Synopses & Reviews
"How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?and#8221; 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 and#147;whose charm was as conspicuous as her fatnessand#8221; and and#147;thin, plain, tense, sourand#8221; Alice B. Toklas, the and#147;worker beeand#8221; who ministered to Steinand#8217;s needs throughout their forty-year expatriate and#147;marriage.and#8221; As Malcolm pursues the truth of the coupleand#8217;s charmed life in a village in Vichy France, her subject becomes the larger question of biographical truth. and#147;The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties,and#8221; she writes.and#160;
The portrait of the legendary couple that emerges from this work is unexpectedly charged. The two world wars Stein and Toklasand#160; 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. and#147;Even the most hermetic of [Steinand#8217;s] writings are works of submerged autobiography,and#8221; Malcolm writes. and#147;The key ofand#160; 'I' will not unlock the door to their meaningand#151;you need a crowbar for thatand#151;but will sometimes admit you to a kind of anteroom of suggestion.and#8221; Whether unpacking the accessible Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein and#147;solves the koan of autobiography,and#8221; or wrestling with The Making of Americans, a masterwork of and#147;magisterial disorder,and#8221; Malcolm is stunningly perceptive.
Praise for the
About the Author
Q: How do you choose literary subjects? For instance, how did you get from Chekhov to Stein?
A: I stumble on most of my subjects. In the case of Stein, The New Yorker asked me to contribute to an issue on food, and I decided to write about The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. In the course of rereading Toklas's chapter on her cooking in occupied France, I became curious about Stein and Toklas's wartime history. I wondered how they survived the Nazi occupation.
Q: How did you determine the circumstances of their survival?
A:and#160;I learned of a man named Bernard Faand#255;, who was an influential figure in the Vichy regime, and who protected Stein and Toklas. I was alerted to his existence by the three Stein scholars--Ulla Dydo, Edward Burns, and Bill Rice--who function in the book as a kind of Greek Chorus.
Q: Did you enjoy your encounter with the Stein scholars as much as it seems?
A: I did indeed.and#160;My encounter with them was one of unmitigated pleasure. Their splendid generosity and beauty of character was without parallel. I have written about the problem of the journalist/subject encounter, but what I wrote doesn't have bearing on this encounter.and#160;Q: How problematic was it to parse Stein's famously difficult The Making of Americans?
A:and#160;As I wrote,and#160;I had to take a knife and hack the 950-page book into six sections in order to read it.and#160;Reading it was both an ordeal and one of the most interesting literary experiences of my life.and#160;There is nothing like it in literature. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but for anyone who is interested in Stein, it is a necessary work.