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…

 

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! 

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

image

I immediately latched on to watching this when the Ministry gave it to me as one of several options to watch on the weekend with a quiet bottle of wine on the couch.

It’s an adaptation of game show host Chuck Barris’ cult memoir claiming he was also a CIA assassin.

I was taken with the cast list – Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Julia Roberts – and the premise. I mean what the? Who’s Chuck Barris? Why’s he famous? What’s the Dating Game? Is it like the dating show in Mallrats? (Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Generation Y.)

Most importantly, is it true?

I’m always so fascinated by “based on true” stories, especially those that leave you unsure of to what extent you should believe them, and to what extent you should never mind the bollocks.

Most people, it seems, think Barris just cooked up a pile of bollocks, but they differ on why, and he provides no help on either issue by saying he won’t confirm or deny a thing. The CIA, by all accounts, maintains it’s ridiculous.

The Straight Dope’s Cecil Adams, self-confessed smartest human in the world, says Barris made a living by being outrageous and the story proves only that he never lost his touch (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2437/was-chuck-barris-a-hit-man-for-the-cia)

Time Magazine’s Joel Stein neatly explains that the lie is the only truthful way Barris could find to express the moral confusion he found in being attacked for doing harmless but peurile work, even as others were getting medals for killing other people (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,404266,00.html#ixzz2LzjmnHdM)

For my part, I was left with an agony of tantalised indecision: it was such a wacky tale, but I was so taken in by it.

Its sense of darkness, hurt and conflict was communicated with stylish cinematography and a convincing performance from Sam Rockwell as Barris, complete with dreamlike end sequence reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream’s film adaptation (2000).

Who knows whether Barris’ book, as opposed to Charlie Kaufman’s script, would have had the same effect on me. It must have been convincing enough to capture others’ imagination too… or was it? Original readers must surely have had more knowledge of the Barris phenomenon, which was perhaps big enough to turn such a book into a cult sensation whether it was a crap read or not.

George Clooney, who directed the movie, supposedly had this to say, according to quotes on About.com and elsewhere:

“I wanted to be able to say I think it’s a really fascinating story – if it’s not true – that someone as successful as Chuck Barris felt the need to write that story.”

(http://movies.about.com/library/weekly/aaconfessionsinta.htm)

That’s what gets me, too. What moves someone to write such a thing? It’s a lot of effort to go to, when you’re already cashed up and famous. Humans are complex creatures and like I said, I love these mysterious stories.

They make me think and that’s why I’ve talked more about that, rather than what it looked like (though it looked great and visuals can convey just as much meaning when done well).

That’s why I downed a bottle of rosê without really intending to then spent the next half hour bugging the Ministry about WHAT IT MEANS AND I WANT TO KNOW WHAT IT MEANS.

I like Stein’s explanation about it being a truthful way to express moral confusion: this seems to me a simple way to describe complicated  things.

More people should watch this movie and give me their opinions. Rosê optional.