Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris

Hanging in Paris with Gertrude and Alice.

I lived right around the corner from Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris.

They were at 27 Rue de Fleurus, and thus, directly on my escape route from the Alliance Française, at 101 Boulevard Raspail, to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a few charming blocks to the east.

OK, granted, Gertrude was long gone (1938) and also dead (1946) by the time I showed up (1978), plus I had no clue who they were back then. I had read little and lived less. In complete ignorance, I strode past the marble tablet that commemorated their ghosts,

which is one privilege of youth: Not to know or be encumbered by the past.

But as their pal Ernest Hemingway noted, in regard to his writing, even the stuff that went missing from a manuscript in his dogged pursuit of true sentences, maintains a kind of pulsating presence, even in its absence. And so, Gertrude and Alice were still there, somehow, when embryonic Peter walked those streets.

The pair were, of course, famous art collectors, with works by Henri Matisse and Paul Cézanne drawing so many visitors that the hosts had to limit their intrusions to Saturday evenings. Or maybe it was about free drinks. Either way, a salon was born. While Stein entertained the men in the parlor, Toklas slipped off with an odd collection of “second-class citizens” — the wives and mistresses of the genius guests.

When you read accounts of that salon, mostly what you read about is crowded rooms and people standing around talking. They may have been the Lost Generation — a coinage attributed to both Stein and Hemingway — but they were certainly not at a loss for words.

“I remember not long ago hearing Picasso and Gertrude Stein talking about various things that had happened at that time,” Stein wrote in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. “One of them said but all that could not have happened in that one year, oh said the other, my dear you forget we were young then and we did a great deal in a year.”

I love what Eudora Welty said about the connection between youth and activity, because it recalls what was going on in my own empty head, as I wandered Paris as a young man.

“Children, like animals, use all their senses to discover the world,” Welty wrote, in One Writer’s Beginnings. “Then artists come along and discover it the same way, all over again. Here and there, it’s the same world. Or now and then we’ll hear from an artist who’s never lost it.”

Paul Cézanne never lost it. His landscapes of Mont Sainte-Victoire, from every conceivable angle and in all lighting conditions, showed exactly that childlike sense of astonishment. Every moment, potentially, was one to savor and immortalize.

Cézanne’s still-lifes and landscapes were among the paintings hanging on the walls at Rue de Fleurus, before time and fate broke up the collection. When Stein’s brother and art-buying partner Leo moved from Paris, he wrote a letter to his sister, claiming that “the Cézanne apples have a unique importance to me that nothing can replace.” He told his sister to regard their loss as “an act of God.”

Way to justify your claim by throwing in with the deity, Leo. If I had tried that with my brothers, they would have beaten me into a still life with dead rabbit.

Cézanne’s urgency of observation transformed apples in a bowl into objects of obsession that Leo Stein just couldn’t live without. His eyes ached for them.

I was invited to exactly zero literary soirees in Paris, and given my wardrobe at the time, I was more a member of the Lost and Found generation, rather than the Lost one. And yet, I identify with the intensity of experience hailed by Welty and painted by Cézanne.

At my best, that’s how I wish to live my life, as well.

Me, and Mr. Transparent Eyeball himself, Walt Whitman:

“As I write the whole experience comes back to me after the lapse of forty and more years,” he wrote in Specimen Days & Collect. “The soothing rustle of the waves, and the saline smell — boyhood’s times, the clam digging, barefoot, and all with trousers rolled up — hauling down the creek — the perfume of the sedge-meadows — the hay boat, and the chowder and fishing excursions…. Those same later years, also , while living in Brooklyn, I went regularly every week in the mild seasons down to Coney Island, at that time a long, bare unfrequented shore, which I had all to myself, and where I loved, after bathing, to race up and down the hard sand, and declaim Homer or Shakespeare to the surf and sea gulls by the hour.”

So many sensations, so little time.

When I was strolling heedlessly past 27 Rue de Fleurus, I was usually carrying a copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in my backpack, to read (and nap with) on a lawn in the Jardin. In one of my early journal entries, I copied out this passage as a warning to the young man I was then:

“Outside the undifferentiated forces roar,” Woolf wrote, “inside we are very private, very explicit, have a sense indeed, that it is here, in this little room, that we make whatever day of the week it may be. Friday or Saturday. A shell forms upon the soft soul, nacreous, shiny, upon which sensations tap their beaks in vain.”

The sensations are everything.



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