Sunday Stories: “The Autobiography of Gertrude Stein”

The Autobiography of Gertrude Stein
by Iris Smyles

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography


I think I was a genius in my last life that is that I was the author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas who was Gertrude Stein which is partially why I quit my job. The Aquarium is no place to cultivate genius.

I have a friend named Jacob who is very fond of Hemingway and so I told him one day Jacob, in the end Hemingway was just an imitation of himself and your imitation is just as good so your being him is really no different than his being him so you might as well be him. He agreed and so now we are they. He quit his job too. Dress Barn is no place to cultivate genius.

Every Tuesday, he brings his manuscripts over for me to critique and I cross out everything but for the c in his name. He needs to make his prose more lean I tell him, striking through all the superfluous letters.

After I quit my job in order to claim my destiny and trust fund, I decided to make a salon of my apartment just like Gertrude Stein’s in Paris but with fewer omelets. Stein’s cook only made omelets, but if she didn’t like the dinner guests, instead of breaking the eggs, she’d fry them whole. References to omelets in The Autobiography: 137.

Another of my friends is a conceptual artist, and we began our relationship after I cut his hair. He is called Fred. You may have caught his last piece, displayed just next to my stoop from January 25th – March 12th, a sculpture made of found objects, which was widely misunderstood before it was removed as trash. Genius is always widely misunderstood.

I met Fred outside my apartment late one night on my way home from a visit with my boyfriend Jeff’s. I call him Jeff’s because he’s always saying things like “that’s mine.” He is plagued by that horrid sense of entitlement that defines his whole generation. I’ll light a cigarette and accidentally pocket his lighter and he’ll start in with his millenialisms. I’m a bit older than Jeff’s so one day I said to him “Jeff’s, yours is a misplaced generation. You’re lost now but will very likely to turn up later in someone’s pocket turning a good dollar.”

Jeff’s smokes a lot of pot and has throat nodules, which is what inspired him to start his own line of edibles. He spends most of his time making artisanal pot brownies, which he sells on a motor coach that roams the city. In honor of the nodules, he writes things on paper instead of speaking, his prose terse but good: “Iris, give me back my lighter.”

So I was on my way home one night when I happened upon Fred lying beneath his latest piece. Arresting! Moved by this work and the rogue leg that I didn’t see jutting out beneath it I fell down, dropping my glass flask of $5.99 whiskey. Lying there next to Fred, stunned for a moment, I told him, “You’re the real thing.” He answered by holding out his cup. Artists are our truest capitalists and so I became his patron.

Prior to our arrangement, his work scattered the city. But his latest piece, which I commissioned, is installed within the walls of my burgeoning salon. It cost me some, but if you have to choose between buying a new dress or buying a new piece of art, I always say get both. I turned to show Fred its flattering cut when I got back from Bloomingdales. He answered me with an approving growl, and I handed him his new horizontally striped shirt.

When the rest of the avant-garde pays visit—Wyndham from the gas company (whose given name is Lloyd), Juan from Time Warner (I call him Gris)—they at first pretend not to notice the shocking piece, though I can tell it has profoundly disturbed them. When they do finally look at it, they almost always agree that it is interesting. A shopping cart sitting unapologetically in the center of the room, with old scarves and clothes and Fred himself bursting out of it yelling unintelligibly!

I admit that I also did not understand it in the beginning. Bumping into it on my way into the kitchenette, I asked Fred would he mind re-installing it out of the walkway. Fred shook his cup resolutely, and I blushed at my own stupidity before depositing a fiver.

I wrote a profile on him, which will soon be published in The New Yorker, though I haven’t heard anything back on that front yet. In the meantime I’ve showed Fred some of my writings, too, which have been greatly influenced by his work. Fred is trying out a kind a visual octoganilism and my new short stories also have eight sides. It was then that Fred offered to make my portrait.

When the avant-garde visit now, they say it looks nothing like me which enrages Fred who, upon hearing this, pops his head out of the shopping cart and informs them that one day it will. This concerned me at first as it is a paint-by-number of a T-Rex. I do enjoy red meat, however, and his artistic antennae must have picked that up.

My dog Leo didn’t like it at all at first, though I think he is coming around. He has a very well developed aesthetic sense, Leo does, a holdover from his last life, I suppose, when he was Leo Stein, Gertrude’s—my—brother. Despite his keen eye, Leo is not an artist himself, and I can tell he harbors some resentment toward me because of it—why should I be a genius and he only terrier? Well, it is the way it is the way it is the.

About my writing you must be curious. I work mostly at night, all through the night—a whole half hour—and never revise. I find it impossible to write for more than a half hour at a time ever since I learned that sitting is the new smoking. What I do is drink quite a lot of coffee while standing, and then I stare at Fred’s “shopping cart” and listen to his beer soaked snores emanating musically from within his fascinating concept.

Fred’s work has provided me with no end of inspiration. Indeed it was his wheezing that gave me the idea for my first book, which I had to have privately printed (publishers today are so afraid of the experimental). It’s going to be serialized in The New Yorker (as soon as they get back to me) and is called The Autobiography of the Autobiographer. Three thousand pages! All of them blank! Every one of my friends at the dog run assured me it was genius, as did the salon members, but publishers these days want only what has come before. Such is the plight of the genius in any age.

The publisher Mead initially showed some interest but they wanted to cut it by 3/4s, line the pages, and use a spiral binding, not pay me or acknowledge my authorship, which I refused. Art does not compromise.

Thus I had one thousand copies printed at my own expense. In addition to my small trust, I have a good sum of money that should be arriving any day now from my patron Ed McMahan. I’ve never met Mr. McMahon, but his letters arrive faithfully, ever encouraging of my linguistic experiments.

I keep the books in boxes surrounding my bed, which has come to resemble a rather interesting little fort. Indeed, if the state ever comes for me (as they did for Uncle Francis and Aunt Mathilde), be they incited by my subversive language and innovative narrative structure and how both challenge the status quo and thus the law itself, I feel quite confident that I’ll be able to hole up for a good stretch behind my books. I have begun collecting canned goods, too, in the event of the inevitability, should the time of my arrest present itself without warning. Fortress aside, I have sold a few.  

The Three Lives Bookstore around the corner judiciously took on consignment three of my soon-to-be valuable first editions. I like to go and look in on them from time to time. It makes me tremendously happy to see my work out in the world, shaking things up. I had been going everyday, looking at them through the window for a variety of hours to counteract the smoking, which I recently learning is the new sitting, until finally the store security guard came out and said he’d notified the police. “You can ban me, but you cannot ban my books!” I told him. Then he asked me to leave as I was “blocking the window display.”  

The truth is, I pitied him. He obviously didn’t know who I was. Charitable, I told him. I said do you know who I am and he said no who are you and I said I am I because my little dog knows me. I could see he was impressed and felt nervous about how to respond, so I shook his hand and told him it was lovely meeting anybody and left.  

Modern art aside, I get my ideas primarily from supermarkets. My second book was a novel entitled Pickled Pickles. The first one hundred words is Rutabaga. If you read it out loud you will see exactly what I mean. If Saussure is correct about the signifier never approaching the signified why not say Rutabaga.

About my process, you will want to know more: In the mornings, after I have finished a new piece, I show it to Leo whose artistic sensibility I trust completely. I gave him “Pickles” to review last Wednesday and three hours later found it in the corner under a smudge of poop. Leo sat in the corner opposite looking livid with folded arms. Critics can be cruel, hostile even when they see genius on the rise, envious comma for genius be they not!

Unfortunately that is the case with Leo. He is jealous of my recent successes, of my being a genius, of my running a fashionable salon, of the supercut I gave Fred that first night. But whatever the friction my work may cause between me and my barking brother, I owe it to posterity. The experiment must continue!

But now I must interrupt the day’s labor. Fred, Jacob, Leo, and I, (Jeff’s and I are on a break) are attending an art opening in only an hour. We do this from time to time. And though the work we see is for the most part laughable—oh how we laugh—on the drinks table they often have these little pretzels of which I have grown quite fond.


Iris Smyles is the author of the novels Iris Has Free Time (Soft Skull Press 2013) and Dating Tips for the Unemployed (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016), which was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, BOMB, Paris Review Daily, Guernica, Hotel, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Best American Travel Writing among other publications. She was a humor columnist for Splice Today and wrote the “Sheets to the Wind” column for The East Hampton Star. She lives in New York and on here:

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