Two Lives

First of all, if you are in any way interested in participating in the next Slaves of Golconda group read, make sure to go over to the site and vote on the next book. All are welcome — the more the merrier! You can join the group and post on the website, or just read along and participate in the discussion.

And now, a few words on Janet Malcolm’s book Two Lives, about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. I became a huge Malcolm fan after reading her incredible book The Silent Woman about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I love what she does, which is to mix regular biography with what you might call “behind the scenes” biography: telling the tale of how biographies get written. Books that think critically about biography have become a favorite little subgenre of mine, and I’m not entirely sure why, since I don’t read many biographies of the traditional sort. I think it may be that I like any sort of “behind the scenes” book about how books get written, and I just happened upon a number of experimental biographies, or whatever you want to call them, all at once, and I was hooked.

Two Lives focuses on, among other things, Stein’s and Toklas’s experiences in France in World War II. Both were Jews, so how did they survive living in German-occupied France? And why didn’t they leave when they could? The second question may be unanswerable except for guesses about the nature of Stein’s psyche, but the first question leads Malcolm into some interesting investigative journalism. She looks into their relationship with a man named Bernard Faÿ, who was, paradoxically, both anti-Semitic and completely devoted to Stein and Toklas. In Malcolm’s portrait, Stein comes across as someone who blithely trusts in the goodwill of the universe and the people around her, and generally with good reason, because she’s a person for whom things tend to work out. Well, that’s not actually true: both her parents died when she was young, a huge shock, and Malcolm argues that Stein responded by refusing afterward to acknowledge pain and suffering except in the most oblique of ways. So whatever was actually going on in her mind, and it seems likely the war years in France were very difficult for her, she pretended that all was well.

In addition to the World War II story, Malcolm describes the complicated relationship between the two women who lived together for something like forty years. Their relationship, like their war years in France, is a little mysterious; they were devoted to each other, Alice taking care of Gertrude and Gertrude happily allowing herself to be taken care of, but at the same time there are hints of darkness, of violent anger and fear. Stein was always the popular one, and people mostly put up with Toklas because if you cared about Stein, that’s what you had to do. Regardless of how Toklas felt about this, after Stein’s death, she remained devoted to her, working tirelessly to manage her writings and her reputation. Her relationship with the famous writer didn’t help her in her last years, though; she died penniless.

Malcolm also discusses Stein’s writing and the scholars who have made her their lives’ work. She tells the story of Leon Katz, an extraordinary lucky scholar who found notebooks Stein had kept while writing one of her most important works, The Making of Americans. Katz was able to interview Toklas about these notebooks and apparently discovered a bunch of juicy information. This interview took place in the 1950s, and Katz promised to publish his findings. Unfortunately, the Stein world is still waiting for him to do this. For some reason, he has not been able to bring himself to get the work out, much to the frustration of Stein scholars everywhere.

One of the most interesting sections of the book, to me, is reading Malcolm’s description of her feelings about Stein’s writing. That writing is, famously, impenetrable, at least to many readers. The Making of Americans, is widely acknowledged to be a masterpiece, but it’s a masterpiece hardly anybody has read. It’s long, has no real plot, is full of repetition, and has passages like this:

They are all of them repeating and I hear it. I love it and I tell it. I love it and now I will write it. This is now a history of my love of it. I hear it and I love it and I write it. They repeat it. They live it and I see it and I hear it. They live it and I hear it and I see it and I love it and now and always I will write it.

Her method is to fixate on an idea and to work at it relentlessly, going over it again and again, repeating herself over and over, until she feels she has had enough, and then going on to the next thing. Occasionally, Malcolm writes, it veers into intelligibility and something closer to a traditional novel, but it never stays there long.

Speaking for myself, I haven’t quite decided if The Making of Americans falls in the category of Finnegans Wake, a book I feel I never need to read in my life, or in the category of Ulysses, a challenging book but one that’s worth tackling. I don’t know. The Stein scholars Malcolm talks with apparently love Stein’s most difficult, experimental writing, although Malcolm finds this a little hard to imagine, as do I.

At any rate, Malcolm’s book is an excellent introduction to the world of Stein and Toklas. It’s a relatively short book, but full of fascinating information on their lives and on Stein’s writing and the people who study it.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

12 responses to “Two Lives

  1. Wow, this sounds fantastic. I have historically had a lot of trouble with Stein’s writing, but find her fascinating as a person (and I think my attitude in this regard is very common). She was such an odd mix of extreme egocentrism and key promoter of so many other artists.

    And I agree with you about “experimental biographies”; I like a bio that plays with the idea of a bio – one of the (many) things I enjoyed about the Sarah Bakewell Montaigne book I think we’re both reading. 🙂


  2. Oh! This sounds wonderful. I am on a nonfiction roll so this is right up my alley. Thanks for the review! It is now on my list.


  3. I’m not normally a biography reader but Stein and Toklas are names I know without knowing anything about them at all and this sounds like a way of getting to know them better while at the same time enjoying some first class writing. It may not have made the library system over here, but I’ll certainly go looking for it.


  4. I loved this book too, although I still like The Hidden Woman best. I felt that Malcolm didn’t have so much material to work with on the academics she produced as the Greek chorus to Stein and Toklas. Those secondary characters came alive in the Plath book, but were less scintillating in this one. But still, Malcolm is reliably brilliant and just a wonderful writer.


  5. Nan

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I have The Hidden Woman on the shelf and have meant to read it for ages. And I am a fan of both S & T. I did manage to get through The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas eons ago, but haven’t read anything else.


  6. I read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written by Stein) years ago and remember very little other than I was fascinated by all of the people they knew and socialized with. Two Lives sounds interesting, and I may see about picking up a copy of either this one or the one about Plath and Hughes.


  7. She sounds like an interesting biographer, and I’m going to add her to my list.


  8. I think Gertrude Stein is someone I’d prefer reading about than reading her actual work–I think her experimental works would frustrate me. But I do want to try Janet Malcolm sometime.


  9. Emily — yes, the Bakewell fits in my little subgenre of experimental biography perfectly. I loved it, and you’ll be hearing more about it from me in a little while 🙂 The Malcolm is great if you’re fascinated by Stein’s life and uncertain about the writing because she deals very well with both issues. I really enjoyed Tender Buttons and thought Three Lives was interesting. Beyond that, I’m not sure 🙂

    Joemamma — I hope you enjoy it! It’s wonderful for a person who enjoys nonfiction. Extremely readable and interesting.

    Annie — it’s not at all like regular biographies, which is part of what I enjoyed so much. It’s much shorter than most biographies, and it doesn’t move in chronological order, both being things I appreciate. I don’t remember details well, so reading a super-long biography, most of which won’t stay with me, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.

    Litlove — I agree with you, absolutely (almost put that thought in my post, but didn’t get around to it). The Silent/Hidden Woman made the story of the scholars SO fascinating. Still, Malcolm does a great job with whatever material she has. I’m looking forward to her book on Chekhov, as well as the Freud Archives one.

    Nan — The Autobiography of A. is one I would definitely like to get to at some point. I think I would enjoy it. Not sure about her other ones, though!

    Jenclair — if you have a choice, I’d go with the Plath/Hughes one, but both are good. I think I would love reading about the social scene Stein and Toklas lived in!

    Lilian — oh, she’s great, and not a traditional biographer (not that there’s anything wrong with traditional biography!). She always has an interesting angle on her subjects.

    Danielle — I agree about Stein’s experimental works. But I’m still curious. I should try reading sections of The Making of Americans, but not try to read the whole thing. I just want to see what it’s like. But, still, I’m sure I’d get frustrated at some point.


  10. Stein and Toklas are such interesting individuals and you have made this book sound so good. I’m going to have to add it to my TBR list!


  11. I picked this up a few years ago since I’m a fan of Stein (sort of…if being a fan doesn’t require actually reading too much of her work…) and really liked it too. I don’t normally do well with biographies, even of people I really like or find interesting, but this one was a great read and like you I really enjoyed the meta-biography aspects of it.


  12. Stefanie — well worth the TBR list, I think. You will find they are even more interesting than you thought!

    Nicole — if I can be a Stein fan without having read too much of her work, then count me in! I’ve liked what I’ve read, but I’ve read selectively. When it comes to nonfiction (and often fiction too) taking a book to the “meta” level makes is that much more interesting.


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