Unlocking the truth of the mystifying relationship between Gertrude Stein, brilliant and affable, and her brooding companion, Alice B. Toklas "How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?" Janet Malcolm asks at the beginning of this extraordinary work of literary biography and investigative journalism. The pair, of course, is Gertrude Stein, the modernist master "whose charm was as conspicuous as her fatness" and "thin, plain, tense, sour" Alice B. Toklas, the "worker bee" who ministered to Stein's needs throughout their forty-year expatriate "marriage." As Malcolm pursues the truth of the couple's charmed life in a village in Vichy France, her subject becomes the larger question of biographical truth. "The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties," she writes. The portrait of the legendary couple that emerges from this work is unexpectedly charged. The two world wars Stein and Toklas lived through together are paralleled by the private war that went on between them. This war, as Malcolm learned, sometimes flared into bitter combat. Two Lives is also a work of literary criticism. "Even the most hermetic of [Stein's] writings are works of submerged autobiography," Malcolm writes. "The key of 'I' will not unlock the door to their meaning--you need a crowbar for that--but will sometimes admit you to a kind of anteroom of suggestion." Whether unpacking the accessible Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein "solves the koan of autobiography," or wrestling with The Making of Americans, a masterwork of "magisterial disorder," Malcolm is stunningly perceptive. Praise for the author: "[Janet Malcolm] is among the most intellectually provocative of authors . . .able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight."--David Lehman, Boston Globe "Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography."--Christopher Benfey
One of Malcolm's interviewees, a Stein scholar herself, has asked, "Is Stein worth the effort to figure her out?" Malcolm hasn't necessarily convinced me that she is, but she has definitely made the case for further perusal. She's painted a picture of 2 fascinating lives and left enough open questions that my curiosity has been piqued.
Having finished it, though, I see that had I not been hung over, I would have been pretty annoyed. Malcolm writes about as much about Stein and Toklas as she does about some literary critics she met. She gets all meta with the "these people don't like this person and maybe this person is exploiting Stein but then aren't I just exploiting him too?" And slowly but surely we learn more about Janet Malcolm and the literary types she knows than we learn about Stein or Toklas. And what we learn about Janet Malcolm is that she just can't believe that there are some people in the world who don't care about their ethnic roots! Imagine the temerity! Your name is freaking Stein, how come you don't continuously write about being Jewish??
Because not post-Reagan America, that's why.
Anyway, I appreciate that Malcolm has encouraged me to read a couple more of Stein books (Everybody's Biography and Wars I Have Seen), and reminded me that this kind of meandering, vaguely Sebald-esque thing (complete with grainy photos!) really, really, really isn't for me, unless my brain is otherwise non-functional and the lack of connection between paragraphs won't bother me (slash my inability to get with the innovativeness of not caring about those connections has been suspended for some reason).