Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

From the earliest moments of Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, it is clear that this latest undertaking from the journalist Janet Malcolm isn’t quite an ordinary biography. As the inaugural scenes of Malcolm perusing The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book signal, it is instead a convention-defying intellectual hodgepodge — part memoir, part critical inquiry, part literary mystery. As is her wont, Malcolm has latched onto one of our literary legends and set about unearthing the facts of her life with a journalist’s investigative rigor. Although she nominally joins the ranks of Stein scholars, Malcolm is never quite one of them: She maintains enough distance to unapologetically separate herself from the pack. For instance, here is Malcolm on Ulla Dydo, Edward Burns, and Bill Rice, the triumvirate of tireless Stein apostles: ” often spoke of Toklas as a liar. When I asked them to give me examples of her lies, they were at a loss, but adhered to their conviction of her untruthfulness.”

The lives of Gertrude Stein and her lover of 40 years, Alice B. Toklas, have hardly been underserved by biographers, but then that is exactly why they are of interest to Malcolm. What begins as a meandering glimpse of Stein and Toklas’s Parisian existence ultimately becomes a meditation on the art of biography — Malcolm is at least as concerned with the conflicts and crises of Stein’s academic pursuers as she is with the shape of Stein and Toklas’s lives.

Malcolm’s meta-biographical leanings, however, hardly diminish the vividness of her portraiture. Stein and Toklas come through whole, an eccentric duet with a zest for the many pleasures of life in Paris at the dawn of modernism. While Stein’s dalliances in the art world, notably her friendships with Picasso and Hemingway, provide a seductive glimmer of life in the interwar period, more gripping still is the puzzle with which Malcolm opens her book: “How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians escaped the Nazis?”

It is this particular mystery that shatters the glamour of Stein and Toklas’s Parisian landscape. Malcolm has little use for veneration; her preference is for grit. Her treatment of the war years is a sharp counterpoint to the fanciful celebration of genius that Stein tries to sell us in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, her playfully subversive memoir written from Toklas’s perspective, and it is this question that lends Two Lives both its structure and its novelty. As Malcolm’s tale unwinds over the course of the book, the moral terrain of Stein’s life gets murkier. Evidence mounts that “confirms the view that Stein did not behave well in World War II,” principally her staunch refusal to confront the realities of her situation as a Jew in France. Most troubling is Stein and Toklas’s connection to Bernard F?y, an old friend of theirs from Paris who was, not incidentally, a Gestapo collaborator. Of course Stein and Toklas were not overtly complicit in F?y’s wartime activities, but their profound denial doubtless had certain conveniences — F?y served as their unofficial protector during their years in the occupied town of Bilignin.

The work and correspondence of both subjects reveal an intentional evasion of — and in the case of Toklas, outright resistance to — the fact of their Jewishness. Where Stein operates by omission, making no mention of this pertinent detail in her memoir Wars I Have Seen, Toklas is at moments visibly hostile to Judaism (she ultimately converted to a vaguely mystical brand of Catholicism that promised her a reunion with Stein in heaven). Nevertheless, even as Malcolm grapples with these facts on the page, her aim in relaying them should not be mistaken for a moral indictment. Rather, her prevailing interest is in what she has elsewhere called “epistemological insecurity.” She will present an anecdote that would seem to accuse Stein and Toklas, only to quickly undercut it — with each additional detail, the story gets hazier instead of clearer. One moment Stein is carelessly putting a young boy at risk of being sent to the camps; the next she is the same boy’s sympathetic champion. It all depends on how you spin it (and, more significantly, on who is doing the spinning). But as Malcolm sagely notes, “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties.”

If the methodology at work here sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Throughout the topically diverse fare of Malcolm’s oeuvre, there runs a traceable set of themes and, in this regard, Two Lives hardly marks a departure. Beneath the veneer of her Freudian influences, Malcolm is distinctly postmodern in her preoccupations. As in her earlier works, Malcolm uses Stein and Toklas’s biographies to get at the broader question of how nonfiction “stories” are made. The natural predecessor to Two Lives is The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s 1994 foray into the intrigues of the Plath estate. Like this previous effort, Two Lives not only casts the Stein/Toklas legacy in a new ethical light but provides a window onto the workings of the biographical enterprise itself. The tight-knit cadre of Stein scholars who have devoted their lives to parsing the mysteries of hers wander in and out of Malcolm’s text just as artistic luminaries dapple Stein’s own text in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.

Two Lives is, despite its thematic heft, a skinny book, and there are certain lacunae. What Malcolm has conveyed so devastatingly throughout her body of work — the human cost of our ceaseless impulse to narrative — never quite achieves the same stakes here. There is, simply put, no villain. Malcolm has never been one to strive for moral ease, but many of her earlier works at least present sides to be taken (though it is often unclear which — think, for instance, of the dubious Jeffrey MacDonald in The Journalist and the Murderer). Malcolm gives us a fair share of shady characters, from Stein’s art-stealing cousin Roubina to the despicable F?y, but on the larger matter of Stein and Toklas’s tenuous relationship to their Jewishness, we mostly get inconclusiveness. For instance, she calls attention to her own cavalier treatment of these incidental characters, writing, “The minor characters of biography, like their counterparts in fiction, are less tenderly treated than major characters. The writer uses them to advance his narrative and carelessly drops them when they have performed their function.” Such self-reflexive trickery keeps Malcolm on message, but it can make for imperfect reading. There’s a reason that most non-fiction strives, however disingenuously, to give us concrete answers. It’s what readers want.

But it’s impossible to fault Malcolm for refusing to play by the traditional rules of narrative; this is precisely her point. She resists the temptation to, as she puts it, let “strong narratives win out over weak ones.” A biography that dwells in its own uncertainty would seem, intuitively, at odds with the prerogatives of the storyteller to embellish, speculate, and judge. Malcolm shows remarkable discipline in this balancing act — she manages to question the very honesty of her profession and still gives us a rich, if ethically ambiguous, biography along the way. Stein is still there on the page in all her charm and self-proclaimed genius, with the zealous Toklas, ever her caretaker, following not far behind.