Best Nonfiction books published in the English language since 1900 – was even ranked in the top 20.
To be totally honest, I just didn’t find it all that interesting or enjoyable to read. If you’re a student of literature, particularly feminist or lesbian literature, and want to experience the whole stylistic ‘experiment’ then maybe give it a go; otherwise, er, don’t.
Rating: 0 Don’t bother