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.
I took 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.
I find 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.’
I sat opposite you and I liked your dishevelled look; hair in your eyes and your clothes a strategic mess. We were both survivors of other shipwrecks. You looked sad. I wanted to see you again.
For a while we corresponded by email, charming each other in fonts and pixels. Did you . . . do you . . . would you like to . . . I wonder if . . .
Every day Miss Toklas sent a petit bleu to Miss Stein to arrange a walk in the Luxembourg Gardens or a visit to a bookshop or to look at pictures.
One day Alice was late. Gertrude was so angry. Alice picked up her gloves to leave but as she was walking across the courtyard Gertrude called out, ‘It is not too late to go for a walk.’
We went walking on Hampstead Heath. We walked for two hours straight ahead going round in circles. The circles were the two compass-turns of your desire and mine. The overlap is where we kissed.
The Stein and Toklas love affair was about sex.
They went on holiday together – the dripping heat of Italy and Gertrude liking to walk in the noonday sun.
They talked about The Taming of the Shrew – that play by Shakespeare – the one where Petruchio breaks Kate into loving him – a strange play. Not a poster-play for feminism.
gertrude: A wife hangs upon her husband – that is what Shakespeare says.
alice: But you have never married.
gertrude: I would like a wife.
alice: What kind of a wife would she be?
gertrude: Ardent, able, clever, present. Yes, very present.
alice: I am going back to San Francisco in ten days.
gertrude: I have enjoyed your visits every day to the rue de Fleurus . . .
And they walked in silence up the hill into the crest of the sun and Alice began to shed her clothes – her stockings, her cherry-red corset. Alice began to undress the past. At the top of the hill they sat down and Gertrude did not look at her.
gertrude: When all is said one is wedded to bed.
It was the beginning of their love affair.
I met my lover two years ago and I fell in love. I fell like a stray star caught in the orbit of Venus. Love had me. Love held me. Love like wrist-cords. Love like a voice from a long way off. I love your voice on the phone.
Below me on the quai there’s a skinny boy singing to his guitar: All You Need is Love. Couples holding hands throw him coins because they want to believe that it is true. They want to believe that they are true.
But the love question is harder to solve than the Grand Unified Theory of Everything.
If you were Dante you’d say they were the same thing – ‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’.
But love is in trouble.
Women used to be in charge of love – it was our whole domain, the business of our lives, to give love to make love to mend love to tend love.
Men needed women to be love so that men could do all the things you can’t do without love – but no one acknowledged the secret necessity of love. Except in those dedications: To My Wife.
Now we have our own money and we can vote. We are career-women. (No such word as career-man.) We are more than the love interest. More than love. We are independent. Equal.
But . . . What happened to love?
We were confident that love would always be there, like air, like water, like summer, like sun. Love could take care of itself. We didn’t notice the quiet tending of love, the small daily repairs to the fabric of love. The faithful gigantic work that kept love as regular as light.