Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (review)
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Reviewed by
Janet Malcolm, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 229 pp.

The three essays that constitute Malcolm's book appeared in earlier form in the New Yorker. A mix of anecdote, gossip, and biographical detective work, they provide an enjoyable read: Malcolm is a shrewd analyst of personal relationships, and she writes tellingly—if maliciously—about such issues as Stein's failed love affairs or her friendship, during the German occupation, with the young French surrealist poet Bernard Faÿ, who turned out to be a Nazi sympathizer, quite willing to help deport Jews from France. Malcolm is, for that matter, shocked that Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas stayed on in their country house in the Bugey during World War II (they could have escaped across the border to Switzerland) and that they repeatedly failed to own up to their Jewishness. Only in the late Wars I Have Seen (1945), about which Malcolm writes discerningly, do Stein's wartime fears and anguish come out into the open.

It has, in recent years, become fashionable to "out" Stein as a Pétain sympathizer (she translated some of his speeches during the war) and an anti-Semitic Jew. Stein and Toklas were able to stay in the Bugey, Malcolm posits, because they colluded with Faÿ, who adored Stein, and with others like him. "What was in it for Faÿ?" Malcolm asks. "What drew the Royalist anti-Semite to the Jewess [End Page 93] in funny clothes?" It never seems to occur to her that, however awful his politics, Faÿ genuinely admired Stein and recognized her genius. But then Malcolm—and this is what makes her book finally so unsatisfactory—has no use for the bulk of Stein's writing. She dismisses it early in Two Lives as "unreadable," making a sharp distinction between the "experimental writing" of Tender Buttons or the Portraits and nonfiction of the twenties and "conventional" work, like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, written in the thirties to attract a larger public. I find this distinction dubious: even Alice B. Toklas uses a panoply of modernist devices, and certainly it has little or no plot or "rounded" characters.

The one work Malcolm does tackle, evidently on the suggestion of the leading Stein critic Ulla E. Dydo, whom Malcolm consulted, along with Dydo's fellow scholars Edward M. Burns and William Rice, is The Making of Americans. Gritting her teeth and making her way through this long and daunting early masterpiece, mainly so as to find out what made Stein tick, Malcolm concludes that Stein is incapable of "invention" and hence of writing a novel: "The characters . . . resemble shades. You never see them." It never occurs to Malcolm that perhaps this is the case because what began as a novel becomes something quite different. Modernist literature, after all, is full of such cases: Finnegans Wake has no "real" characters either.

Never granting that the limitation may be her own, not Stein's, Malcolm, in her third chapter, tells a long story about Leon Katz, the Stein scholar who has evidently deciphered the "Rosetta stone" for The Making of Americans—namely, a set of notes in the Beinecke Library that "decodes" the novel—but has refused to share his research with anyone. Although Malcolm flew to Los Angeles to meet with him, he backed out at the last minute. If only we had these notes, Malcolm suggests (although we do have Katz's PhD dissertation on the subject on file at Ann Arbor), we would know what Stein was really alluding to in Making, how she felt about her Jewish background, her family, Alice, and so on. As it is, Malcolm has to resort to gossip and hearsay: she relays, for example, Hemingway's oft-told nasty story about an overheard argument, replete with unpleasant sexual references, between Alice and Gertrude.

The Stein that emerges from Malcolm's double portrait (and why include Alice in the first place, such equal time rarely being given to the wives or husbands of Stein's heterosexual fellow modernists?) is a self-centered, dismissive egomaniac, unable to face her own shortcomings. Malcolm has...