The insight and mystery of Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was an American writer and art collector who moved to Paris as an adult and there established one of the world’s most famous salons, a name given to places where influential artists and thinkers once gathered to socialise and converse, share ideas and inspiration. Those who gathered with Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas, and whose art and writing she collected and/or inspired, included painters Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Picabia, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Stein and Toklas spent World War I in France, acting as a hospital supply unit, and stayed in country France during WWII despite both being Jews; they and the art collection all survived the war.

Stein published more than 20 books and numerous plays over her lifetime but in 1933 when she was almost 60, Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became her first popular success. With sardonic literary sleight-of-hand, she had told her own life story through the voice of her partner and this was the book that made her famous. It’s arguably her most readable work and resulted in a year-long lecture tour of America in 1934-5 that cemented her celebrity status.

I have no idea how this book fell into my hands as a teenager or why it captivated me. Maybe it was the audacious trick of writing your autobiography using your own partner as a sort of puppet. Maybe I was agape at the accounts of all these incredibly famous historical figures actually gathering somewhere to talk with friends, about art. The closest experience I had was university tutorial groups where I thought most of my fellow students were meatheads. Maybe it was the arch tone and the style utterly unlike anything I’d ever read. At any rate, it fired my imagination and a sense of nostalgia for nothing I had ever known and has survived years of successive culls, remaining one of the few non-children’s books in my more-or-less permanent collection.

Many years later in a moment of serendipity I recognised her name on the cover of a different book: Everybody’s Autobiography. 

As its intro explained, not everyone had loved The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein pissed a lot of her friends off, chronicling them in totally unvarnished terms. And Stein herself was somewhat troubled by the unaccustomed celebrity it had brought after years of her work being published. She was having a bit of an identity crisis and, it seemed, needed to face herself head-on and not use Alice B. Toklas as a kind of invisibility cloak.

Everybody’s Autobiography is both an account of the lecture tour through Stein’s home country of America that the success of the first Autobiography had brought, and this personal need to set the record straight. So it’s closer in format to a straight autobiography.

If you could ever call it “straight” when it performs another twist of identity in calling her own story “everybody’s”. And when its stated commitment to stay in the “present” means, in practice, a ramble through memories and the reflections they spark, in the form of largely unpunctuated streams of consciousness, pulled up with a jerk every time she needs to re-centre in the time and place of the story.

It’s challenging to read; much more so than the first Autobiography, which stuck to plain-ish English and punctuation; but it’s also much more intimate, and allows you further into Stein’s head. Sometimes with the pithy, the funny, the relatable:

When there is a great deal of unemployment and misery you can never find anybody to work for you.
~
Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.
~
Native always means people who belong somewhere else, because they had once belonged somewhere. That shows that the white race does not really think they belong anywhere because they think of everybody else as native.
~
The French women always used to say that a woman’s silhouette should change every ten years. It should not grow less it should grow more and mostly it does.
~
Sound can be a worry to anyone particularly when it is the sound of a human voice.
~
I do want to get rich but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.
~
I like to be driven around if I do not have to go inside of anything, and be shown anything that I do not much care for that, but I do like driving and I like seeing country.

Other times, deeper into what she’s thinking, and some of it is so deep I conclude she’s allowed to forget about commas, since she’s grappling with concepts altogether bigger.

Of genius:

Being a genius is not a worrisome thing, because it is so occupying, and then when it is successful it is not a worrisome thing because it is successful, but a successful thing does not occupy you as an unsuccessful thing does, certainly not, and anyway a genius need not think, because if he does think he has to be wrong or right he has to argue or decide, and after all he might just as well not do that, nor need he be himself inside him. And when a dog gets older there is less of it and it does not worry him. When a genius gets older is there less of it and does it then not worry him.

Of ideas:

The real ideas are not the relation of human being as groups but a human being to himself inside him and that is an idea that is more interesting than humanity in groups, after all the minute that there are a lot of them they do not do it for themselves but somebody does it for them and that is a damn sight less interesting.

Of our relationship with time:

Human beings have to live dogs too so as not to know that time is passing, that is the whole business of living to go on so they will not know time is passing, that is why they get drunk that is why they like to go to war, during a war there is the most complete absence of the sense that time is passing. After all that is what life is and that is the reason there is no Utopia, little or big young or old dog or man everybody wants every minute so filled that they are not conscious of that minute passing. It’s just as well they do not think about it you have to be a genius to live in it and know it to exist in it and express it to accept it and deny it by creating it.

Other passages deal with writing as a craft and directly with her sometimes alienating style.

They asked me to tell why an author like myself can become popular … writing what anybody feels they are understanding and so they get tired of that, anybody can get tired of anything everybody can get tired of something and so they do not know it but they get tired of feeling they are understanding and so they take pleasure in having something that they feel they are not understanding … my writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear, perhaps that is the reason but really there is no reason except that the earth is round and that no one knows the limits of the universe.

Yet while she defends it, she still, touchingly, after so many books and so much fame, shows that as a writer she still experiences what just about all writers do: self-doubt.

Of course naturally in the meanwhile I went on writing, I had always wanted it all to be common-place and simple anything that I am writing and then I get worried lest I have succeeded and it is too common-place and too simple so much so that it is nothing, anybody says it is not so, it is not too common-place and not too simple but do they know anyway I have always all the time thought it was so and hoped it was so and then worried lest it was so. I am worried again now lest it is so.

I can’t really sort through my reasons any better than I did when I was a teenager, apart from recognising the echo of truth in her words: sometimes what we need most is what we don’t quite understand. To test those unknown limits of the universe.

But like a glutton for punishment without punctuation, I will seek more out, hungry for more knowledge about the extraordinary lives of Stein and Toklas. Starting with the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Yes! Toklas wrote her own books, including a cookbook. Which has a chapter on how to cook for famous painters. Don’t you just love it…

 

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The 57 books I read in 2018, my top 10 and holiday reading recommendations

Fiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Green: WA writers, because reading local is awesome.
  • Red: Children’s books, because kids need books and books need them.
  • Blue: Crime and thrillers, all trustworthy holiday reads.
  • Black: literary fiction (read on for the top five).
  • First eight by L.M. Montgomery. What can I say? Memory lane beckons.
  1. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery 
  2. Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery 
  3. Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery 
  4. Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery 
  5. Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery 
  6. Anne of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery 
  7. Rainbow Valley, L.M. Montgomery 
  8. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery. 
  9. Dustfall, Michelle Johnston
  10. Finders Keepers, Stephen King 
  11. Extinctions, Josephine Wilson
  12. The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan 
  13. Survival, Rachel Watts 
  14. You Belong Here, Laurie Steed 
  15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
  16. The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
  17. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King  
  18. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (audio)
  19. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
  20. NW, Zadie Smith
  21. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
  22. Body Double, Tess Gerritsen
  23. Vanish, Tess Gerritsen
  24. The Mephisto Club, Tess Gerritsen
  25. Afternoons with Harvey Beam, Carrie Cox 
  26. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid
  27. The Outsider, Stephen King 
  28. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  29. A Girl in Time, John Birmingham
  30. The Golden Minute, John Birmingham 
  31. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton
  32. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
  33. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller
  34. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith 
  35. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
  36. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  37. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  38. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  39. 101 Dalmations, Dodie Smith 
  40. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett 

Nonfiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Red: true crime
  • Blue: books about writing/literary/artistic memoirs
  • Green: personal development
  1. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl
  2. Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner
  3. Work Strife Balance, Mia Freedman  
  4. The First Stone, Helen Garner
  5. Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner
  6. Draft No. 4, John McPhee 
  7. Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss 
  8. French Women for All Seasons, Mireille Giuilano 
  9. Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick (audio)
  10. A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis 
  11. The Passion Trap, Dean D. Celis and Cassandra Phillips 
  12. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton 
  13. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham 
  14. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  15. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  16. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard 
  17. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein

Top 5 fiction (in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked)

  1. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton (literary fiction)
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje (literary fiction)
  3. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller (literary psychological thriller)
  4. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (literary crime/mystery)
  5. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (literary fiction)

Top 5 (nonfiction) in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked

  1. The First Stone, Helen Garner (true crime)
  2. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton (literary memoir)
  3. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell (memoir/diary)
  4. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard (literary memoir)
  5. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein (literary memoir)

The Emma Awards

Funniest 

  1. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  2. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham
  3. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

Best crime:

  1. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (crime/mystery)
  2. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  3. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid

Most inspiring: 

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl

Most beautiful writing:

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje 
  3. All three titles by Helen Garner

Most difficult (all women; coincidence?) 

  1. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein 
  2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  3. NW, Zadie Smith

Best holiday reads: 

  1. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  3. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King

Hope these lists help you with holiday reading ideas 🙂 If you have any questions about the titles, leave a comment! 

Sheep, goats, God and man: Tim Winton’s The Shepherd’s Hut

When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilised I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

 

Our culture is shackling men to a toxic misogyny that is not doing either men or women any favours, and stopping our society moving forward.

This was the subject of Winton’s electrifying speech delivered at the 2017 Perth Writer’s Week and of his latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut.

Obviously, Winton’s hour-long speech explains his point much better than my attempt at a one-line encapsulation, so don’t argue before you listen to it (this recorded in Melbourne, but same speech).

And The Shepherd’s Hut tells the story of Jaxie Clackton, raised with domestic violence and emotional poverty, in a small town that turns a blind eye to his mother’s bruises. She won’t leave his abusive alcoholic father. Her escape is to die of cancer, leaving her teenage son to endure the thrashings alone.

It’s told in the first person, giving fucked-up, foul-mouthed Jaxie room to let loose: “the prose equivalent of a good long slug of room-temperature rum,” Good Weekend described it.

When his father dies in a sudden accident in the opening pages, Jaxie is terrified he’ll be blamed and flees north deep into the Wheatbelt. Starving and dehydrated, he comes upon a vast salt lake. And on its border, an old shepherd’s hut.

There lives Fintan, a defrocked Irish priest hiding a secret. He’s been there eight years. Twice a year someone drives in supplies and asks him to atone for his sins. He never does and the sins are never revealed, though there are hints at some kind of political scandal. He takes Jaxie in, gives him food and water, and nurses him into health and a prickly, cautious friendship.

He give me a pannikin of tea and he sat back down and drunk his slow and methodical. I looked back at that bead thing on the shelf. It was way out of place in a hut like this, in an old dude’s stuff, and he could see me sussing it out and I thought for sure he’d get on his hind legs and say fifty-nine things about it but the look on his face said that wasn’t gunna happen, like it was off limits.
Good chops, I said.

The book is highly readable. By 50 pages in, compulsion sets in and I rip through it at warp speed. Writing Jaxie, Winton lets you look straight through the eyes of a rough kid staring down the barrel of a hopeless future. He’s gone full immersion, Stanislavsky style. The voice of our country’s most famous writer is entirely subsumed by this angry little dero, all burred up like a scorpion about to strike, as his own girlfriend describes him. Winton’s not building complex characters and scenery like in his other books; it’s all narrative drive.

The writing glows like a hot coal. He builds the story like he’s building a fire, first placing your empathy, then your hope, then slowly your foreboding, priming you for the explosion you know is coming.

But it ain’t genre fiction, no matter how thrilling, and so, as with much good literary novels you’re required to do a little head scratching at the end.

My boss Fran and I were both puzzled, and we came up with zilch, so I did a little research and I present below some hints on how to think about it all. Don’t worry; no spoilers.

Think about the old priest as a Christian shepherd. He’s living in a shepherd’s hut, but there are no sheep left. Being too old to hunt roos for meat like Jaxie, he lures and traps goats into a backyard water trap to slit their throats. He does no shepherding, until he takes Jaxie in and saves his life, giving him food, drink and succour in the Christian tradition of welcoming a stranger.

The mysterious old sinner is both a bad shepherd and a good shepherd.

And the symbol of the sacrificial goat will appear again.

In the Australian Book Review, Brenda Niall says this notion of a priest atoning for sins in the desert recalls an 1850s painting by Holman Hunt, The Scapegoat.

“Hunt bought a white goat. He took the goat to the margin of the salt-encrusted Dead Sea, where he set up his easel. A piece of red cloth, representing the sins of the world, was tied to the goat’s horns,” she wrote.

“Hunt was dramatising the Old Testament text in which ‘the Goat shall bear upon him all [the people’s] iniquities unto a land not inhabited’. This, in Christian belief, is in accord with the idea of the suffering Christ as the bearer of the world’s sins and sorrows.”

Whether or not Winton was purposefully invoking this particular painting, you are left with clear symbols: a shepherd, the sacrificial goat, Jaxie as an ‘instrument of God’.

Is Jaxie receiving a sacrifice as the son of God, made in his image as Christianity tells us all people are, and therefore deserving of a brighter future?

And, more obviously: how can Jaxie avoid becoming his father, and make his own brighter future?

How can our society do better than ignoring suffering, allowing a poisonous and violent version of manhood to continue, letting evil flourish?

Winton told the New York Times his ability to describe the world he sees makes him rich despite his modest upbringing; that this book is a nod to those boys without that luxury.

“Such a narrow lexicon, range of words, strong feelings with no way of expressing them except with their fists,” he said. “That’s poverty.”

 

And I drive like that, just under the limit, with a chop in one hand and the wheel in the other. Laughing hard enough to choke. For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you never experienced that I feel sorry for you.

But it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. and for fucksake don’t get in my way.

 

 

In other Winton news, two of his other Booker-shortlisted books have now been picked up for films after the success of Breath (highly recommended). Dirt Music will likely be filmed in WA. And…! My favourite Winton novel The Riders will be produced by Ridley Scott! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Beguiled, or ‘women making movies from books by men about women.’

After watching The Virgin Suicides I wanted more books by Jeffrey Eugenides and more films by Sofia Coppola.

I now have a copy of Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, but that’s on a ridiculously big to-read pile, so more on that later. Quicker gratification was had through renting Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, a Southern gothic set in rural Mississippi during the American Civil War.

Released last year, it has a high-powered cast; Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst play two hot but buttoned-up schoolmarms looking after a few stranded students (including Elle Fanning, Australia’s Angourie Rice, from Jasper Jones) all walled up in their seminary on the edge of a forest waiting out the war.

One of the younger girls comes across a wounded enemy soldier in the forest and her teachers decide not to turn him in and to tend his wounds and let him recover his health within their four walls instead.

But nobody reckons on the hotbed of lust that can become of a bunch of beautiful women of varying age locked up with a charmingly helpless (but growing stronger every day) Colin Farrell. In short you don’t know who needs protecting more, him or them, and that scenario keeps changing over the course of the movie.

It has the Coppola cinematography I craved. The outdoor shots, particularly, of the massive trees dripping with Spanish moss, dwarfing the human story playing out beneath them, somehow frame the whole story, emphasising their isolation and heightening the sense of dreamy beauty. And the intimate shots of the women and their faces make for another sensitive portrayal of human beauty, emotion and desire.

The narrative has plenty of suspense, fuelled by a sense of imminent danger and disaster, and controlled, nuanced performances from the actors. The ending, when it comes, is melancholic and subdued. I didn’t mind that too much, but Charlie, who I watched it with, was disappointed, having hoped for something a bit more dramatic. The Ministry probably would have hated the ending.

Interestingly, like The Virgin Suicides, this was a female director making a movie from a book about female power and sexuality, that was originally written by a male author.

I wonder in circumstances like these about the multiple acts of creative perception and imagination that led to what I finally see onscreen, especially since it’s finally coloured by me, the person watching it.

It’s not haunting like The Virgin Suicides, and probably isn’t something you’d watch twice. But I would be interested to see the 1971 version (starring Clint Eastwood) and definitely recommend watching this, to anyone interested in contemporary cinema. You won’t be bored, unless you’re exclusively into Marvel movies.

Speaking of which, I’ve just seen this trailer for Venom. I don’t generally think much of Marvel movies (X-Men and other exceptions aside) but the blurb from its PR people called it “one of Marvel’s most complex characters”, and the preview looked cool (until 1.20 when I stopped watching, as I do in all trailers now). Now I’m dithering over whether to go see it. Anyone excited about this?

New Anna Kendrick, new Perth CBD cinema!

Anna Kendrick is in a new movie and I love Anna Kendrick and the movie looks good too. Did I mention I love Anna Kendrick?

This is playing this weekend at Raine Square’s new Palace Cinema, along with a bunch of other goodlooking movies including Christopher Robin, Custody, Searching and You Were Never Really Here. And all the tickets are $10 until sold out. And there’s $5 glasses of prosecco, if I recall.

So if you want to check out the apparently very swanky new cinema, now is the time.

The Virgin Suicides: well worth another watch

Re-watched The Virgin Suicides for the first time in many years.

Just craved a movie that meant something. You know?

It was heartachingly beautiful. All the girls, particularly (of course) Kirsten Dunst, but also those coltish teenage boys. Sofia Coppola did such an incredible job, visually, with all that dreamy use of colour. But also with the scripting. She obviously drew directly on the book for a lot of that narration.

Like this bit.

“What lingered after them was not life, which always overcomes natural death, but the most trivial list of mundane facts: a clock ticking on a wall, a room dim at noon, and the outrageousness of a human being thinking only of herself.”

 

Strikes like an arrow, doesn’t it.

I haven’t actually read the book, but I recognised Eugenides’ language from having read the excellent family saga Middlesex which he wrote 10 years later (I’m sure if I wrote The Virgin Suicides I’d want a decade’s rest afterwards as well).

I’m now motivated to chase down a copy of The Virgin Suicides and read it. I am pretty sure the film’s nailed it, but I just want more of that Eugenides word magic.

Also, I want more Sofia Coppola-directed movies. I’m reminded to seek out The Beguiled, which came out last year but I forgot to go see, and 2006’s Marie Antoinette (both with Kirsten Dunst. Must be her muse). Anyone seen either of these? I’m taking recommendations.

Stephen King’s The Outsider

I always feel frustrated when people tell me they don’t like the kind of books Stephen King writes, because invariably they don’t know what “kind of books” he actually does write.

He has written horror, yes, but throughout his productive 35-year career he’s also written fantasy, speculative fiction, crime  fiction and thrillers. Some works, such as The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and the Dark Tower series, are closer to literature, albeit with usually some hint of the supernatural (he can’t stop being fun altogether). As a writer he defies easy classification and smug dismissal.

Recent examples: Sleeping Beauties, with his son Owen King was nominally apocalyptic fantasy, but the epic was set firmly in hyperreal small-town America, like the earlier Under the Dome (which the TV series utterly failed to do justice to).

By contrast, Mr Mercedes marked a confident move into crime fiction, bringing the King characterisation and suspense into a straightforward, if horror-tinged, murder mystery (the Hulu TV series for this did a lot better). Finders Keepers loosely carried on this genre, storyline and characters, as does The Outsider; at least at first.

The official blurb:

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

I won’t say how this novel begins to depart from the pattern set by Mr Mercedes and Finders Keepers. That way spoilers lie. Suffice to say it is set some years afterwards and, while borrowing a character or two, is a standalone story. Another glossy, fat, happily page-turning read that requires you only to surrender disbelief and enjoy.

And enjoy I did. If you read and liked the first two, I would definitely recommend it, but I do warn that like Finders Keepers, it doesn’t quite live up to Mr Mercedes. So if you’re new to Stephen King’s crime fiction, do start with that one instead.