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A Different Notion

May 29, 2008 By:
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Gertrude Stein (left) and Alice B. Toklas

The question at the heart of Janet Malcolm's new book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice -- how did a pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survive the Nazis? -- is unmistakably intriguing; more than a little provocative; startling, actually, despite the fact that we live in an age when the concept of a private life has become downright laughable. Secrets are meant to be peddled in the world of commerce like so many glittering trinkets. But for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the two lives at center stage here, some things were sacred. Though these two women lived a very nontraditional life together in the Paris of the 1920s -- alongside their fellow literary bohemians of the "lost generation" (a Stein coinage, by the way), who had come to the French capital ripe for experimentation, sexual and otherwise -- there were rules of propriety that even the most radical types stood by. Gossip was gossip, of course, but it was whispered and kept among the anointed few. Perhaps that's why Malcolm's query seems shocking even in the 21st century.

Or maybe it's just that we're startled that no other writer has ever come up with the notion before, and once having come up with it, pursued an answer with the kind of intrepid literary and biographical detective work Malcolm has expended here. In her long career, much of it spent at The New Yorker, Malcolm has examined many a provocative issue, and set off controversies that often wouldn't go away.

For example, she took on psychiatry and the psychoanalytic establishment in two books,Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession and In the Freud Archives (both of which began as long pieces in The New Yorker), and the latter led to a multimillion-dollar law suit brought by the subject of the profile, Jeffrey Masson, former project director of the Freud archives, who contended that Malcolm had libeled him. The case dragged on for years and was never satisfactorily resolved.

The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm's next major project, began with one of the most famous sentences about journalism fashioned in recent times: "Every journalist who is not too stupid nor too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." Malcolm had in mind nonfiction writer Joe McGinniss, his true crime book Fatal Vision and how McGinniss got his subject, Green Beret doctor Jeffrey MacDonald, who'd been charged with murdering his wife and children, to open up to him. Malcolm argued that McGinniss had taken MacDonald into his confidence, telling the murder suspect he believed wholeheartedly in his innocence while, in reality, he considered him to be guilty of everything the prosecution had charged him with.

McGinniss' journalistic "duplicity," which was said to be utilized in the search for "truth," was what Malcolm found so troubling, and her thesis set off another wide-ranging controversy throughout the literary and journalistic worlds.

Then came The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes, which was not really about the two poets, who were once miserably married to one another, but was about how these two writers' lives and legacies -- and especially, Plath's eventual suicide, following her desertion by Hughes -- have been picked over by a slew of biographers, many of whom had a bone to pick with one or the other of their subjects.

Malcolm's book was a relentless examination of the biographical enterprise, as much asThe Journalist and the Murderer was focused on the nuts and bolts of reportage. Its thesis was also the source of many ruminations on the question of whether a biographer can ever get at the "truth" of someone else's life.

Two Lives, which has been published by Yale University Press, doesn't have the potential to cause any such similar controversy, but it might stir up some talk in literary and academic circles since the author pulls no punches when it comes to her subjects. She reveals some unpleasant facts about how Stein and Toklas did manage to survive in Nazi Europe, in a lovely town in Vichy, along with some unpleasant attitudes Stein expressed toward her Judaism. The author also has a few surprises in store for readers about how these two powerhouses of modernism worked out their sexual and domestic responsibilities.

Still a Cultural Trailblazer?

A major point that has to be kept in mind when approachingTwo Lives is that, though Stein's literary influence these days is hardly what is was 50 or 60 years ago, she did at one time occupy a central position in the temple of modernism, where any number of literary types used to worship. Her Paris salon of the '20s, where such fellow giants as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway sat at her feet, anticipating a flow of wit and erudition, had by the end of World War II acquired the patina of myth. Stein's own writings -- all of them spurred on by a love of verbal experimentation that was wildly imaginative, if not always immediately comprehensible to readers -- were considered touchstones of the avant garde and required reading in postwar college courses. Any devotee of literature who hadn't poured over Three Lives, for example, was considered sorely uneducated.

Stein is no longer considered a cultural trailblazer, and her life and times have been picked over by so many different biographers and memoirists that there's almost nothing left of the pedestal she once stood upon. Which is as it should be. Malcolm wants none of the old hero worship. In fact, it seems she prefers to examine every foible she can uncover to make Stein and Toklas as human as possible.

In this sense, Two Lives has a kinship to The Silent Woman since Malcolm is again looking deeply at the whole process by which biography comes into being. She scours Stein's writings, arguing that these intensely unconventional works are highly autobiographical and thus provide clues to how her life was lived. It's of considerable importance that Stein wrote a work called The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which was really about its author, not its announced subject -- and that the goal was reached only through a process of indirection and subterfuge. As Malcolm notes at one point: "The key of 'I' will not unlock the door to meaning -- you need a crowbar for that -- but will sometimes admit you to a kind of anteroom of suggestion." There's the map to the "autobiography's" method in a single sentence -- as well as a sense of the many obstacles Malcolm had to overcome.

Two Lives also proceeds by circling its subjects, by circling Stein's work and the works of her interpreters, and then by tracking back yet again to see what's been unearthed. Here is a typically resonant passage: "With The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [Stein] not only achieved the vulgar celebrity she craved [and that her experimental works had denied her] but brilliantly solved the koan of autobiography by disclaiming responsibility for the one being written. Speaking in the voice of her companion, Gertrude Stein can entirely dispense with the fiction of humility that the conventional autobiographer must at every moment struggle to maintain. 'I must say that only three times in my life have I met a genius,' Stein has Toklas say of their first meeting, 'and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.' "

Two Lives discloses a great deal about its subjects in a remarkably compact space, and does so via a lovely sort of Steinian circumlocution. This is not a conventional "life," nor a conventional disquisition on the biographical method, but it is splendidly entertaining and informative for those with the literary interest and fortitude to take it up.

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