Two Lives

I’ve got a little backlog of reviews to do here. But you know how it is when a book you’ve just finished jumps the queue and demands to be dealt with? Such is the case with Janet Malcolm’s highly intriguing biography of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Two Lives. Malcolm specializes in unusual biographies, of the type that consider not just the lives in view, but the whole process of investigation and research that transforms them into coherent stories. She does this quite brilliantly in her account of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, The Silent Woman. And in Two Lives she’s following a similar format by exploring another literary marriage. With Plath and Hughes, Malcolm had her work cut out trying to distinguish myth from reality in the stories that rose up around one of the most famous couples in literature. In Two Lives, she has a very different focus, returning initially to the 1920s when Gertrude and Alice spot the house of their dreams, deep in the French countryside. Unfortunately, someone’s already living in it, but with a bit of finagling, friends in the right places and a certain amount of pressure (the ratios of these ingredients are unclear as the account of how the house was won varies, naturally, depending on who’s telling it), Gertrude and Alice win the day and install themselves comfortably in their gorgeous rural retreat. It was a good example of what Malcolm calls ‘life’s evident inability to say no to Gertrude Stein’, who managed to be a delightful spoiled child, looked after, cared for, rescued and aided by all those who loved her. And in 1932 at the age of fifty-eight, determined that all the literary world should finally love her too, Stein put to one side her somewhat grinding experimental style and wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It’s rare in these matters that intention matches outcome, but the book did indeed become a bestseller and remains arguably her best-known work.

So, when World War Two came along in 1939, with life having so far been really rather kind to Gertrude Stein, one might think that she would not push her luck. Instead, despite all manner of strong suggestions that they return to America or seek safe exile in Switzerland, Gertrude and Alice dug their heels in and decided to stay put. This was an extraordinary decision, flying in the face of rationality, and what’s more, it paid off. Stein and Toklas remained safe and untroubled throughout the war years and lived in relative comfort. Malcolm is astonished and somewhat suspicious: ‘How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?’ she asks, and it’s a very good question indeed.

It’s a question that Malcolm always keeps in view, but which she responds to in dilatory, roundabout ways. The biography is split into three sections, the first and the last focusing on Stein and Toklas’s relationship with particular interest in those war years, the middle section focused instead on Stein’s 900-page tome, The Making of Americans, written between 1903 and 1911. Forget the easy read of the colloquial, chanting Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, this is the style that Elizabeth Hardwick would describe as ‘wringing the neck of her words’, toiling through the permutations of her severely reduced vocabulary in an attempt to squeeze every last drop of meaning out of it. As such, it is a book that has not made it onto the mainstream academic list of Stein’s works and remains a challenge of reading machismo. Malcolm states modestly that she has ‘only read it twice’, which is of course something I, myself, wouldn’t be able to resist mentioning, had I had to get through it.  What would propel the book into the public spotlight would be the notebooks that Stein kept whilst writing the chunkster, and which reveal a very different side to the author. In them, Stein abandons her jolly, happy-go-lucky persona and reveals instead a rather ugly, vicious side. The notebooks, however, have been transcribed, studied and explored by only one academic, a man named Leon Katz, who also won the confidence of Alice Toklas after Stein’s death and can therefore be considered to be sitting on a virtual goldmine of biographical information. Alas, Katz is a slow writer, as the decades have passed, no publication has appeared, and he refuses to allow other academics to steal his thunder. Malcolm attempts to meet him, but he evades her. There is another side to Stein, that much is clear, but its details are not out in the public realm.

This is the kind of chase around the facts that Janet Malcolm excels at, drawing in scholars, bystanders, independent witnesses, other biographers, to the crucible of her narrative. She performs something similar with the character of Bernard Faÿ, the French right-wing academic who acted as protector to Stein and Toklas during the war. It transpires that Monsieur Faÿ was not a terribly nice person, but the question is really the extent to which Gertrude and Alice were aware of this, and the extent to which they were truthful or not about their own race and religion. Malcolm is very good indeed at pointing out that the incidental characters of biography, even more than the secondary characters of fiction, often hide a perspective on the main protagonists that it is worth the detective work to reveal. But inevitably, the storyline that the biographer has chosen for her subject tends to dominate: the biography, Malcolm writes ‘must cultivate a kind of narcissism on behalf of his subject that blinds him to the full humanity of anyone else. As he turns the bracing storylessness of human life into the flaccid narrativity of biography, he cannot worry about the people who never asked to be dragged into his shaky enterprise.’ On the whole, however, this is exactly what Janet Malcolm does do. Her secondary characters are allowed a full three-dimensional life within her stories, and this is sometimes fascinating and sometimes not. This biography features a coven of three, elderly Stein scholars whom she regularly consults, but whom she clearly likes too much to make into the ambivalent characters that brought her book on Plath to life. And so they fall a little flat. Realising that people have hidden agendas when they talk about people they’ve met – particularly people who end up being famous – is part of the unique thrill of her writing. But what this means as a consequence for the story she is telling, is much digression and divergence. We peer into her subjects lives, poke around in the corners of their wardrobes and filing cabinets, meet their friends and enemies, gather a pile of interesting evidence, and then leave it at that. Being as truthful as the tidying-up exercise of biography will allow means not coming to any conclusions.

I found this at first to be a frustration. After all, Malcolm asks a very good question about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, foreigners in a foreign war-torn land, where terrified people were shopping their Jewish friends and neighbours, people they’d known all their lives, women, children, the elderly, to the internal police. It’s not a negligible matter that they survived so comfortably. The reasons they did so seem to boil down to good connections (which may mean hanging out with war criminals) and a steadfast rejection of their Jewishness. But Malcolm has a compelling justification for not finally plumping on this conclusion. ‘Perhaps Stein had a secret Jewish life,’ she proposes. ‘Biography and autobiography are the aggregate of what, in the former, the author happens to learn, and, in the latter, he chooses to tell. A cache of letters between Stein and a rabbi may be discovered that will cast a whole new light on Stein’s Jewish identity. Such discoveries are a regular inconvenience of the biographical enterprise.’ And in the end she convinced me; I think we’re too used to the media permitting and consolidating wafer-thin snap judgements on people in the public eye, not to mention its politically correct corollary that insists on a blind-eyed embrace of humanity, regardless of the truth of faults, flaws and defects. The reality of life is always somewhere messily in between, where people remain contradictory and incoherent, neither good nor bad, but creative, deceitful, loving and evasive. The journey Janet Malcolm takes through the by-roads of her subject’s archives and witnesses is in any case far more entertaining than any conclusion might be.

15 thoughts on “Two Lives

  1. Well I would want some kudos if I had managed to get through such a book.🙂 I’ve ordered The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, as I was curious to read some Stein. It may take me a while to get around to The Making of Americans…

  2. Emily – AABT arrived in the post this morning – yay! I had read about Three Lives and thought it sounded intriguing, so definitely, I’ll read that too. And I promise you that when I’m in the mood for a challenge, I’ll turn again to Stein.

  3. I love Stein and Alice, they are such an interesting pair. I am going to have to read this book. Three Lives is wonderful. I have not yet read The Making of Americans but I acquired a copy of it last year and intend to read it sometime. Those notebooks sound like they have some good stuff in them. Katz should get with it and publish them or give up the project to someone else. It doesn’t seem right that he should have a monopoly on them.

  4. Another wonderful biography of Gertrude Stein was written by James Mellow entitled, “Charmed Circle: Gertrude Stein and Company.” I’ve had the hardbound version for some years now and I’m not sure if its still in print…I hope so. Probably can be found in paperback. As I recall, it had a very interesting chapter on how Alice and Stein coped during the war years and their reaction to the liberation. Your post makes me want to pull it back off the shelf and read again about this most interesting woman who was on a first name basis with the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wilder – and tons of other artists, albeit it not always on a “good name, first name” basis. She got her feelings hurt a lot and could carry a pretty mean grudge, if I’m recalling correctly. Good post.

  5. I’d also recommend Stein’s book of poems (or one long poem) Tender Buttons — it’s short and playful and fun. I have a copy of Three Lives I want to get to, and I must say I’m interested in the challenge of The Making of Americans — I know I’d be in for a slog, but it’s sometimes hard for me to turn down a challenge! I’m so looking forward to reading Malcolm’s book. I’m sorry to hear she didn’t quite pull off the same level of brilliance she did with the Plath book, but I’m sure it’s very good anyway. I do love her approach to biography!

  6. I love that line: “The reality of life is always somewhere messily in between, where people remain contradictory and incoherent, neither good nor bad, but creative, deceitful, loving and evasive.” Will have to make a plan to get hold of one of Malcolm’s biographies since from what you’ve said about her (more the Plath book but also this one) I’m sure I would enjoy her style.

  7. Stefanie – the scholars Malcolm talks to agree with you as far as Katz is concerned! It’s apparently a bone of contention in Stein studies. I will be suitably impressed when you get through The Making of Americans and will look forward to your reports on it. I really want someone whose reading stills I value enormously to write on this (ie someone like you) so I know what to think about it!

    Grad – thank you so much for that recommendation! This is an unusual biography, not going through the normal storyline and focusing instead on a small part of Stein’s life and its repercussions. I will certainly look out for it and read Gertrude Stein now, too!

    Dorothy – Janet Malcolm is still very, very good here. The Hidden Woman was so brilliant it would be hard to beat, but she still does a very good job and makes the reader think about biography in very different and enlightening ways. And ditto my remarks to Stefanie – I’d love to know what you make of anything by Stein.

    Pete – oh I think you might like Janet Malcolm, and she has written a lot on psychoanalytic topics. She has a book on Freud that I haven’t read, and I think her most recent publication is an evaluation of psychoanalysis. I really want to read that, too.

  8. I’ve read Three Lives and Alice Toklas, but I have to say every biographical account I’ve read about Stein and Toklas left me rather unsure whether I would have liked them. Not that that matters in terms of appreciating Stein’s writing, but they strike me as wholly unconcerned for anyone who was not Gertrude Stein or Alice Toklas (not just during the war, but well before that). Perhaps this was a way to prevent being hurt or judged by others…
    But I would like to read Janet Malcolm one of these days – would you recommend this one or the Plath/Hughes first?

  9. Verbivore – I rather fear you may be spot on as regard Stein and Toklas! It does come up a bit in the Malcolm book. As for Malcolm, I would definitely start with The Hidden Woman, which is absolutely amazing.

  10. I’ve always been a little nervous to try anything by Gertrude Stein, but maybe some of it is easier than others? If Hardwick describes The Making of Americans thus, I’m doomed. I couldn’t even read Hardwick-lol. However, the Malcolm biography sounds very interesting.

  11. Danielle – read the Malcolm biography! That’s very accessible and clear and one of those books that makes you feel effortlessly clever (which is nice). The Making of Americans is beyond my scope. There was a time in my life when I could get through the heavy stuff, but I’m not quite so determined now – lol!

  12. Great line: “The reality of life is always somewhere messily in between, where people remain contradictory and incoherent, neither good nor bad, but creative, deceitful, loving and evasive.”

  13. Pingback: Best Books of 2009 « Tales from the Reading Room

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