Alice B. Toklas was 29 years old in 1908 when she left her home in San Francisco for Paris. She met Gertrude Stein the day she arrived in Paris and the star struck Toklas was moved to write:
“She was a golden brown presence, burned by the Tuscan sun and with a golden glint in her warm brown hair. She was dressed in a warm brown corduroy suit. She wore a large round coral brooch and when she talked, very little, or laughed, a good deal, I thought her voice came from this brooch. It was unlike anyone else’s voice– deep, full, velvety, like a great contralto’s, like two voices.”
It must have been love at first sight. Pablo Picasso had his own ideas for Stein; this famous portrait was painted in 1907, the year before Toklas arrived in Paris.
Picasso’s portrait of Stein recently came to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) as part of the exhibition: The Steins Collect. The painting was beautifully displayed along side a floor-to-ceiling photograph of the apartment.
The exhibit kicked off a flurry of Stein shows. A concurrent exhibit at the Jewish History Museum emphasized the public life of Stein and Toklas and Stein’s 1934-35 lecture tour of the United States:
“It was Stein’s first visit in 30 years and Toklas accompanied her. From the moment the women arrived in New York harbor, the American press followed them every step of the way, yielding far more coverage, headlines, and news photographs than Stein had ever elicited abroad. It was a triumphant homecoming and Stein became America’s most famous expatriate.”
—Jewish History Museum.
I had never read anything by Stein (or by Toklas, for that matter) so I downloaded from the Kindle store Stein’s, ironically titled, but highly popular memoir: The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Well, the book was a total flop for me; I got bored with Stein praising Stein in the words of Toklas and couldn’t get connected to the story. Echoing Stein’s words about Oakland—“there was no there there” for me.
I abandoned Stein’s Autobiography, but I didn’t want to give up on reading Stein. There was a new critical edition of Stein’s 1941 novel Ida on Kindle so I downloaded the first chapter to give it a try before buying.
The publisher’s description of Ida: The Novel says that the novel deals with fame and celebrity:
Gertrude Stein wanted Ida to be known in two ways: as a novel about a woman in the age of celebrity culture and as a text with its own story to tell.
This new edition has the full text of the novel, an essay by Logan Esdale (the editor of the edition) and a fist-full of reviews, Stein’s working materials and letters—quite a package.
Ida A Novel (as Stein titled it) begins with the beginning of Ida:
“There was a baby born named Ida. Its mother held it with her hands to keep Ida from being born but when the time came Ida came. And as Ida came, with her came her twin, so there was Ida-Ida.
“The mother was sweet and gentle and so was the father. The whole family was sweet and gentle except the great-aunt. She was the only exception.
“So Ida was born and very little while after her parents went off on a trip and never came back. That was the first funny thing that happened to Ida.
–Ida, Kindle Location 484
Of course, Ida went to live with the great-aunt, but nothing bad happens to Ida. It’s not that kind of story.
Like most children, Ida had a dog; she named him Love:
“Yes Love she said to him, you have always had me and now you are going to have two, I am doing to have a twin yes I am Love, I am tired of being just one and when I am twin one of us can go out and one of us can stay in, yes Love yes I am yes I am going to have a twin. You know Love I am like that when I have to have it. And I have to have a twin, yes Love.”
–Ida, Kindle Location 533
Now there was Ida, Ida-Ida (the birth twin) and Love the dog, but Ida was growing up and wanted another twin. And so Winnie enters the novel:
“Ida went on living with her great-aunt, there where they lived just outside the city, she and her dog Love and her piano. She did write letters very often to her twin Ida.
So pleased so very pleased that you are winning, I might even call you Winnie because you are winning.
Your twin, Ida-Ida
And so Winnie was coming to be known to be Winnie.
–Ida, Kindle 679
The novel is getting complicated, and Ida is still young. She has yet to discover men. Soon she will meet Arthur and will enter the first of her many marriages, and she will move; she is always moving.
I read on through these complications, sometimes shaking my head in disbelief, but eventually I finished the novel. All in all, I give it thumbs up for inventiveness.
One of the strengths of this edition of Ida is that newspaper and magazine reviews of Ida The Novel are included. Many reviewers in 1941 complained that the book had no plot and some reviewers were unkind enough to imply that the book was mostly nonsense.
A reviewer for Book of the Week suggested:
“Don’t bother about the commas which aren’t there, read the words. Don’t worry about the sense that is there, read the words faster. If you have any trouble, read faster and faster until you don’t.”
Strangely enough, this advice seemed to work for me. I accepted my role as reader, and not copy-editor. When I couldn’t find meaning, I went on reading—though, not necessarily faster and faster.
Stein’s publisher Bennett Cerf (a dear friend) wrote a note for the flap of the first edition of Ida A Novel. Cerf first praised Stein’s courage and indomitable spirit in working on the novel while living in German occupied France during the early years of WW II (1937-1941).
Cerf concluded the note by noticing that this was her first novel in eleven years and:
“Ida was the name she chose for the new one, and here it is, presented faithfully to you by a publisher who rarely has the faintest idea of what Miss Stein is talking about, but who admires her from the bottom of his heart for her courage and for her abounding love of humanity and freedom.”
I don’t know if that much honesty was really necessary, but it underscores the avant-garde nature of the novel.
My recommendation: read Ida with an open mind, don’t look for secret meanings and, above all, enjoy the sound of the words. Read parts of Ida aloud. If you want to hear a professional reading of the first half of Ida, you have only to check out the site of UMBC professor/actor, Wendy Salkind.
Here is Salkind’s introduction to Ida on the web site Gertrude Stein Aloud:
“Welcome to Gertrude Stein Aloud, a website of audio recordings of four prose pieces by the Modernist American writer, Gertrude Stein. I am a performer who has been reading Gertrude Stein’s writings aloud for many years, and exploring the performative nature of her prose writing. Her extraordinary explorations with language are a challenge to an actor, such as myself, who was trained to interpret literary images so that an audience will discover meaning.”
Salkind’s piece is 38 minutes long. I have listened to it twice, marvelous work.
The workshop critical edition of Gertrude Stein’s Ida was made possible by the Beinecke Library at Yale, which houses the Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Papers.
Stein and Toklas, truly a lifelong partnership.
Week 8-2012: Ida: A Novel—Gertrude Stein, Logan Esdale (Editor), Yale University Press (2012).