Nobody’s Autobiography

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice BY Janet Malcolm. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 240 pages. $25.

The cover of Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

In her 1988 essay “(Im)Personating Gertrude Stein,” Marjorie Perloff takes a sharp knife to Marty Martin’s Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein, the sort of one-character Hal Holbrooke–ish stage production popular in the 1970s and ’80s, and its presentation, as the publisher of the play had declared, of “true Stein style.” The crux of the matter is pretty simple: “On the one hand, there is the public persona, the legendary Gertrude of ‘A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’ and the Picasso portrait. On the other, there are the non-representational, hermetic works such as Tender Buttons [1914] and Stanzas in Meditation [written in 1932]. What mediates between these two would seem to be the ‘open and public’ Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas [1933].” But even The Autobiography isn’t much help. “This ‘transparent’ text has its curious evasions, the most obvious one being the avoidance of any overt reference to Stein’s real relationship with Alice Toklas. Hence the zeal, of which Martin’s play is but one instance, to get ‘behind’ the matter-of-fact recounting of evenings on the rue de Fleurus and afternoons in Picasso’s studio.” What is at stake in this image of “Gertrude the Eccentric”? More to the point, what is it about Stein, Perloff asks, that permits a playwright so facilely to “translate” the particular complexities, numerous as they are, of her style— even in the “readerly” Autobiography—and get beyond her words to the vraie chose?

Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein may have faded like an old copy of Playbill, but Martin wasn’t unique in falling for the myth of the joyously babbling machine of gnomic syllogisms and tautologies. If being a genius is hard work, so is creating one’s biography. In September 1944, journalist and newscaster Eric Sevareid reached the French village of Culoz and met with its most famous resident, and in his 1946 book, Not So Wild a Dream, he reports that “with all the difficulties, the isolation from lifelong friends, these had been the happiest years of her life.” In her new Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, a collection of essays and reportage on Stein, Toklas, their lives together and apart, and the autobiographical fictions they jointly created (as all of us must) for themselves and for the reader, Janet Malcolm quotes the Sevareid passage and remarks, “It was a point of pride with Stein never to appear unhappy.” What Malcolm calls Stein’s “preternatural cheerfulness” is perhaps the most accomplished of all the self-fashioning she attempted.

Gertrude Stein. Library of Congress
Gertrude Stein. Library of Congress

How odd, then, in the pages that follow the citation, to read Malcolm’s unfailingly grim exegesis of Stein’s Wars I Have Seen (1945) and its fearful account of the terrible privations and anxieties of life under German occupation, the “betrayals and denunciations” Stein heard about on a daily basis. It must have been all the more terrifying for a lesbian Jew in her late sixties, waiting worriedly for some neighbor to drop a collaborative dime on her and Toklas. The brilliant record of Wars I Have Seen stands as Stein’s transcript of life during wartime, which is always so much more horrible than those of us who have not experienced it can easily imagine. Still, there is something unnerving about that eccentric placidity that Sevareid reported, his book another brick in the obdurate, mythical edifice called Gertrude Stein.

“How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians escaped the Nazis? Why had they stayed in France instead of returning to the safety of the United States? Why did Toklas omit any mention of her and Stein’s Jewishness (never mind lesbianism)?” In the process of answering these questions, Malcolm investigates, too, how literary biography works—how it is put together and functions as a genre. She does so without demolishing either Stein and Toklas or biography more generally, but rather by unbuilding them, like the infamous Deutsche Bank skyscraper next to ground zero, floor by floor. Two Lives contains all the elements of a Malcolm potboiler: tightly woven narratives that on her tugging unravel, thread by thread; the interests, conscious and unconscious, that undergird testimony; good and bad faith, the quiet acts of disloyalty and the loud accusations of betrayal. We meet the oily flatterer Bernard Faÿ, the gay Royalist and expert on American literature who became Stein and Toklas’s protector during the war, likely saving their lives. (Toklas would pay him back by sell ing one or more Picasso works on paper to finance his escape from prison.) And Toklas’s Bartlebyan confidant Leon Katz, the reticent Stein scholar who either did or didn’t elicit from Toklas the interpretive picks that would unlock Stein’s great novel The Making of Americans—picks that could jimmy open, in the view of other Stein experts, a work that would take its deserved place on school reading lists next to Ulysses and The Waste Land. And we’re given, in Malcolm’s short, tightly written book, a view of Stein and Toklas that is nuanced if ambiguous and as messy as real life.

Malcolm’s biography-cum-investigation grew out of a series of pieces for the New Yorker. “The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive,” she once famously observed, and her motivation in Two Lives is laid out in response to a rereading of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (1954) and its chapter “Food in the Bugey During the Occupation,” which struck her as much for what it did not say as for what it did: “In 1954 Toklas’s evasions went as unremarked as her recipes for ‘A Restricted Veal Loaf’ and ‘Swimming Crawfish’ went uncooked.” But to the contemporary reader, the unspoken calls attention to itself all the more importunately.

The answers to Malcolm’s questions draw her through the world of Stein scholarship to a sort of extended profile of The Making of Americans—it is as though, curiously, the question of how to think about Stein has been shifted onto this notoriously difficult “text of magisterial disorder,” a book “nine hundred and twenty-five pages long . . . forty-four lines to the page.” (When Malcolm sets out to read the book and finds herself dismayed again and again by its sheer bulk, she resolves the problem by “taking a kitchen knife and cutting it into six sections.”) For Stein experts like Ulla E. Dydo, The Making of Americans is an unsung masterpiece of modernism, a work that begins as a novel but becomes a monument to the antinovel, that ever registers itself as writing in situ, that struggles against the very idea of the novel as a viable, empathic expressive form even as it attempts to tell a normatively novelistic tale—that of the Hersland family. In doing so, the text anticipates the postmodern impulse as much as it exemplifies modernist experimentation with syntax and style.

The Making of Americans takes us far afield of the Stein that Gertrude and Alice worked so laboriously to maintain and that became a literary brand after The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas brought Stein celebrity in the early ’30s. In place of the assured genius, it offers a writer flailing magnificently about as she fails to master her craft: Describing a section in which the novel becomes a particularly Steinian field of quicksand, where both reader and writer bog down, Malcolm writes, “The anti-novel seems to be turning into a kind of nervous breakdown. The author has regressed to a state where she evidently cannot differentiate writing from shitting.”

Begun in 1903, completed in 1911, The Making of Americans spans a period that would be gleefully papered over by Stein and Toklas (the book wasn’t published until 1925). Read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and you get the veni, vidi, vici sense of the genius Stein and the doting husband, Toklas, who in Edmund Wilson’s famous line “turns toward her as the sunflower turns toward the sun.” If you work through The Making of Americans, you’ll find a writer realizing, in the course of creating a work of fiction, that she “cannot invent,” as Malcolm comments. “She can only write about what has actually happened to people she knows.” This isn’t a defect in itself, but it is certainly a handicap for a would-be novelist.

So why hasn’t there been more interest in the other Stein? The lack of an annotated version of the novel, available to students and general readers, is the answer most Stein scholars offer. An annotated Making of Americans does exist, in the form of a dissertation by Katz, but he never fulfilled his contractual obligations to deliver the annotations and Toklas’s commentaries to Liveright Publishing, which planned to publish the book on the occasion of the Stein centenary in 1974.

Katz becomes the strange key player in Two Lives, in this case a key that doesn’t turn. When writing his dissertation in the early ’50s, a few years after Stein’s death, he discovered in a collection of papers at Yale the copious notes she made during the long, hard creation of The Making of Americans. The portrait they draw of Stein is harsh: They “render the young Stein as a confused and morose young woman, recovering from an unhappy lesbian love affair, and dazedly attempting to write,” he notes in his dissertation. Katz went to Paris in 1952 and charmed Toklas, who guarded Stein’s legacy ferociously. (Malcolm: “She tended the shrine of Stein’s legend with the devotion of the dog at the master’s grave. She would snarl if anyone came too close to the monument.”) Katz eventually persuaded her to help piece together the discovered notebooks and in the process to betray the details of the couple’s relations in the early part of the century up to the mid-’30s. It was during that latter moment that Toklas, in a fit of jealousy, destroyed Stein’s letters from May Bookstaver, the pre-Toklas lover who broke Stein’s heart.

Whatever light Katz can shed on his encounter with Toklas, though, remains dim. He has refrained from publishing the annotated notebooks; for that matter, no one has ever even seen his interview notes. Interestingly, Malcolm bristles initially at the idea of interviewing him, and when a scheduled meeting between the two is fouled up and he breaks off contact, she takes little umbrage at his behavior. “Even if he never writes his book, he is entitled not to make a present of its plot to a stranger,” she writes, “and he is right to fear what a stranger may obliviously make off with from his published writings.”

The nonevent of Malcolm and Katz’s nonmeeting epitomizes what is so appealingly Malcolmesque about Two Lives. As she lets him off the hook and digresses onto the subject of “narrative theft,” she steps away momentarily and unexpectedly from her tale and adds just enough counterintuitive analysis and introspection to ruffle the smooth surface of her story by betraying the relationship of journalist and subject. This is, of course, familiar territory for Malcolm, as is her investigation of biography. She fished that pond most famously with her fiercely contentious Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994). It should come as no surprise that the waters are much calmer in Two Lives. The biographical and personal stakes are simply not as high in the Stein-Toklas story as they were with Plath and Hughes. But as in all her work, Malcolm lets the messy and fraught details of her story remain even as she expresses it with utter clarity. Or as Stein might have paraphrased the Malcolm ethic in action, What is the answer? artfully asks itself, What is the question?

Eric Banks is editor in chief of Bookforum.