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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice Hardcover – September 27, 2007

4.1 out of 5 stars 16 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this startling study of Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, acclaimed journalist Malcolm (The Journalist and the Murderer) puts their relationship in a new light, demonstrating that lives and biographies are not always self-evident. Through careful readings of Stein's writing, Malcolm makes the case, quoting English professor Ulla Dydo, that Stein's lifting words from the lockstep of standard usage was indeed, the work of a (granted, self-described) genius. Malcolm gets into more controversial territory in exploring Stein and Toklas's stormy and complicated relationship—fraught with sadomasochistic emotional undercurrents—and their energetic sex life. But her real discovery is that Stein and Toklas—two elderly Jewish women—survived the German occupation of France because of their close friendship with the wealthy, anti-Semitic Frenchman Bernard Faÿ, a collaborator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Freemasons. Faÿ continually intervened with the authorities on the pair's behalf. This friendship was so deep that after the war Toklas helped the imprisoned Faÿ escape. Malcolm's prose is a joy to read, and her passion for Stein's writing and life is evident. This is a vital addition to Stein criticism as well as an important work that critiques the political responsibility of the artist (even a genius) to the larger world. Photos. (Sept.)
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From Bookmarks Magazine

Janet Malcolm, a writer for The New Yorker and an accomplished biographer, recognizes the limitations inherent in her chosen medium: "The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best." Malcolm consulted many scholars, literary critics, and journalists while researching this book, and they surface as characters. The very pursuit of information becomes a plotline in itselfâ€"to mixed reactions. Malcolm examines the sadomasochistic tenor of Stein’s and Toklas’s relationship, their dealings with the Nazis, and Stein’s unreadable, experimental writing with honesty and clarity. Academic but charming, Two Lives isn’t so much the biography of individuals as it is the story of a love affair and the extraordinary, sometimes incomprehensible, works it produced.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; First Edition edition (September 27, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0522854362
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300125511
  • ASIN: 0300125518
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,023,737 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Then don't read Janet Malcolm. Malcolm is not the kind of biographer who delivers more than you ever wanted to know about a subject. But if you want to know how biographers do their sleuth work, how one wrong date can determine whether we think Stein horrid or not, and how the personalities of Stein scholars have shaped what we do and don't know about this writer, then read Malcolm. Along the way, you will be treated to delectable prose and delicious literary gossip. And you will get to know the personalities of Stein and Toklas in all their lively and quirky splendor.
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Format: Hardcover
Concisely told biographical work of Stein and Toklas. If you are looking for a definitive biography, this is not the book for you. If you want to understand the essence of their relationship and enjoy good writing and insightful phrasing, pick this up.
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Format: Hardcover
I've been waiting and waiting for this book since I read Malcolm's article "Gertrude Stein's War" in a June 2003 issue of "The New Yorker." The article, which took up a large part of the issue, was fascinating and prompted me to look up more on Stein. I bought "The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook" and tried the recipe for mousse. (It was a disaster: a misreading of fractions caused this former English major to add too much baker's chocolate and then a distracted moment had me pick up the electric beaters while they were going and mousse spattered all over the kitchen walls.)

Over the next few years, Malcolm wrote a few more article for "The New Yorker," whetting my appetite even more, so it was with great joy when I saw this book was finally ready.

The wall of reality was hard.

True, I have nobody to blame but myself for my expectations but this book is little more than the three "New Yorker" articles put together. There isn't much here that I hadn't read before. Once I swallowed my disappointment, I'm happy to have the book. It's easier than trying to dredge up the old magazine articles again; I've no idea where I even put them.

The book is well written and readable, possibly one of the most accessible biographies ever written about Stein and Toklas in Malcolm's friendly prose. Malcolm's biography also reveals some very unsavory things about Stein that may change one's perception of her. Is Stein a feminist, lesbian hero or a right-wing figure who just falls short of being a collaborationist? Malcolm gives us the facts and we have to be the ones who make of them what we will. After I read the book, I only had one real question, one that cannot be answered by Malcolm: what exactly DID Hemingway hear Toklas screaming at Stein? We may never know.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
When I was younger there were several long gone events that I regretted missing, the long lunches at the Algonquin Hotel with Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker, the parties on Long Island with J. Gatsby looking for Daisy, bumming around Europe with Hemingway, and the Paris soirees with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. (And if someone had told me about Max's Kansas City in New York I would have run away from home to get there). The best book that I ever read on Gertrude and Alice was James Mellow's Charmed Circle, which is a standard conventional life of Stein, Toklas and their circle expatriates which included Henri Rousseau, Matisse, Picasso, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald and went on for nearly 40 years in all manner of conditions. There was also Stein's charming book, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a memoir as imagined by Stein of her long time partner and lover and Hemingway's Movable Feast.

Janet Malcolm's book does not attempt to go over this well-trod ground. There are no stories about the banquet for Rousseau in which all the leading lights of modernism were doing homage to the grand old man of primitive art, no tales of how Picasso's portrait would one day look like Stein, the words "lost generation" are never uttered. There is no meditation on Alice's unconventional brownies recipe. Instead, Malcolm is attempting to do something different.

This is mainly a biography of the reputations of Stein and Toklas and how scholarship and memoir has shifted overtime.
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Format: Paperback
Why would I read a book on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, two writers (well, probably one) I have sedulously avoided reading in the past? Well, first off, the book was on sale -it was half price, more or less- at the Strand Book Store ("Eight miles of Books") in New York City and I went down to the Strand to replenish my book larder. (That's not all I picked up. I left the Strand with a first rate experimental novel by a guy I'd never read before at all -David Markson's This Is a Novel; a novel I hadn't read by Joyce Carol Oates, The Tattooed Girl; David Cesarini's Becoming Eichmann; Paul Fussell's latest reflection on the experience of soldiering in World War II, The Boy's Crusade; a new history of the Trojan War by Barry Schwartz; Philip Roth's Everyman; and a novel written almost exclusively in the first person plural (that means "we") about office life, Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End.) Second, while I don't know much about Stein, I do know she's some kind of genius of the English language. ("Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose," she wrote. It works for me. Reading that actually makes me see something about roses I hadn't seen before.) (And I like her characterization of Oakland, California, the town where she grew up: "There's no there there." That's really, really cool.) Third, the few times I tried to read Stein I came up with a big Goose Egg, but I know she's a major writer, though a particularly thorny one, of the modernist variety, a Picasso of prose, so to speak. Fourth, I read the first few sentences of Malcolm's lively study of Stein and I was ... hooked.: "When I read The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book for the first time, Eisenhower was in the white House and Liz Taylor had taken Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds.Read more ›
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