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.