Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Grave of Alice B. Toklas

I should be reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks at the moment, especially as I set it for myself as a kind of personal reading challenge for Remembrance Day. Instead I keep picking up a collection of essays by Otto Friedrich called The Grave of Alice B. Toklas & Other Reports from the Past.

This collection was published in 1991 and it's comprised of writing from throughout Friedrich's career as a writer and journalist. It's a surprisingly engaging book, especially for someone like me who tends not to read much non-fiction. Maybe I've enjoyed it so much so far because the first few essays deal with the process of writing and creating art.

The title essay describes Friedrich's youth and the years he lived in Europe fancying himself as the next great novelist. With the incredible confidence of the young, he goes about meeting many of the great living writers in a Europe that is just emerging from the devastation of World War II. His journey finally leads him to the living room of Alice B. Toklas who nurtures and encourages his writing. Friedrich's output is incredibly prolific (at 20 he has already written two novels and is planning a quadrilogy) and ambitious (his quadrilogy will 'capture' the second World War and its impact). Friedrich writes 'Somewhere Gertrude Stein had written that writers don't need literary criticism, they need praise' and this is what Toklas gives him. Their friendship lasts until Toklas' death despite Friedrich's failure to publish his early novels, or to achieve the literary greatness he had hoped for. In some ways the friendship becomes burdensome to him towards the end, a reminder of what he has failed to become, and this gives the essay a certain poignancy. Still, it is an interesting portrait of Toklas who spent so many years in the shadow of her more famous partner Gertrude Stein.

Another interesting essay is about Wagner. Friedrich uses Wagner as a way of discussing the guilt felt by many people of German ancestry, including Friedrich himself, after the holocaust and how far art can be implicated in politics. Can Wagner ever be free of association with Hitler and the Nazi party? Or can it be enjoyed as art separately from its political associations? And just how does the audience survive a four hour sitting of Parsifal with no intermission?

Now that I think about it, some of these issues are pretty appropriate for Remembrance Day so perhaps I needn't have worried about neglecting Birdsong after all.


stefanie said...

This sounds like a wonderful book! I've added it to my TBR list. Toklas was always second fiddle to Gertrude and dedicated herself to protecting and promoting Stein's reputation after Stein died. Toklas seems such a fascinating person. How nice to get to see a side of her we don't usually get to.

Fay Sheco said...

Although I doubt this will find its way to the top of my reading list any time soon, it is still a pleasure to find other readers who wander off the beaten path in selecting books. This is one I might not have heard of, had you not written about it. Your post serves as a reminder of all the books about Paris in the Twenties collecting dust around here. I need to get busy!

jess said...

Stefanie: I agree, it's really interesting to hear a little more about Toklas, and not just in relation to Stein.

Fay: Good luck with your books on Paris in the Twenties- sounds interesting!