In 1907 a woman from San Francisco named Alice B. Toklas arrived in Paris. She was going to meet a fellow American living there already. She was excited because she’d heard a lot about Gertrude Stein.
In 2011 a woman from London named Louise was travelling by Eurostar to Paris. Louise was troubled. Louise was travelling alone because she was trying to understand something about love.
Louise was in a relationship; it felt like a ship, though her vessel was a small boat rowed by herself with a cabin for her lover. Her lover’s ship was much bigger and carried crew and passengers. There was always a party going on. Her lover was at the centre of a busy world. Louise was her own world; self-contained, solitary, intense. She did not know how to reconcile these opposites – if opposites they were – and to make things more complicated, it was Louise who wanted the two of them to live together. Her lover said no – they were good as they were – and the solitary Louise and the sociable lover could not be in the same boat.
And so Louise was travelling alone to Paris.
I am Louise.
Itook the Metro to Cité. I walked past Notre-Dame and thought of the hunchback Quasimodo swinging his misshapen body across the bell-ropes of love for Esmeralda. Quasimodo was a deaf mute. Cupid is blind. Freud called love an ‘overestimation of the object’. But I would swing through the ringing world for you.
Alice Toklas had no previous experience of love.
Her mother died young – young for the mother and young for Alice – and Alice played the piano and kept house for her father and brothers. She ordered the meat, managed the budget, supervised the kitchen. And then she came to Paris and met Gertrude Stein.
Gertrude Stein’s mother died young too – and you never fully recover from that – actually you never recover at all; you take it with you as an open wound – but with luck that is not the end of the story.
Gertrude had a modest but sufficient private income. She and her brother Leo had long since left the USA to set up house in Paris in the rue de Fleurus. Gertrude wrote. Leo painted. They bought modern art. They bought Matisse when no one did and they bought Picasso when no one did. Pablo and Gertrude became great friends.
But Gertrude was lonely. Gertrude was a writer. Gertrude was lonely.
Ifind myself returning again and again to the same familiar condition of solitariness. Is it sex that makes this happen? If it were not for sex, wouldn’t we each be content with our friends, their companionship and confidences? I love my friends. I am a good friend. But with my lover I begin to feel alone.
A friend of mine can be happy without a lover; she will have an affair if she wants one, but she doesn’t take the trouble to love.
I do very badly without a lover. I pine, I sigh, I sleep, I dream, I set the table for two and stare into the empty chair. I could invite a friend – sometimes I do – but that is not the point; the point is that I am always wondering where you are even when you don’t exist.
Sometimes I have affairs. But though I enjoy the bed, I feel angry at the fraud; the closeness without the cost.
I know what the cost is: the more I love you, the more I feel alone.
On 23 May 1907 Gertrude Stein met Alice B. Toklas.
Gertrude: Fat, sexy, genial, powerful.
Alice: A tiny unicorn, nervous, clever, watchful, determined.
When Gertrude opened the door to the atelier of 27 rue de Fleurus, Alice tried to sit down but couldn’t, because the chairs were Stein-size and Alice was Toklas-size and her feet did not reach the floor.
‘The world keeps turning round and round,’ said Gertrude, ‘but you have to sit somewhere.’
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