Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, after living for many years at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris, found a country house near Belley and fell madly in love with it. When they first arrived in the area, they were vacationing, and the house was occupied by another renter. But the women had their hearts set on the place, even though they had only seen it across a valley, and used their influential friends to have the lessee, a soldier, promoted and thus transferred away from the area. They finally had their house, after a long wait, and would live in Belley and the surrounding area, some 80 km east of Lyon, through World War II and until Gertrude’s death.

One of the questions Janet Malcolm tries to answer in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is how two American Jewish women managed to live unmolested in the French countryside throughout the German occupation, even as the young men of the village were being sent to German labor camps. This is partly due to the fact that the villagers were very friendly with the women and apparently saw no reason to turn them over to the Germans. But Stein still had influential friends—Bernard Faÿ, an editor who befriended Stein in Paris despite his strong anti-Semitism and who would later be sentenced to a life of hard labor for collaboration, did his part to make sure that the couple remained safe and also well-rationed. Years after Gertrude’s death, Toklas would even sell a Picasso to fund his escape from prison and flight to Switzerland.

It seems shocking and disturbing to think of two Jews consorting with an anti-Semite in the middle of World War II, but neither of the women ever did much to admit, much less embrace, her religio-ethnic identity. Politically, Stein was very conservative: “she loved the Republican party, she hated Roosevelt, and she actually supported Franco.” (N.b., of course, that Stein died long before the Holocaust would be revealed in its fullness.) So they are not quite what we expect from two lesbian expatriates in France in the early part of the 20th century, one of them writing extremely modernist “novels” and collecting avante garde paintings.

Personally they are not what we expect either. Stein is childlike and childish and completely in thrall to Toklas, who is domineering and jealous. Much of Malcolm’s book is devoted to describing the treasure-hunt she went on to discover more of these two lives. On this hunt she meets Ulla Dydo, who has devoted her life to deciphering Stein’s texts, and uncovered a mystery in one of them—the word “may” in an early manuscript has been replaced everywhere with “can,” an unfelicitous choice given the sound of the rest of the work, and it turns out to be at Toklas’s jealous request: May was the name of Gertrude’s former lover, and when Toklas finds this out forces the redactions.

Stein’s acceptance of the punishment inflicted on her poem by the infuriated Toklas is almost beyond understanding. How could a serious writer agree to such a crazy demand? But what does one know about other people’s intimate lives? We know that jealousy can drive people to dire acts. We accept the idea of sadomasochism. Certain reports by contemporaries—and hints that Stein herself dropped—suggest that the “can”/”may” episode was not an isolated event but part of a regular repertoire of sadomasochistic games the couple played. The most striking of the reports is Hemingway’s. In his memoir A Moveable Feast, he writes of an exchange he overheard between Stein and Toklas whose violence so unnerved him that it effectively ended his relationship with Stein.

What does one know about other people’s intimate lives indeed? It is a question I think of daily and the main focus of Two Lives. Stein’s relationship with Toklas; Stein’s relationship with Judaism; Stein’s idea of herself, the image she put forth for friends to see. Malcolm is led to interesting musings on the subject of biography.

The minor characters of biography, like their counterparts in fiction, are less tenderly treated than major characters…. Unlike the flat characters of fiction (as E.M. Forster called them), who have no existence outside the novel they were invented to animate, the flat characters of biography are actual, three-dimensional people. But the biographer is writing a life not lives, and to keep himself on course, must cultivate a kind of narcissism on behalf of his subject that blinds him to the full humanity of anyone else. As he turns the bracing storylessness of human life into the flaccid narrativity of biography, he cannot worry about the people who never asked to be dragged into his shaky enterprise.

One of the notable features of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is Stein’s high-handed treatment of the lesser people in her circle. She flattens them as perhaps no biographer has ever flatteneed a character before or since…. It is—among other things it is—an anti-biography. Stein’s presentation of herself in the book as one of the world’s greatest geniuses, and of every other person as someone put on earth only to amuse or irritate her, is surely a reflection not of the way she saw herself and her friends but of the way she thought about biographical representation.

But from the rest of what Malcolm has to tell, Stein surely did think of herself as one of the world’s greatest geniuses.

One of the most reassuring things about reading Two Lives was finding out how even academics who have devoted their lives to studying this woman’s writings have a hard time understanding her at times. Malcolm gets good insights from Dydo and her colleagues and has interesting things of her own to say about The Making of Americans. While Two Lives probably doesn’t reveal anything groundbreaking of its own, it’s a very readable and fascinating biography, especially with so much of Malcolm’s research journey included in the narrative. Stein and Toklas certainly led interesting lives among interesting people, and this provides an intimate but hard-nosed window into that. And it’s enough to make me want to pick up the massive Making of Americans myself now—though probably not enough to make me finish it.