This piece originally appeared on the blog "Ladies and Gentleman we are Listening to This Recording" (ThisRecording.com.) I owe credit to ThisRecording editor Alex Carnevale for the links and the images. I wrote the text. -Koko the Clown
Apple plum, carpet steak, seed clam, colored wine, calm seen, cold cream, best shake, potato, potato and no no gold work with pet, a green seen is called a bake and change sweet is bready, a little piece a little piece please.
A little piece please. Cane again to the supposed and ready eucalyptus tree, count out sherry and ripe plates and little corners of a kind of ham. This is use.
After reading Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, about the lives and works of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, I don’t have any better of an understanding of what the fuck Stein is talking about in the above passage, from her 1914 piece Tender Buttons.
If anything, Two Lives only made me aware of a broader scope of things I do not understand about Stein and Toklas, from their life in Vichy France as two elderly Jewish lesbians to Stein’s far-right politics. The book is a reader’s treasure, like Malcolm’s Reading Chekhov and The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.
As in those earlier projects, Malcolm does not stress or strain to combine study of the lives of her subjects and their work. Indeed, nothing would seem more natural than such a study of Stein and Toklas. Stein’s own The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas was a sort of autobiography of Toklas, Stein, and Stein’s ego; she also did slightly more traditional memoir in Everybody’s Autobiography and Wars I Have Seen. Toklas also tried her hand at memoir mixed with cookery in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook.
For all the words that they pair wrote about themselves, about each other, and about themselves as each other, they also left plenty out. Sexuality is little discussed, and the pair’s Judaism is also left almost entirely unearthed in their own work. (Toklas eventually did convert to Catholicism.) But for Stein, who was used to being praised and catered to without end, it is possible that dwelling on the more challenging pieces of life just did not seem appropriate for the part she was to play.
In Everybody’s Autobiography, she writes: “About an unhappy childhood well I never had much of an unhappy anything. What is the use of having an unhappy anything.” This seems as absurd as some of Stein’s less comprehensible writing elsewhere when one considers that her mother died of cancer at the age of 14.
Alice B. Toklas
I have not read much Stein, and reading her work is not necessary preparation for Malcolm’s guided tour. Reading some of her work, it turns out, is simply not done. Edmund Wilson said of The Making of Americans, the 925-page tome which Stein finished in 1925, that he had not read it all through, and that he “[did] not know if it is possible to do so.”
“In recent years,” Malcolm writes, “as interest in Stein has grown in the academy, the shirking of the reading of The Making of Americans has gone out of favor. Critics who write about the book are expect to read it.”
What is most fascinating about Gertrude Stein is that for so many years she was able to convince many people of her genius who did not read her books. Perhaps it is precisely because they could not read them that they believed in her genius.
Then again, one wonders how someone as singularly brilliant as Stein was said to be could find the time to write a 925-page book in the first place. As she wrote in Everybody’s Autobiography, “It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
Luckily for Stein, Alice B. Toklas was in the habit of gathering up her scribblings and transcribing them with a typewriter while her lover stared into space.