The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

Some say there’s magic everywhere. Or perhaps they say ‘magic happens.’ Some fall under the spell of life itself. Some fall under the spell of language.

Most of the time I’d say that’s all a load of horseshit. But then I have to wonder, what do I believe, then? Magic, yes. Not everywhere. Maybe not even in language. Maybe not even in the self. But a certain self, a certain language… yes, that’s a start. I probably believe in magic in the same way I believe in hubris. There are those that dare to say, ‘I am the only one.’ I think Jesus said something to that effect. And wasn’t he an arrogant charmer, when you really get down to things. Dabbled in transfiguration. Made himself a god. A good storyteller too.

When someone says, ‘I am the only one,’ there is always a small, terrible chance that they are right.

Writers, the really good writers, sometimes they do this too. Gertrude Stein ventriloquised her long-time lover Alice B. Toklas in the eponymous ‘autobiographical’ title. The book is littered with these kinds of cheeky remarks,

… and there at her house I met Gertrude Stein. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of the genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.

…They knew that in the twentieth century, Gertrude Stein is the only one.

But are they really cheeky, or is that my projection? Is Stein simply giving voice to Alice’s judgement? Or more audaciously, is Stein voicing universal judgement, which through her genius, she is able to intuit? In other words – magic?

To be honest I loved this book for about the first hundred pages. I was utterly charmed by the balls-out confidence of the entire project, not just the book, but the life led that the book renders full of laughter, brilliant company, total cultural belonging. After a few chapters of this outrageously positive volume I grew weary, and I fear that I’ll never get beyond the war years, which are still stuffed with wholesome, genius-filled good times. Alec Baldwin once said to Jerry Seinfeld, ‘Your life has just been one long boulevard of green lights,’ and that phrase springs to mind here. No sour grapes towards anyone, but I’d probably never finish Seinfeld’s book either.

I was asked recently to consider why I write. I silently modified the question to ‘why I don’t write.’ I think about writing, and I tell stories to the people closest to me. I narrate everything, but the paper trail always grows faint behind me. The answer to the latter question is in many ways much more instructive than the former.

I echo E. M. Forster’s thoughts on the subject of the writing life. He writes, he said, to share his thoughts with his clever, creative friends. Forster was the opposite of the deity writer. He was the humanist. He followed mediocritas, the middle way. He never thought he was particularly a great writer. I think his allergy to hubris allowed him to say things, to find things that no one else could, that only modesty and qualification and uncertainty could locate. I believe he didn’t write for acclaim, he wrote to gain access, to justify access to a very particular circle of thinkers.

I always finish Forster’s books, at any rate.

My Revolutionary Friends


Lately I’ve been reading James Baldwin’s No Name in the Street. Every time I read Baldwin I realise I really haven’t read enough of his works. I think I realise this primarily because his voice varies so incredibly from text to text. No Name in the Street is a killer sample of matter-of-fact historical account, cut through with personal turns on some serious figures – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton… As often with these types of cross-genre texts (part autobiography, part political analysis, part travelogue, part wise banter) the pacing and framing are in constant flux… what I’m trying to say is that I feel so much joy to have rediscovered a master. ‘People pay for what they do, and, still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives they lead.’

At Home Among Strangers

Lately I’ve also been watching some Russian cinema. At Home Among Strangers, a Stranger at Home (Nikita Mikhalkov) has to have the loftiest opening sequence in the entirety of movies. The musical number, riffing on the ideals of equality and brotherhood, sets up the nuanced interpretation of the musical genre in the narrative that follows. But to be honest I could have stood up and saluted my television after the song ended. The ironic use of the revolutionary moment was not lost on me (I think…) but there was a splendour in that scene that was just totally unexpected and therefore – my jaw dropped. You know those times when you think, ‘I’m watching the best thing ever?’ Yeah. Those are good times.

Lately I’ve had a bit of Linton Kwesi Johnson stuck in my head (probably triggered by thinking about the Black Panthers) – this is from the poem ‘New Craas Massakah’ :

is a hellava something fi true yu know
wat a terrible price wi haffah pay dow, mah
jus fi live likkle life
jus fi struggle fi suvive
everyday is jus worries an struggle an strife

Last weekend I attended a 24 hour speak-out against the government’s refugee policy. I decided to read Attila Jozsef’s poem, ‘The Seventh.’ It can feel strange, reading poetry to a non-poetry audience, but I think the organisers were grateful for the spontaneous volunteering to fill some air time. Here’s the final stanza:

 And if all went as was written,
 you will die for seven men.
 One, who is rocked and suckled,
 one, who grabs a hard young breast,
 one, who throws down empty dishes,
 one, who helps the poor win;
 one, who worked till he goes to pieces,
 one, who just stares at the moon.
 The world will be your tombstone:
 you yourself must be the seventh.

It seems like these things I’ve been doing lately are interconnected – for what purpose, however, I’m not sure.