May 31, 2011 by Reader's Connection
Even if you´ve never read anything by Gertrude Stein or Alice B. Toklas, and aren´t planning to correct that situation, you might enjoy Janet Malcolm´s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. It´s a slim, brilliant study of the contrasts between the way these women presented themselves in literature and the way they actually lived.
Malcolm isn´t knocking herself out to win you non-Stein-readers over.
Stein´s habitual attempt to be bright is a defining characteristic of her life and her art. She seemed to shine when she walked into a room, and the work, even at its most hermetic, possesses a glitter that keeps one reading long past the time when it is normal to stop reading a text that makes no sense.
Or, here. After writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was commercially successful, Stein returned to her preferred manner.
What Stein felt she had to atone for was the crisp linear narrative of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which she had adopted merely to woo the conventional reading public, and which was not her style at all. Now, writing in her own voice, Stein no longer feels constrained to attend to the reader’s wants. She returns to her old way of writing as if the reader were an uninvited guest arriving on the wrong night at at dark house.
But if Malcolm isn’t cheerleading for Stein, she is drawing a splendid portrait of two women who were publicists for themselves and their lives, and never once mentioned, in the midst of Europe’s upheavals, that they were Jewish. (A close friend and supporter was the anti-Semite Bernard Faÿ, and after World War II, when Faÿ was jailed for collaboration with the Nazis, Toklas helped raise money to finance Faÿ’s escape.)
And Malcolm tells of how Stein had to alter a poem called “Stanzas in Meditation,” replacing the often-used “may” with some form of “can,” even when it didn’t make sense, because Toklas was so enraged about an earlier love affair that Stein had had with a woman named May. The famous long-lived “marriage” between Stein and Toklas had its traumas.
Cheerleading or not, Malcolm has me curious about Stein’s novel (if we’re going to call it a novel) The Making of Americans, with its 900-some unintelligible pages of tiny print. Our library doesn’t own a copy, but I’ve ordered it on interlibrary loan.
I’m guessing that I won’t read the whole book, but Malcolm has made it sound fascinating, even if she had a hard time with it, herself, and treats it with some humor. If you read Malcolm’s book and find yourself similarly intrigued, we do own From the Making of Americans: Gleanings from the Book.
I should make it clear that Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. is completely intelligible, witty, penetrating, and only 227 pages long.