Gertrude Stein’s “Word Portrait” of the Love of Her Life, Illustrated
By Maria Popova
Gertrude Stein (February 3, 1874–July 27, 1946) and Alice B. Toklas had one of creative culture’s greatest love stories and were among literary history’s most influential power couples. Their first encounter, love-at-first-sight that lasted until death did them part four decades later, is the stuff of legend, and their lifetime of literature and love endures in the befittingly unusual form of an equally legendary cookbook-memoir. In their Parisian home at 27 rue de Fleurus, the couple hosted the famed Stein salons, frequented by such icons as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Sinclair Lewis, Thornton Wilder, Sherwood Anderson, and Henri Matisse — artists and writers whose careers were often aided, and in some cases practically made, by Stein’s patronage.
In 1910, three years after she met and fell in love with Toklas, Stein wrote the first in her series of “word portraits” — pioneering descriptive essays that fell partway between prose vignettes and narrative poems. Her subjects were mostly famous peers — including Picasso and Matisse — but the very first such piece was, fittingly, inspired by Toklas — the story of a young woman named Ada, “after her grandmother who had delightful ways of smelling flowers and eating dates and sugar.”
For the centennial of Stein’s story, British independent press Nobrow brought Ada (public library) back to life with striking illustrations by Berlin-based artist Atak inspired by the golden age of chromolithography. Working in the tradition of early printmakers — a technique only rare artists like Blexbolex still use, with breathtaking results — Atak adds a whole new dimension of uncommon whimsy to Stein’s already quirky mesmerism and singular magic of word-wrangling. (“If you enjoy it, you understand it,” Stein memorably asserted about her unusual prose.)
She came to be happier than anybody else who was living then. It is easy to believe this thing. She was telling some one, who was loving every story that was charming. Some one who was living was almost always listening. Some one who was loving was almost always listening. That one who was loving was almost always listening. That one who was loving was telling about being one then listening. That one being loving was then telling stories having a beginning and a middle and an ending. That one was then one always completely listening. Ada was then one and all her living then one completely telling stories that were charming, completely listening to stories having a beginning and a middle and an ending. Trembling was all living, living was all loving, some one was then the other one. Certainly this one was loving this Ada then. And certainly Ada all her living then was happier in living than any one else who ever could, who was, who is, who ever will be living.
Images courtesy of Nobrow
Published February 3, 2015