"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 meaningyou need a crowbar for thatbut 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
|Publisher:||Yale University Press|
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About the Author
Janet Malcolm is the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Reading Chekhov, among other books. She writes for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and lives in New York City.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In 'Two Lives' by Janet Malcolm, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas live out, once again, their forty year relationship, ending in a village in Vichy France. Part biography and part literary criticism, 'Two Lives' shines a spotlight on two key issues: How did the pair escape deportation? and What does Stein's most famous work,'The Making of Americans' mean? Malcom uncovers the hitherto unknown fact that Stein had a benefactor in the person of a Nazi collaborator, Bernard Fey, who shipped her delicacies from Paris during World War ll and who protected her and her companion from the fate of all other Jews. In her work, 'Wars I Have Seen',Stein laments the life of one Jewish boy who was sent to his death , ignoring six million others who shared the same end. Stein, in fact, never made her Jewish origin a major part in any of her works. Reading about Stein's charmed life, one cannot help but compare her to the unlucky French writer, Irene Nemirovsky,of the same period whose latest novels were recently discovered. Unlike Stein, she had no friend in high places and was sent to Auschwitz where she perished in 1942. Her major opus, 'Suite Francaise', which critics say would have rivaled 'War and Peace' was left outlined but unfinished. Malcolm wrestles with Stein's opus,'The Making of Americans'. She quotes from some of its pages and concludes that Stein had trouble creating characters and plotting their destinies. She describes her attempts to contact Stein's biographer, Leon Katz, a Columbia doctoral student in 1952, who discovered Stein's notebooks and interviewed Toklas extensively. Katz refused to meet her. The contents of the notebooks and results of his talks with Toklas still remain secret, frustrating Malcolm and the huge audience of Stein's works who would have benefited from her findings. In accounts of others who knew Toklas in her later life after Stein's death, Malcolm determines that unlike what most believed, Toklas was the dominating figure in the relationship and Stein was the 'baby'. More that you might want to know. Any work that examines a famous writer like Stein and can shed light on her life and enigmatic works would be fascinating. Malcolm's book piercing the darkness of Stein's writings in an entertaining and matter-of-fact tone is especially valuable.