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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice Hardcover – September 27, 2007
"Children of Blood and Bone"
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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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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 Steinâs and Toklasâs relationship, their dealings with the Nazis, and Steinâs unreadable, experimental writing with honesty and clarity. Academic but charming, Two Lives isnât 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.
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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. Subjects that are not normally addressed, Stein's difficult to read works (Everyone's Autobiography and The Making of the Americans, even Three Lives and Wars I Have Seen), the relationship of the two women, with Alice playing less of quiet retiring role than previous, the way that Stein and Toklas survived World War II, and finally what happened to Alice after Gertrude, a tale that has overtones of The Aspern Papers.
This is not the sort of book that one would recommend as the first biography one should read on Stein, the author presumes that the reader is well versed in the comings at 27 Rue de Fleurus and willing to go a little further. What emerges is just how unsure Stein was when she arrived in Paris and for many years afterwards, just how instrumental Toklas was in her development as a writer and how much she was an equal partner in Gertrude's life. If anything Malcolm, by her focus on Alice Toklas, provides a more well-rounded account of their relationship than was previously understood.
Malcolm's short book incorporates not only the latest in academic scholarship when addressing the writing that so engaged Stein for many years, but also provides a fuller picture than I have otherwise seen on Alice's life after Gertrude's passing. For such a short book, the subjects emerge far more human and believable than I have seen in previous works.
"I know that in daily life we don't go around saying 'is a . . . is a . . . is a . . .' Yes, I'm no fool; but I think that in that line the rose is red for the first time in English poetry for a hundred years."
No fool, indeed. To have made a lasting contribution to literature with one line? That takes a fool's fool, or rather, the kind of fool Shakespeare used in his plays. The man who could talk to the moon and tease the king at the same time.
Gertrude Stein had the fool's charm to speak as she pleased and to throw her literary comments every which way, but it almost seemed she didn't care to be read. Maybe heard. But not necessarily read.
Very few people I know have read Stein's big book The Making of Americans.
The biographer of this many-faceted book, Janet Malcolm, says she couldn't read The Making of Americans until she solved the problem of the book's weight and bulk by cutting it up with a kitchen knife into six readable, and also portable, sections. In this way she made a discovery -- "It's a book that is actually a number of books."
She also says: "If you listen to the book's music, you will catch the low hum of melancholy. If you regard it as an exercise in whistling in the dark, you will understand its brilliance."
Malcolm is right. The music of a book is often the point of the book, and should be read as if one were listening rather than reading.
But the great brilliance of Malcolm is that she writes sympathetically about the genius, Stein, and her cohort, lover, best friend, mate and savior, Alice B. Toklas. Their lives are intricately interesting, more so than Stein's prosody perhaps, but then, as Gertrude might've said: You get what you get and that's what you got.
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The book is essentially:
an exploration of the collaborationist/anti-Semitic misadventures of Bernard Fay;