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.

Review: Alfred Douglas, Caspar Wintermans

WARNING: If you are not interested in Oscar Wilde and his life and friends and everything, and you do not want to read this post, I totally understand. But do yourself a favor if that is the case, skip to the end of it and read the poem in block quotes. It’s magnificent and I want to read it every day for the rest of my life.

The full title of this book is really Alfred Douglas: A Poet’s Life and His Finest Work, but I couldn’t put that for a few reasons, the first one being that as far as I am concerned Alfred Douglas has not got any finest work, his work is all terrible; and the second being that this is not so much as life as it is an apologia. Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), as you may or may not know, was the most famous of Oscar Wilde’s boyfriends, and is generally considered to have been a rather unpleasant, baselessly vain, self-centered little twerp. Winterman thinks otherwise. Actually, here is what Winterman thinks:

Envy! One cannot wholly rid oneself of the impression that the mud which over the years has been slung at Lord Alfred derives in part, consciously or unconsciously, from this feeling. After all, most of us are not really beautiful. Most of us are not of noble birth. Most of us are not so charming as to be capable of charming charming people like Oscar Wilde – if we ever meet them, that is. And then we cannot write poetry – at least not as well as to gain the praise of masters like Stephane Mallarme.

Dude, really?

I don’t think biographers have to be one hundred percent unbiased — how could anyone? — and I have been known to rejoice in admiring biographies of Oscar Wilde. But even then, I like to have a sense that they’re aware of the moments when he’s behaving appallingly badly. Wintermans seems to think Bosie is justified, or nearly, in every dreadful thing he does. He insists he’s not going to gloss over Bosie’s anti-Semitism, for example, but:

When we point out that numerous distinguished contemporaries of Douglas…also expressed themselves in an uncomplimentary way about the Jewish race, this is only to draw attention once more to the unpalatable fact that anti-Semitism was a widespread phenomenon in Europe around 1900 which had taken root in intellectual circles as well. The observation that in this respect Bosie was a child of his age is not, of course, advanced in excuse of his attitude [cause I feel like it kind of is], although it should be borne in mind [uh-huh] that his strictures [in the paper he edited] were directed at individuals rather than Jews as such.

The nice thing about this is that it all sounds so sanitary. We never have to read any of the ugly things Bosie published about the Jews, or the still uglier things he said in his private correspondence. And then Wintermans goes on to say that the article Bosie wrote claiming that Winston Churchill was part of a big Jewish conspiracy to assassinate Lord Kitchener (swear to God) was written in good faith, because that apparently makes it okay. Frankly there is a point at which believing in idiotic stories spun by mentally ill bigots teeters into bigotry its own self.

Oh, plus, plus, Wintermans wants to defend Bosie against all these rumors (which have already been thoroughly debunked by numerous biographers of both Oscar Wilde and Bosie) that Bosie abandoned Oscar Wilde after Wilde was disgraced, and never went to visit him in France, and all that foolishness that isn’t true. He says that Bosie was the only one of Oscar Wilde’s friends who went to visit him in jail and didn’t leave the country until Oscar Wilde’s lawyer demanded that he go. Robbie Ross, who would become Wilde’s literary executor, and who Wintermans is keen to portray in a nasty light, isn’t mentioned, even though Ross only left the country after his mother begged him to, and then only because she promised to send money for Wilde’s court costs.

WHATEVER. I DO NOT CARE what Casper Wintermans thinks of Robbie Ross. Everyone knows Robbie Ross was a sweet dear who was very kind to Oscar Wilde’s children, and Bosie was a nasty shrew who spent half his life screaming about all the people who were out to get him, and the other half complimenting himself on his good looks and magnificent poetry. Although apparently, says Wintermans, who I cannot necessarily trust because of how shady he was in reporting events that might have reflected badly on Bosie, apparently Bosie was really sweet to his little niece Violet. Apparently he took her in when her father died, and read her stories and took her to nice lunches and made up silly songs for her. And that is the official nicest thing I know about Lord Alfred Douglas.

And here is my official favorite thing from this book. It is a poem written by a Belgian dude called Danny Cannoot for the English Oscar Wilde Society:

Ode to Oscar Wilde

The wild Oscar Wilde loved very much Alfred Douglas
But Alfred didn’t love Wilde like he wanted.
Usual it goes that way between two people.
Like in that case the one mend it more than the other.
Love is always so fragile like you have chosen.
Alas, Douglas had the bad character.
He played with Oscar’s love like with a glass,
It fell and broke, not only Oscars’s love,
But also the great Wilde.
Who died in the Parisian hotel d’Alsace.
Now he is buried alone en lonesome at the graveyard Pere Lachaise,
Where I yet came several times.

Look, I know. I want to have that embroidered on a pillow.

Slave and Citizen: The Life of Frederick Douglass, Nathan Irvin Huggins & Oscar Handlin

Frederick Douglass is my hero.  Him and Julian of Norwich – an unlikely pair, and I am not really sure what they would make of each other, but there you go.  I have been saying for ages that we should put Frederick Douglass on our money.  And bump Jackson.  Jackson is the obvious choice to get bumped, but I also think we could get rid of Grant, in a pinch – it’s not that I hate him or anything, it’s just that, you know, he wasn’t that amazing a president, and we are already representin’ for the Civil War with our good buddy Lincoln.  Get rid of Jackson and Grant and substitute Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.  I think we can all agree that Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman are way more legendary than Jackson.

Anyway, I really like Frederick Douglass, and reading this biography of him made me feel all full of snuggly love.  I started reading another biography of Frederick Douglass earlier this month in which the author asserted that Frederick Douglass really loved Thomas Auld (Auld was one of his “owners”) and had many complicated feelings about him, as evident (said the book) from the fact that Frederick Douglass never said a nice thing about Auld.  Um, sure.

Slave and Citizen is a political biography of Frederick Douglass – specifically, a biography of Frederick Douglass’s political life relating to antislavery and the rights of African-Americans.  For the first two-thirds of the book, this is fantastic.  Even when Lincoln is dragging his feet and failing to follow through on his promises, there’s a sense of movement forward.  We know where this goes; the Civil War ends and the slaves are free.

After that, everything gets really sad.  Frederick Douglass and the women’s movement both sort of act like jerks and stop being friends (for a while! not forever!).  He waits and waits for the government to treat him with the respect he totally utterly deserves, but they don’t really want a black man in a responsible government position.  There are tragic passages like this:

In his last years, whatever sense of personal accomplishment Douglass may have felt was overwhelmed by the knowledge that his great crusade had failed.  The American people had succumbed to self-indulging prejudice and had missed their chance to create a national community based on law and justice.

People can be so shabby.  Andrew Johnson, for one, is dead to me – he met with Frederick Douglass and afterward said a number of things about him that I am far too much of a lady to repeat.

If I were going to complain about one thing in this book, it would be that there are not enough excerpts from Douglass’s speeches, editorials, and letters.  For a book about Frederick Douglass’s voice in American politics, there wasn’t a whole lot of Frederick Douglass’s voice.  In the epilogue, the author makes note of Philip Foner’s multivolume The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, which I now covet, but can only read in short, controlled bursts at the university library.

Slave and Citizen left me wanting to know much, much more about Frederick Douglass and especially about his involvement with the women’s movement.  From this book, it appears that the women wanted their right to vote included on the Fifteenth Amendment; the Fifteenth Amendment folks knew that there was a limited amount of political capital stored up for getting black men the vote, and were afraid that putting women in there too would kill it dead, and NOBODY would get the vote EVER.  The women said why should ignorant black men get to vote and not educated us?; Frederick Douglass said white women already have a voice in the government through their brothers & fathers & husbands.  Sounds like a festival of ungenerosity to me; I yearn to know more!

Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi

In Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi writes about tar musician Nasser Ali, a great-uncle of hers who decides to die after his wife destroys his tar in a heated argument.  He tries and tries to find another tar that will be the equal of the one that was destroyed, but even the best of tars will not make the music he imagines.  He lies down on his bed and stays there for eight days, upon which he dies.  Chicken with Plums follows him through those eight days, through visits and memories and dreams and hallucinations.

The good: Marjane Satrapi charms me.  She writes with wry humor that spares no one, and interweaves the story of Nasser Ali with the history of Iran.  Despite how much I don’t care for Nasser Ali, the story is still emotionally effective.  I love how she used black backgrounds for the flashback sequences, many of which depicted the early relationship of Nasser Ali and his wife.  The shading difference provided a great visual reminder of how much their relationship has changed since they were first in love.

The bad (for me): I wanted to slap Nasser Ali.  This may have been the intended effect, but it took away from my enjoyment of the book.  He had children!  And left him!  And was unkind to his little son!  I do not condone the breaking of his tar, but mercy, I can see how his wife was driven to it.  So all the time he was moping in bed and refusing to get up and eat and talk to anyone, I was muttering unkind things about him under my breath.  Esp. after the chapter about praying for people not to die.  Hmph.  Absent parents, v. bad.

I have heard that you are not supposed to need to identify with the characters in books, but when I read a book with a protagonist that I think is a jerk, I often reach a place where I can’t be bothered reading any more.  Especially people who are whiny.  That’s why I couldn’t get on with Catcher in the Rye.  How do you manage books with unsympathetic protagonists?

Other reviews of Chicken with Plums: A Life in Books, State of Denmark, The Written World, Out of the Blue, and let me know if I missed yours!