This is a must-read for anyone interested in artists and writers in Paris in the early part of the 20th century, because every writer and artist of any note who was in Paris at that time encountered Gertrude Stein at some point. Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Magritte, Apollinaire, Gide, Pound and Hemingway: all of them and many others attended Stein's celebrated Saturday evening salon.
Stein wrote this work in the conversational style of Toklas, who was her life partner. Ostensibly Toklas' autobiography, it is in reality Stein's memoir written as if Stein were Toklas. Whether the voice which emerges is authentically that of Toklas I don't know, but the conversational style is very convincing and comes complete with non sequiturs and digressions. It's an interesting device, but it doesn't make the book - a relatively short one - easy to read. At least, I didn't find it so. If Stein accurately reproduced the rhythm and content of Toklas' conversation, then Toklas was probably best taken in small doses.
Writing about herself as if her partner were the one doing the writing allowed Stein to blow her own trumpet more than would have been seemly in a straight memoir. There was nothing shy and retiring about Stein and her high opinion of herself never faltered. Here's what she wrote - in Toklas' voice - at the end of the first chapter:
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 genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead*. I have met many important people, I have met several great people but I have only known three first class geniuses and in each case on sight within me something rang. In no one of the three cases have I been mistaken.
I initially suspected that the not infrequent references in the text to Stein's genius were meant ironically, but I was rapidly persuaded that Stein was serious. She was convinced that her writing had great merit and could not understand why her literary genius went so long unrecoginsed.
One of the reasons I wanted to read this book was for Stein's impressions of Ernest Hemingway, who held Stein up to ridicule in [b:A Moveable Feast|4631|A Moveable Feast|Ernest Hemingway|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1356407015s/4631.jpg|2459084]. They had initially been good friends, but fell out when Hemingway disparaged [a:Sherwood Anderson|45645|Sherwood Anderson|http://d.gr-assets.com/authors/1206470009p2/45645.jpg], whom Stein considered had been a great influence on Hemingway's writing. Reading what Stein had to say about Hemingway in this book - almost all of it extremely unflattering - made me realise that Hemingway's portrait of Stein in A Moveable Feast was effectively his revenge.
This is unlikely to be enjoyed by anyone not interested in the writers and artists with whom Stein was acquainted and in that particular period in the history of Paris. Stein, of course, would have wanted the book read for the pleasure of reading the work of a literary genius. Sadly, I think I would prefer to read more about Stein than more of her writing. As it is, this is worth in the region of 3-1/2 stars.
*Not being of a mathematical or scientific bent, I'd never heard of Whitehead before. This is what Wikipedia says about him.