On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)
NEXT BOOK: Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, a collection of essays about art by Jeanette Winterson.
In 1933, Gertrude Stein published The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Already we are down the rabbit hole. Because an autobiography has to be … about the author, yes? Can we all agree on that? Gertrude Stein did not agree on that. And so she wrote this book, as though she were Alice B. Toklas (her longtime companion), and it was presented as non-fiction, an autobiography. I just re-watched Abbas Kiarostami’s magnificent film Close-Up, and it has similar elements of all of this “confusion” about what is real, and does it matter what is real, and cannot something almost totally contrived and created be almost realler than reality? Yes? No?
In today’s world, when a fabricator like James Frey is called on Oprah’s carpet and forced to apologize for passing off his (bad) fiction as memoir … we have little tolerance for experimentation with the truth. (My beef with that whole thing is that Frey was a bad writer. I didn’t care so much that he pretended it was true. I cared that the writing was bad and he was being celebrated for something that was not well-written. This is what Fran Leibowitz warned us about when she said, “Having been unpopular in high school is not just cause for book publication.”) James Frey could not get his book published as fiction, because the prose wasn’t good enough, but once he said it was true, voila, publishers came calling. I was fascinated by that whole thing because it really pinpointed some of the issues in the publishing world, and what “we” care about. We like things to be clear, open, transparent. Everyone must be honest at all times. No TRICKS. We live in a very strict age. We live in a very literal age.
However, things were not all that different back in 1933. In the wake of Stein’s “autobiography,” many people who were described in the book were angered, they felt they were mis-represented. In 1935, a “Testimony Against Gertrude Stein” was published in a French literary magazine. Henri Matisse was the most annoyed, and wanted to make it clear that Gertrude Stein was very peripheral to his world, she was never as fully involved as she claimed to be, and yadda yadda, blah blah blah. People were pissed! Not only were people pissed about appearing in the book, and not liking the portrayal, but outsiders were confused. How can this be an autobiography if Alice B. Toklas didn’t write it? What is Gertrude Stein up to? People don’t like to be TRICKED. People want to know how the magician does his tricks, they want to remove the anxiety of not-knowing.
Jeanette Winterson plays around with autobiography, too. Her first book, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was categorized as a memoir, but it was written in such a way that you are just not quite sure if she is a reliable narrator. In fact, many times she sounds like she’s lying. This is a deliberate choice on Winterson’s part. Her interest in story-telling, in the truth of stories (that stories are truer than real life could ever even hope to be), courses through all of her fiction. In The Passion, one of the narrators is a cross-dressing web-footed Venetian woman at the time of Napoleon, the daughter of a boatman, who works in the casinos at night, sleeping with people (men and women), living light and free and unattached, before love comes unexpectedly and grabs hold of her. She prefers her identity to be fluid. She likes to be a boy, she likes to be a girl. She does not want to choose. Some of the stories she tells us are fantastical, and hard to believe. And one of the things she says, repeatedly, throughout the narrative is:
I’m telling you stories. Trust me.
Those two sentences get deeper and funnier and trickier the more I think about them. To put those two sentences back to back destabilizes the rules of fiction, of storytelling. The “trust me” is especially delicious, and in the context of The Passion sounds different depending on the context (it shows up throughout the book). It sounds truthful, it sounds manipulative, a cooing in the ear of her latest mark: “Trust me …” as she lifts his wallet from his inner pocket. You just don’t know. And Winterson does not want to choose either way. She REFUSES to choose. People want her to be more literal. “So did your mother really act like that?” You can almost hear Winterson saying, between the lines of Oranges, “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.”
In the little author’s blurb for Oranges, Winterson claims that she ran away to join the circus. I think she might have said, too, that she worked as a “shepherd” as well. The whole thing feels fabricated, and this is her author’s blurb, which we are supposed to trust. It’s fabulous ! (Barbra Streisand, when she made her debut on Broadway, had a similarly ridiculous bio in the playbill, none of which was true. I believe she said she was born amongst the natives in Borneo. Streisand too was a master storyteller, creating a persona out of her own fantasies for herself. People make fun of her long nails, but she grew those long nails because her mother wanted her to go to secretarial school. As long as she had those long nails, she couldn’t type. Those nails are important, those nails are a declaration of independence, a refusal to be limited by what others want for her.)
It should be no surprise, then, to learn that Winterson was so inspired by The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It showed her the possibilities, it showed her that there are no rules. Or those who love the rules and remind you of the rules do not need to be listened to. Do your own thing. Write whatever the hell you want. Do not listen to small people if you are up to big things.
The Autobiography showed Winterson that all bets were off. That literature was much more ferocious and wild and out-there and fantastical than the literary magazines would have you believe. Winterson has much in common with the magical-realists like Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but she follows the stars of Stein, and Woolf, and Joyce, and T.S. Eliot … who were somehow, incredibly, able to turn their backs on the gigantic weight of the 19th century form, and mess it up, futz with it, make fun of it, turn it inside out. (It is important to remember, however, that those Modernists knew their literature. They were not just “experimenting” randomly. They knew their Dickens and Trollope and Eliot, they knew them inside and out. It’s like modern dance or jazz. Only when you are familiar with the old forms can you start to create your own.)
This essay by Winterson is a beautiful examination of what Gertrude Stein was up to with that “autobiography”. It’s a very interesting essay about truth, and people’s need for total truth, and how limiting reality is, how limiting “truth” is.
Excerpt from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery: ‘Testimony Against Gertrude Stein’, by Jeanette Winterson
Gertrude Stein played a trick and it was a very good trick too. She had, as a precedent, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) but instead of re-making biography into fiction, she pushed the experiment one step further, and re-defined autobiography as the ultimate Trojan horse.
We are supposed to know where we are with biography and autobiography, they are the literary equivalents of the portrait and the self-portrait. (Reflect a while on what the Post-Impressionists did with those.) One is the representation of someone else’s life, and the other is the representation of your own. We shouldn’t have to worry about form and experiment, and we can rest assured that the writer (or the painter) is sticking to the facts. We can feel safe with facts. You can introduce a fact to your mother and you can go out at night with a proven fact on your arm. There we are; a biography in one hand, and an autobiography in the other. A rose is a rose is a rose.
Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions and yet they fear both. They only feel comfortable with what they know and they believe that art is the mirror of life; someone else’s or their own. How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?’
Bring on the Trojan horse. In the belly of a biography stash the Word. The Word that is both form and substance. The moving word uncaught. Woolf smuggled across the borders of complacency the most outrageous contraband; lesbianism, cross-dressing, female power, but as much as that, and to me more than that, she smuggled her language alive past the checkpoints of propriety.
At similar risk, although Stein is not close to the genius of Woolf, the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is an act of terrorism against worn-out assumptions of what literature is and what form its forms can take. Modernism fights against fixity of form, not to invite an easy chaos but to rebuild new possibilities. Art cannot move forward by clinging to past discoveries and the re-discovery of form is essential to anyone who wants to do fresh work. Stein knew this as well as Picasso knew it and although she was not as able as he to devise new solutions, she perfectly understood the problem. That in itself makes her a significant writer. The Autobiography has been described as a retreat from her experimental style but it was no more a retreat for her than Orlando was a compromise for Woolf. Both writers identified and exploited the weak-mindedness of labels. The Autobiography is not Gertrude ghosting Alice, it is Gertrude refusing to accept that real people need to be treated really. She included herself. Gertrude Stein made all of the people around her into characters in her own fiction. I think that a splendid blow to verismo and one which simultaneously questions identity, the nature of truth and the purpose of art. Had anyone said to Matisse ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘Your painting is not a proper record of that house/fruit bowl/guitar’, Matisse would have laughed in his face. Why then is Matisse complaining that Gertrude has not made a proper record of him?
It was not necessary to agree with the focus of any of Stein’s work, or to like it, to know that she was a committed experimenter and that to her, nothing was sacred except the word. Stein never pretended that Toklas had written the book, and even though Stein is named on the jacket as the author, the last paragraph is still one of the wickedest most delightful paragraphs in English literature:
About six weeks ago Gertrude Stein said, it does not look to me as if you were ever going to write that autobiography. You know what I am going to do? I am going to write it for you. I am going to write it as simply as Defoe did the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe. And she has and this is it.
How could she? The cheek of it. It is an explosion of eighteenth-century wit and Modernist sensibility. The world turned upside down. Poor Matisse. Made into a fiction and determined to behave like a fact. What would he have said if Stein had rejected the portrait painted of her by Picasso when Picasso blanked out her head?
By refusing to recognize Gertrude Stein’s literary adventure her accusers were forced into writs of authenticity. A fact is a fact is a fact. Or is it? Stein was not writing a faithful account of her Paris years, she was vandalizing a cliche of literature. Autobiography? Yes, like Robinson Crusoe. Why not daub with bright green paint the smug low wall of assumption?