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.