If you’ve noticed the epistles have been a bit sporadic of late, I have a good excuse. I’m writing a novel. When I say writing a novel, if you think of it as a journey, I’ve backed the car out of the garage and am wrestling with the map. So it’s early days. Ahead lies a very long road with many a winding turn, and I’m not going to say much more about the destination, until I’ve at least made it onto the freeway. What I can say is that the story is inspired by Alice B. Toklas, about whom I’ve written before. Here’s another snippet to whet your appetite.
Most of the archival information about Alice and her celebrated companion, Gertrude Stein, is kept at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. A visit would be a plausible (and pleasant) detour on my novel writing journey (and I’m already fending off baggage carrying offers) but so far it’s only pencilled in. Nevertheless the Beinecke helpfully makes some documents in the collection available for digital access, and one of those is the manuscript of “We eat. A cookbook by Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein.” As far as is known, it’s the only collaborative work attempted by the two ladies (or at least the only one openly acknowledged as such). For that reason, it’s disappointing that it’s unfinished, only running as far as 32 pages.
One can only conjecture about why they didn’t get any further. Pressures of Gertrude’s own writing schedule are one explanation. Another could be the pitfalls of embarking on an artistic venture with your significant other. Writing a cookbook is arguably no less creatively challenging than writing any other sort of book. When it’s just you, the constant war between the inner critic and the outer poor dope tapping away is bad enough. When it’s two heads and two egos struggling to reach consensus over every full stop, it could well lead to at least divorce, if not bloodshed. Given the respective personalities of Gertrude and Alice, it’s perhaps surprising they made it as far as page 32.
According to a respected Stein scholar, the attempt was made some time in the late 1930s. The draft contains many references to Alice’s childhood, her family, household, various cooks and an Aunt Doody. If finished and published, it may well have served as a sort of prequel to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and would have made a fascinating read for anyone interested in the history of cooking, American domestic life in the late 19th century and of course in Alice and Gertrude.
As far as I’m aware, the manuscript hasn’t been transcribed. It’s predominantly in Gertrude’s handwriting which resembles the tracks of a drunken spider, so beyond a few phrases here and there I haven’t been able to decipher it. Hans Gallas, who is the author of “GertrudeandAlice“, the world’s most definitive collection of information about the two ladies and perhaps their greatest fan, I believe has made much better progress and I hope to see his version in the future.
Here though is the prologue, which I did manage:
We always remember when the American soldiers in the war, the war of 1914 were getting off the train at Paris and the first thing they said when we said we were American, was, are there any eats?
Being able to access digital manuscripts in this way is one of the true wonders of the modern age. It’s rather like opening the drawer in some dusty piece of furniture and discovering handwritten family recipes, notes, diaries and other fragments of a long forgotten past. There’s something magical in handwriting. Whether it’s a priceless manuscript or Aunt Doody’s best fruitcake recipe, those spidery scratchings from years gone by evoke something of the spirit of the person who wrote them. You can’t help picturing them bent over the page, scribbling away, wishing they could find a sharper pencil.
Of course, while bringing us the gift of digital archives, technology is also making handwriting obsolete, denying future generations the opportunity for such an experience, unless time travelling becomes a reality rather than just the vicarious thrill of sifting through the archives.
by Anne Green