Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Lost Generation in Paris

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Pablo Picasso! Henri Matisse! Ernest Hemingway! F. Scott Fitzgerald! Sherwood Anderson! T. S. Eliot! Djuna Barnes! Ezra Pound! Georges Braque! Ford Madox Ford! Jean Cocteau!

All of these artists and writers were bumping into each other in Paris in the 1920s, often at Gertrude Stein's apartment, the famous salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. (And if you're wondering who the hell Alice B. Toklas is, she was Stein's longtime partner and lover, and calling it an autobiography but yet it was written by Stein was Stein's idea of a joke.) 

I'll be honest and say I was keen to read this book because I had hoped for some delicious gossip about these famous people, and while there were some good stories, Stein's writing was more difficult to read than I expected. This was my first Stein book, and I would describe her style as a conversational stream of consciousness that frequently turns into babble.

Here is a good example of her style: "This was the year 1907. Gertrude Stein was just seeing through the press Three Lives which she was having privately printed, and she was deep in The Making of Americans, her thousand page book. Picasso had just finished his portrait of her which nobody at that time liked except the painter and the painted and which is now so famous, and he had just begun his strange complicated picture of three women, Matisse had just finished his Bonheur de Vivre, his first big composition which gave him the name of fauve or a zoo. It was the moment Max Jacob has since called the heroic age of cubism. I remember not long ago hearing Picasso and Gertrude Stein talking about various things that had happened at the time, one of them said but all that could not have happened in that one year, oh said the other, my dear you forget we were young then and we did a great deal in a year. 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."

I did not change anything about that quote -- you get a sense of Stein's run-on sentences and her laissez-faire punctuation. Often when I was reading this book I felt as if I was listening to a confused storyteller, someone who just kept talking and talking and rambling and trying to convey a message, but that they themselves had forgotten what the message was. 

There were some nice quotes and turns of phrase, such as: "[Stein] was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, of a very respectable middle class family. She always says that she is very grateful not to have been born of an intellectual family, she has a horror of what she calls intellectual people." But I had to slog through quite a few pages before I found a quote worth marking.

So, why would someone read this book? Maybe you would be brought to it, as I was, by the Woody Allen movie "Midnight in Paris," which had scenes that were inspired by this memoir. Or maybe you want to hear more about Picasso and Matisse and Hemingway, which were my favorite parts of the book. Maybe you want to read about Paris during World War I, and how empty of men the world had seemed then.

For me, I'm still fascinated by the Lost Generation and will read more Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but I may have had my fill of Stein for now.

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