Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is now in paperback.

Posted on September 15, 2008
Filed Under Book Review | 394 Comments

We think we know them.  We’ve seen Picasso’s strangely flattering portrait of Gertrude Stein (painted from memory.)  And the famous Man Ray photograph of Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas–looking like the old married couple that they were.  Then there is Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises Gertrude Stein quote:  “You are all a lost generation. ”  In Armistead Maupin’s novel Tales of the City, Anna Madrigal quotes Gertrude Stein’s last words.  When asked, “What is the answer?” her response:  “What is the question?” (Probably a misquote.)  And yes, there is that famous Alice B. Toklas cookbook.  For people of a certain generation (mine) that book is known for only one thing:  those “groovy brownies.” 

Yes, they’re hip.  They’re cool.  They’re queer.  Maybe they’re even role models.  But who the hell were they?  Janet Malcolm’s latest book, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is a quest to answer that simple question.  It is interesting that Janet Malcolm chose to title this book:  Two Lives:  Gertrude and Alice.  A better title might be:  In Search of Gertrude Stein.  In this book, as in real life, Alice B, Toklas plays a supporting role.  Gertrude Stein was the genius of this family and even Ms. Toklas would concede that.

First, I must confess, I have never read anything by Janet Malcolm.  Yes, I’m embarassed to admit it, but it is true.  And, I must tell you, I am an instant convert.  Janet Malcolm is an excellent writer.  Her search for Gertrude Stein is delightfully unpredictable.  The reader is parachuted into Gertrude Stein’s life at a critical moment.  The question is asked:  why do these two Jewish lesbians choose to stay in France as the Nazis move in?  And how do they survive after the Nazi occupation takes hold?  The answer to this question is not simple–and here is where I most admire Ms. Malcolm’s writing.  Her style is exquisitely pragmatic.   At times her writing is extremely detailed–almost baroque.  And when necessary, her style is minimalist.  As she struggles to explain–and understand–Ms. Stein’s complex relationship with the pro-Nazi priest, Bernard Fay, Ms. Malcolm describes Gertrude Stein’s politics precisely:  “Stein was a conservative with an increasingly reactionary bent–she loved the Republican Party, she hated Roosevelt and she actually supported Franco.” 

Janet Malcolm also telllingly quotes Mabel Dodge’s description of Gertrude and Alice’s eating habits:  “Gertrude ‘loved beef and I used to like to see her sit down in front of five pounds of rare meat three inches thick and with strong wrists wielding knife and fork, finish it with gusto, while Alice ate a little slice daintily, like a cat.'”

 Two Lives is a serendipitious journey into the study of Gertrude Stein.  Despite the fact that several of Ms. Stein’s key works are now out of print, despite the fact that her works have not made their way to the official–or unofficial–canon of American literature, the study of Gertrude Stein has now become an advanced academic industry.  And Ms. Malcolm documents this world brilliantly.  At times her story seems like a pinball’s journey–bouncing off sources who can’t quite meet with her and academics whose impatience with Ms. Malcolm only seems to sharpen their wit.

In the end, do we come to know Gertrude and Alice?  No.  But this reader learned how much he doesn’t know them.  And that’s a start.

Janet Malcom’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is published by Yale University Press.

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