Friday, February 13, 2015

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein

The Bohemian life of the Lost Generation has been a fascination of mine for a while. It is remarkable how much has been contributed by the artists, writers, and philosophers of that time period. From Picasso to Braque to Gris and Hemingway to Fitzgerald to Stein and Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir to Albert Camus. When it was time this month to read a biography for our Gables Book Club, I turned to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein. Stein, in a conversation with Ernest Hemingway, is the person who coined the phrase, saying, "you all are a Lost Generation."

In this book, Stein actually writes her memoirs, but in the guise of the autobiography of her partner, Alice B. Toklas. The two were among the most prominent "socialites" of the the Paris scene, living at 27 rue de Fleurus, just blocks from the Tuileries Garden. Stein was born in Allegheny City, now incorporated into the city of Pittsburgh and the book starts there. The chapters go on to detail life before the war, Paris, and life after the war. They are filled with accounts of the salons, the artists, and the writers. Much of it mirrors the descriptions of Parisian life as described in Zelda or A Moveable Feast. Toklas recounts how she is relegated to time with the wives when Stern "entertains" Hemingway or Picasso.  One of the most enlightening quotes in the book was about F. Scott Fitzgerald.
"Gertrude Stein had been very much impressed by This Side of Paradise. She read it when it came out and before she knew any of the young American writers. She said of it that it was a book that really created for the public the new generation. She has never really changed her opinion about this. She thinks this equally true of The Great Gatsby. She thinks Fitzgerald will be read when many of his well known contemporaries are forgotten. Fitzgerald aways says that he thinks Gertrude Stein says these things just to annoy him by making him think that she means them, and he adds in his favourite way, and her doing it is the cruelest thing I ever heard."
The book was enlightening on many fronts. It detailed their lives as they bought a Ford and traveled around France volunteering for the American Fund for the French Wounded. At one point, to make some much needed money, Stein traveled to England to lecture on her writings. The turmoil over their passports and reentry to France was illuminating to say the least.

This book would not be high on every one's list of must reads. It often reads like a diary of someone who is self-impressed and who is trying to create that sense of importance by name-dropping. But, that is the way the Lost Generation worked. This incredibly talented and creative group of people did play off one another and did thrive in doing so. How they lived and traveled with their limited incomes has always intrigued me. But they did and for that I am grateful.

Gertrude Stein's Grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
Alice B. Toklas' Grave Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris (on the back side of Gertrude Stein's grave)