Review: Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Janet Malcolm

I think what I love about Janet Malcolm’s biographical writing is that she’s not, properly speaking, writing a biography. I don’t have a lot of patience for biographies (Oscar Wilde biographies excepted); even the best ones tend to have moments where they’re plodding along through the question of what subjects the person took at university, and how they got on in their first job and their second job and their third job before discovering what they were truly meant for. Janet Malcolm — in The Silent Woman and now in Two Lives — is writing not the story of her subjects, but the story of their mythology. What mythology did Gertrude Stein have about herself, and what was the mythology her contemporaries had about her, and now what is the mythology her biographers have?

Which is, at least to me, much more interesting. In the days of my youth when I thought I was going to be an academic (oh Past Jenny), I had a scheme to write a book about Oscar Wilde that was basically this exact plan: the history of his mythology (not the story of his life). The interest is in the variances and intersections.

One example of this is the mythology of Alice Toklas having been unlikeable. Malcolm quotes various contemporaries of Stein and Toklas as saying that Alice was like a witch, a crone, taciturn and unsocial in comparison with Stein’s gregarious, lovable nature. Then she talks about Stein’s biographers, who have a similar reaction to Toklas — like Oscar Wilde biographers hating Bosie, but without the clear reasons for doing it — and considers what might be the reason for it. Is it, she asks, only by comparison with Stein that Toklas seems dreadful? And what, anyway, did Stein love so much in Toklas (and vice versa)? Malcolm lets you feel that you are discovering this yourself, by keeping her own opinions on the back burner. She offers different perspectives in the form of well-curated quotations, and the reader gets to form an opinion for herself.

Fodder for a post I am going to write sometime about sympathetic characters (you may be waiting a long time but it’s coming, y’all), and testament to Malcolm thoughtfulness and balance as a writer, is the fact that I started the book thinking “blech” about Stein and “meh” about Toklas, and ended by feeling vaguely positive toward them and pleased to know a bit more about them. Gertrude Stein’s rambles about her genius made me want to slap her (though when Oscar Wilde says the same thing I don’t want to slap him; but I think it’s because I like his writing and don’t like hers), but Malcolm’s portrayal of the affection other people felt for her upon meeting her was an antidote to that. The knowledge that people liked her when they met her made me pay attention to the fact that she wasn’t limited to her own self-portrayal; that she had facets outside of the arrogance and selfishness that come through in some of her writing.

Malcolm also includes a long section about a Stein scholar who conducted extensive, illuminating interviews with Alice Toklas late in her life, and never published his notes. He wrote a dissertation, which apparently set the world of Stein scholarship abuzz, but he has never produced a Stein book since then. Now he is very old, and he has all these notes, and nobody is allowed to see them, and he won’t be interviewed about them because he doesn’t want anyone to steal his ideas for the Stein book he still claims he’s going to write.

This? Is catnip to me. I am unfailingly fascinated by cases where knowledge exists in the world, and it’s right there, but for whatever reason, you can’t have it. It’s interesting when the knowledge is on a time delay (like the Eliot/Hale letters, which you know you can have, but not until 2019); interestinger when it’s withheld by circumstances (like Linear A, which is surely going to be deciphered one day, but right now we don’t have the knowledge to do it); and interestingest when it’s withheld by human agency (like this Stein scholar, Leon Katz). Malcolm explores something like this in The Silent Woman, where Ted Hughes’s sister retracts alliances with scholars who displease her and denies them access to necessary documents. What’s interesting about Leon Katz is the notion that maybe he could blow Stein scholarship wide open. MAYBE! We don’t know because we haven’t seen his notes. I think I just like the idea that world-shaking discoveries (if Gertrude Stein scholarship is your world, that is) are within reach but not quite attainable.

13 thoughts on “Review: Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Janet Malcolm

    • There are books like that about more people than you’d think! (And The Bronte Myth is on my list.) Janet Malcolm’s book about Sylvia Plath & Ted Hughes was really superb, one of my favorite books of its year, and there is one about Jane Austen too, I think. Oscar Wilde’s grandson has a book in the works about the aftermath of the Oscar Wilde trials, which I’m hoping deals at least somewhat with this aspect of the history.

  1. We read such widely disparate things about Stein. I’ve just been listening to A Moveable Feast, and Hemingway has gone from being interested and respectful to being ashamed to have heard her pleading with Toklas not to leave her, and thinking that she alienated not only her first set of friends, but then a second set too. She was the capricious queen of the literati.

    • Oh, yes, Malcolm quotes that bit from Hemingway. Gertrude Stein sounds like…someone I would not want to be friends with. You know, very charming, it sounds like? But I got the strong impression from the Malcolm book that she wasn’t good at keeping her friends. She sounds very, very, very selfish.


    Ok, so can I read this without having read anything by Gertrude Stein? ‘Cause I don’t really want to do the latter, but this sounds good.

    • I DO NOT KNOW WHY. I do not even know. I was just reading a book about literary estates and whenever they talked about destroying papers and letters, my heart felt so very very sad. Those crazy damn lunatics.

      You can definitely read this without having read anything by Gertrude Stein. Apart from the excerpts contained in this book, I have still not read a single syllable of Gertrude Stein and based on the excerpts contained in this book that is a sound policy on my part.

  3. I read The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas in high school and the only thing I remember is that Alice baked POT BROWNIES. Which is a very good argument for re-reading. I’m sure there are other things I should remember her for.

    • Hahahahaha. I didn’t know pot brownies had been around for so long! I’ve always thought of them as a newish invention, although now that I’m thinking about that, I don’t know why I would have such an assumption.

  4. I’ve never read any of Stein’s stuff. Humphrey Carpenter wrote a book called ‘Geniuses Together’ – a profile of that entire set, but with Hemingway as the mc. Stein is defined by her relationship with Hemingway: the protege who incorporates some of his mentor’s tropes (e.g. repetition) only to surpass her, much to her annoyance. Toklas is pretty much a background character.

    Have you seen ‘Midnight in Paris’? Kathy Bates’ plays Stein – the characterisation was pretty positive, I thought. The depiction of Hemingway is hilarious.

    • Eurgh. I’m not convinced I’d enjoy such a book — these people are not my people. I much prefer the Victorians, swanning about being verbosely dramatic about everything. I don’t like any of the Stein/Hemingway set, except Fitzgerald I guess, if he counts? And even he is not my favoritest fellow in all the land. I haven’t seen Midnight in Paris but I heard it’s wonderful!

  5. Your point about Malcolm writing about the mythology of her characters is a brilliant one. That’s it exactly, and why I love her books so much. I thoroughly enjoyed this one – so glad you did too!

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