The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Alice B. Toklas

Gertrude Stein, Maira Kalman (illus.)

  • Review
By – July 13, 2020

Apple pie and ched­dar cheese, pineap­ple and piz­za, man­go and chili pow­der. Gertrude Stein and Maira Kalman. An unex­pect­ed pair­ing, yet one that enhances the artis­tic offer­ings of both. Gertrude Stein’s works — while often dense and expan­sive — reveal a world of artists, writ­ers, com­posers, and archi­tects whose inter­sect­ing lives and friend­ships could eas­i­ly belong in fic­tion. The sur­re­al troupe intro­duced in this uncon­ven­tion­al mem­oir is no excep­tion, and their rich tapes­try of rela­tion­ships is brought to life through Kalman’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly whim­si­cal illustrations.

As the title sug­gests, the text is pre­sent­ed as an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal work of Alice B. Tok­las, Stein’s life com­pan­ion. How­ev­er, one does not have to delve deep into this book before it becomes appar­ent that it is actu­al­ly Stein’s own work. Kalman art­ful­ly empha­sizes this in the book’s end­sheets, where she includes pho­tographs of pages from an ear­li­er print­ing of the man­u­script; Kalman has under­lined Gertrude Stein,” which unwa­ver­ing­ly appears in every few lines of text.

While the nar­ra­tive pro­vides a vivid sense of Stein’s (and Toklas’s) world, it also includes volu­mi­nous insights into the greater Parisian literati and cul­turati of the 1910s, 20s and 30s. The book reads like Toklas’s diary, giv­ing the read­er details of the pomp and cir­cum­stance of the vernissage, as well as gos­sipy par­tic­u­lars about the mon­u­men­tal fig­ures of the day (such as Picas­so, Matisse, and Aldrich).

Kalman’s own play­ful per­son­al­i­ty also shines through in this edi­tion even apart from her quirky illus­tra­tions. The read­er can mar­vel in the illustrator’s after­word — a spe­cial insider’s” post­mortem where Kalman con­fides that she is loath to leave them,” demon­strat­ing the close bond that she devel­oped with the cou­ple dur­ing the course of her work. This bond is fur­ther rein­forced in Kalman’s own lit­er­ary pieces in the after­word, in which she explores her feel­ing of kin­ship with Stein based on their shared uncon­ven­tion­al views on punc­tu­a­tion (or lack there­of) and infor­mal, inti­mate prose.

For all the details of the rela­tion­ships of Stein’s con­tem­po­raries, an explo­ration of Stein’s own iden­ti­ty is curi­ous­ly absent from the book. While Stein and Toklas’s rela­tion­ships is always super­fi­cial­ly present, the inti­ma­cy between these two key char­ac­ters is nev­er devel­oped or ana­lyzed. And while the lack of detail on this aspect of Stein’s life may be a prod­uct of the time of the orig­i­nal text, this absence is felt. A sim­i­lar absence is felt because Stein does not direct­ly address her and Toklas’s Jew­ish her­itage. How­ev­er, one of the final chap­ters of the book — ded­i­cat­ed entire­ly to The War” (World War I), leaves the read­er with a haunt­ed sense of what will be brought to fruition in Europe a decade lat­er. Kalman also does not address this. Per­haps her omis­sion is more delib­er­ate: per­haps Kalman wants the read­er to remain and rev­el in this pre-marred world marked by a mod­ern cul­tur­al renaissance.

Lena Saltos is a lawyer­ing, ex-cre­ative writ­ing afi­ciona­do and a lover of all things unfamiliar.

Discussion Questions