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Two Lives : Gertrude And Alice

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This is a decidedly unusual little book, and a most intriguing one too, which I was drawn to after reading a detailed and very witty review, by Terry Castle, in The London Review Of Books last December. The two lives in question are those of Gertrude Stein and her companion of forty years, Alice B.Toklas, but Two Lives is not a biography in any ordinary or conventional sense.


The central preoccupation of Malcolm's book is the decision made by Stein and Toklas to remain in Vichy France during the early forties, prompting, once the war had been won (and lost) and the dangers had been removed, Malcolm's striking question:

How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians escaped the Nazis?
(which, bizarrely, in the blurb becomes "How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?") The answer appears to be connected to their having at least one highly influential collaborationist friend, whose identity and role Malcolm sets out to investigate.


But Malcolm also deals with the women's life in bohemian Paris in the earlier part of the century, and the book looks forward to the long 'widowhood' of Toklas, who survived Stein by some twenty years before dying in severely straitened circumstances.


Malcolm relates her interviews with three notable Stein specialists, and the book subsequently offers important insights into what Malcolm herself terms "the biographical enterprise"; her contention can be summarised by the LRB reviewer's "the biographer's lot is not a happy one."


In fact Malcolm fairly and squarely posits the vanity of biography, and even of human knowledge in general:

The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.
For her, the biographer is the person who
turns the bracing storylessness of human life into the flaccid narrativity of biography
In other words, it boils down to making something out of nothing. But this never makes Janet Malcolm's 'enterprise' appear the slightest bit pointless. She wields her biographer's pen with scalpel-like precision, and is often deliciously scathing about Stein (just as Stein often tended to be scathing about almost everybody and everything else). Here she is on Stein's The Making of Americans:
It is believed to be a modernist masterpiece, but it is not felt to be a necessary reading experience.
Reaching the end of Malcolm's study, this reader had less the impression of having read a coherent narrative than of having looked through a jumbled series of snapshots, some of which stick in the mind because of their startling originality. The book does indeed include a number of photographs, but they are not what is most striking. Terry Castle sums it all up very well when she calls Malcolm's book:
a sort of reporter's diary, a circuitous, episodic, highly self-conscious narrative about her own search, ultimately somewhat inconclusive, after the 'truth' of the matter.



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