Saturday, February 01, 2003

The last time I tried to read Gertrude Stein, I got bogged down in the ramblingness of her writing style. I've never been very good at adjusting to non-traditional styles, and I found it too difficult to follow How To Write for the effort to be worthwhile. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, however, is much more accessible and lucid, like sitting down to have a conversation with Stein. The concept of the book is interesting as well, since Stein refused to write her own autobiography despite the requests of those who felt that the details of her unusual life would perhaps give readers a better understanding of her writing. But the idea of filling in the gaps of her numerous "portraits" of the famous people she had known as friends intrigued her enough that she began urging Toklas, her companion of 25 years, to write her autobiography and tell the stories. Toklas's response was, in a paraphrase of Ford Madox Ford, that she was already "a pretty good housekeeper and a pretty good gardener and a pretty good needlewoman and a pretty good secretary and a pretty good editor and a pretty good vet for dogs", leaving her simply no time to be a pretty good author.

At last Stein decided to undertake the project herself, like Defoe writing the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe, and indeed one could say that most writers who choose first-person narrators are writing the autobiographies of their characters. At the same time this is a very sly way for the authors themselves to write their own autobiographies. Stein is able to relate the exciting events of her life and describe her own actions from a technically objective point of view. Of course Toklas would paint Stein in glowing colors, as her lifelong friend, and Stein takes careful advantage of this. It is also a boon to her that she need not become introspective or give reasons for any of her actions. Toklas, as the subject, is given thoughts and emotions, but Stein is free from explaining herself.

I must say this is rather refreshing, especially considering our modern tendency to examine every detail of the lives of others and speculate on their motives and feelings. Surely Stein had doubts and troubles, but why should she display these for our pleasure? Everyone saw her as a rather impulsive, opinionated woman who did as she liked and said what she thought, and it must have been enjoyable for her to look at herself through someone else's eyes. In fact, this seems to me to be a monumental achievement; I certainly could not rise above self-criticism to paint myself as a friend might. I admire Stein's courage and audacity.

"I write for myself and strangers." --Gertrude Stein

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