January 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm

I find it cathartic to read about Gertrude Stein. First of all, she was shamelessly certain of her own literary genius and of the mediocrity of a public unable to recognize it. Second, she was a deeply self-indulgent writer who rarely revised anything, and who found each of her own idiosyncratic, sometimes largely unreadable experiments with language to be precious, inspired and momentous. Third, she unabashedly declared her scathing, ungenerous opinions of lesser mortals and their limitations, in person and in print, sometimes “for their own good.” Fourth, she abandoned a potentially brilliant career in another field (medicine) to be a literary genius full-time. When a friend pleaded with her, according to a passage in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein uttered words close to the heart of any creative person who finds herself bizarrely enduring an uncreative graduate program: “You don’t know what it is to be bored.” Finally, Stein was completely vindicated in all of her snobbery and grandiosity -- at age fifty-eight, tired of working in obscurity, she decided to “prostitute herself” and write a book in regular English that would become a best seller. It worked, just the way she said it would.

Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is not merely a biography of Gertrude Stein -- it is also, maddeningly, a Steinian biography. Like Stein’s work, it’s most satisfying at its most conventional, and like Stein’s work, it’s most brilliant at its least accessible. Janet Malcolm has a rare ability to sweep into the lives of her subjects with effortless clarity. She’s not afraid to be snide or even mean -- in this book, there’s something derisive and snarky about her use of the intimate nicknames “Baby” and “pussy” for Stein and Toklas -- and she’d always rather be interesting than objective. Two Lives has elements of conventional biography, investigating how two old, strange-looking, uncloseted Jewish lesbians managed to happily spend the Second World War in occupied France, writing and gardening, and looking at how the women viewed themselves in relation to the events of the world around them. But at a certain point, the way Stein’s novels veer into explorations of the very meaning of language, Malcolm’s study becomes a daring dissection of both Stein scholarship and of the processes of literary biography in and of themselves. Like most work ostensibly about Toklas or the two women, it’s more about Gertrude Stein, but Malcolm also chronicles Stein’s chroniclers, tacitly turning the biographical lens back onto her own work.

Janet Malcolm, like Gertrude Stein, is quite a controversial figure -- most people who read her work will probably find something inflammatory in it. For me, it was her favoritism of Ted Hughes and his family over Sylvia Plath in The Silent Woman (1994), but Malcolm is most infamous for being sued by psychoanalyst Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson for allegedly fabricating many of his quotations in Inside the Freud Archives (1991). As a biographer, she is often more interested in the behind-the-scenes palace intrigues between unknowns playing bit parts than in the stars. And although she won that notorious lawsuit, it’s clear that, like Stein, she’s not at all afraid to impose her will upon biographical material, making it into the story she wants to tell. She is, after all, not an academic, but a journalist. As she wrote in The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

In Two Lives, Malcolm tartly characterizes Edward M. Burns, a top Stein scholar, as someone who “has all the impulses of a biographer, though he lacks one crucial biographer’s trait: the arrogant desire to impose a narrative on the stray bits and pieces of a life that wash up on the shores of biographical research. He is content to leave the bits and pieces as they are.”

Malcolm, the consummate journalist, pares and prunes and railroads and makes her narrative work, with ethics taking a backseat to the ruthless exposure of her subjects. Obviously, this makes her work fun to read. On the other hand, like Gertrude Stein, she rips open the body of her work and lets us see the blood and bones of her own process, however challenging that may be for readers who would otherwise so easily be seduced by her story, by her clean facility with language and plot. Malcolm’s study of Stein -- whose Three Lives is not really about three lives, but rather about “how amusing life around Gertrude Stein is. The heartlessness is essential to the amusement the reader feels as he is propelled along the stream of Stein’s grotesque gaiety and egotism,” and whose Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is “an anti-biography” -- provides ample clues to the sly fact of her own genius project. “If you regard it as an exercise in whistling in the dark,” she writes of Autobiography, “you will understand its brilliance."

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm
Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300125518
240 Pages