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  • Narratologies of Pleasure: Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein creates a new economy of reading by extending expected limits of text, identity, and narrativity. 1 First, she creates a textual extension, a reading “beyond the ending” 2 of her own text by including the genesis of her own text; Stein’s “I” will begin to write her autobiography through the voice of Toklas as Toklas’s autobiography ends: “You know what I am going to do,” she writes, “I am going to write it for you” (237). 3 Second, she creates an extension of identity, reading beyond her own ending by using the figure of Toklas as her observer/recorder: 4 Toklas mirrors Stein as the other at center, labels Stein as genius, 5 and becomes the fulcrum of a text that continues to return to the moment when Toklas comes to Paris, creating anew Stein’s meeting Toklas and initiating the text, which defers an ending by beginning. Third, she creates an extension of narrative practice, a reading beyond the text through references to other texts, many of them Stein’s own. The intertextual referencing delicately resists traditional reading practices, which insist not only on a linear progression throughout a text, with clear beginning, middle, and ending, [End Page 590] but on textual boundaries. Those boundaries, as if a text is framed, instigate an expectation of unity and wholeness for a text, an expectation that Stein’s intertextual referencing politely undermines. Through these extensions, Stein experiments with text, reader, and author.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has eluded the label of experimental writing. Marianne DeKoven, for example, in her formative analysis of Stein’s experimental writing, ends her study before the autobiography. Her useful definition of experimental writing—as “the obstruction of normal reading [which] prevents us from interpreting the writing to form coherent, single, whole, closed, ordered, finite, sensible meanings” (Different Language 5)—certainly eliminates the autobiography from that category. The autobiography retains flat, surface, simple, coherent language, nothing like the plurality of meaning in an experimental text like Tender Buttons. 6 DeKoven, as do other critics, emphasizes the coherency of the autobiography: it “is in many ways characteristically modernist, with its impressionistic or associative temporal structure, following the course of memory rather than chronology. Its compelling voice is that of Stein’s reported conversation: wry, whimsical, a peculiar mix of understatement and exaggeration. It is this voice, coupled with Stein’s free-ranging memory of historically interesting personalities and events, which are the core of The Autobiography” (125). 7 DeKoven’s accurate and perceptive characterization of the autobiography describes, however, only one version of this text. As Stein did with her coterminously written autobiography Stanzas in Meditation, with its doubled messages—one for herself (and Alice Toklas) and one for strangers 8 —Stein presents two reading positions within the one text. She produces a text that can be read as if unified and bounded by its textual frame and a text that can be read as if it were the origin of a web of other readings, which a reader—while reading the autobiography—might read outside the boundary of The Autobiography. The first type of reading is one which marks the reader as stranger; the second type of reading positions the reader as intimate of Stein, not through knowledge of Stein’s private life, but through an economy of “one completely telling stories that were charming, completely listening to stories having a beginning and a middle and an ending” (“Ada” 16). 9 [End Page 591]

1. The Text for Strangers

The first reading position enhances the drive towards “single, whole, closed, ordered, finite, sensible meanings,” rather than obstructing traditional textual reading. It invokes the expected pattern of beginning, middle, and end, with the beginning reoccurring when Toklas arrives in Paris. It provides a pleasure of reading through narratological sequencing and repetition. This type of reading position invokes as natural the ideological construction that perceives “past and present as related and as establishing a future” (Brooks 98). 10 For the reader, “narrative . . . must ever present itself as a repetition of events that...

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