Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

I first came to these two women through Monique Truong’s witty and sly THE BOOK OF SALT, an excerpt of which was in the CHARLIE CHAN IS DEAD, vol. 2 anthology that I taught to my Ethnic Literature students a year ago.

Here is an excerpt from Truong’s book which shows the main character, a Vietnamese immigrant, being interviewed by a potential employer in Paris:

“Hmmm, you say you’ve been in Paris for three years? Now, let’s see, if you left Indochina when you were twenty, that would make you…”

“Twenty-six, Madame.”

Three years unaccounted for! you could almost hear them thinking. Most Parisians could ignore and even forgive me for not having the refinement to be born amidst the ringing bells of their cathedrals, especially since I was born instead amidst the ringing bells of the replicas of their cathedrals, erected in a far-off colony to remind them of the majesty, the piety, of home.”

My students liked the excerpt that they read; they responded immediately to its subversive humor, and to its portrayal of the two famous American women in Paris: “I awake the next morning to the sound of Miss Toklas slamming pots and pans in the kitchen.”

My next encounter with the two women was my Women’s Literature class. Here I asked my students to nominate for study the woman writer they most wanted to know about. A majority of the class said they wanted to study Gertrude Stein. They had only heard of her eccentric expatriate life in Paris and they thought she sounded cool.

And so, even though I had never read so much as a paragraph by Gertrude Stein (I grew up in the Philippines– Stein was like a far-off echo in my head. Bouncing off walls, her name eventually carried to my home city of Manila, but my knowledge of her was never more than a name…), I gamely took on the challenge and assigned the following stories by her:

“The Gentle Lena”
“Picasso”
“Ada”
“Miss Furr and Miss Skeene”

I taught the class in the spring of this year. I divided the students into four groups; each group had to write a paper on one of the four assigned stories.

The students were supposed to write these papers over the midterm break. When we gathered in the classroom after the break– alack, alas!– I was met with howls of dissatisfaction and weary complaints (“This story was so boring it gave me a headache.”) At the end of the semester, when the students had to do my survey of which texts they thought should be taught again next year, and which should be discarded, top of the list of recommended discards was– yup, you guessed it: Gertrude Stein.

I’m reminded of Gertrude again because, reading the Nov. 13 New Yorker at 5:59 AM this morning (Have one of those early-morning classes at xxxxxx community college and will need to get going pretty soon. Am VERY bleary-eyed today, since I stayed up late last night surfing the web– bad teacher! Bad teacher!), there’s an article by Janet Malcolm called “Strangers in Paradise: How Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas got to Heaven.”

And there’s a passage in the article that I’m making my quote for the day:

“In WARS I HAVE SEEN (1945), her memoir of the Second World War, Gertrude Stein writes of the remarkable kindness of a young Frenchman named Paul Genin, the owner of a silk factory in Lyons and a country neighbor, who came to her after America entered the war and asked if she needed money. She did — the funds from America on which she and Alice B. Toklas depended no longer arrived — and he offered her a matching monthly stipend. Stein and Toklas lived on Genin’s kindness for six months, after which Stein sold a Cezanne and no longer needed money.

In her memoir, Stein writes: “And so I thanked Paul Genin and paid him back and he said if you ever need me just tell me, and that was that.”

Stein goes on to reflect: “Life is funny that way. It always is funny that way, the ones that naturally should offer do not, and those who have no reason to offer, do, you never know where your good-fortune is to come from.”

On which note: I hope my classes are not too awful today, since I’m dead on my feet already and it’s only 6:22 in the morning ……

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