Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

Despite just having finished up my undergraduate career as well as the first year of my English M.A. program, I've somehow found the time to develop a borderline unhealthy obsession with Gertrude Stein.

Due to this obsession, I was led to Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, which I read in only two days and only helped to deepen my love for all things Stein. Here are some more in depth thoughts if you, too, wish to join me in the Stein World:

In her 2007 biography Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Janet Malcolm provides a portrait of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas not just as they were in life together, but as they were separately and as they have become in the eyes of biographers and researchers who have helped to create and perpetuate the vast mythology surrounding the pair. Ostensibly, Malcolm professes to provide an answer as to how this pair of Jewish lesbian avant-garde intellectuals survived in Vichy France.

While she does arrive at an answer to this question in part, Two Lives is about many more lives than just those of Stein and Toklas. In fact, Malcolm’s cast of characters is broad and vivid, including Stein scholars and researchers in whom Malcolm seems just as interested as she is in Stein herself. In Two Lives, Malcolm not only provides some biography for Stein and Toklas, but she also conducts a study on the tangled biographical world centered around Stein, providing a glimpse into what it actually means to create a biography of Stein and Toklas. Though she spends a fair amount of time considering Stein’s actual work when she examines Stein’s The Making of Americans at length, Malcolm’s main concerns in this book are the deconstruction of potentially flawed, if flashy, popular notions about Stein and Toklas and their life together and the rehabilitation of Alice Toklas’s image.

Along the way, she provides a compelling portrait of the fraught and passionate world of scholarship—if not worship—surrounding Stein and Toklas that has remained even after their deaths.

As far as structure goes, there are three sections of Two Lives. Part One is the closest thing to classic biography that Malcolm offers in this biography. This section focuses mainly on Stein and Toklas during World War II, when they decided to remain in their summer home in eastern France rather than seek refuge elsewhere, despite the counsel of their friends, their Jewishness, and their lesbianism. Malcolm contextualizes this time in the pair’s life with excerpts from Stein’s works as well as photographs. In this section, Malcolm succeeds both in answering her question as to how these two Jewish lesbians survived in Vichy France as well as in centering herself as the real protagonist of this book. The answer to the question posed comes in the form of Bernard Faÿ, a French university professor and lifelong friend of Stein’s who was also a gay man and a Vichy official who provided Stein and Toklas with protection during the war. Malcolm begins this section and the book with an anecdote from her own life, therefore centering her own personage, which becomes more relevant as the book progresses.

Part Two is begins with a discussion of The Making of Americans, which also hinges upon Malcolm’s own personal experiences with the text. This leads to Malcolm’s introduction of her cast of characters of Stein and Toklas scholars, biographers, and researchers: Ulla Dydo, Edward Burns, William Rice, and Leon Katz, most significantly. The section then becomes something like a transcription and contemplation on the triumphs, failures, conflicts, and confusion that exists within the world of scholarship surrounding Stein.

In Part Three, the final and slimmest section, Malcolm continues her observation of this community of Stein scholars and fanatics but turns more directly to the character of Alice Toklas. Malcolm summarizes the common narratives about Toklas and provides evidence to support them, but then turns to what I would consider a rehabilitation of her character, or at the very least a challenge of popular conceptions that Malcolm deems too convenient if not too cruel.

Entering the text of Two Lives, the real goal and scope of the biography is not immediately apparent. Personally, I thought this book would be only or at least mainly about Stein and Toklas and their life during World War II. Some of the book is about that, but Two Lives is about much more than that, as it becomes rather a meta-biography—a biography about Stein and Toklas that studies what it means to create a biography about Stein and Toklas, surveying those who have taken this task upon themselves in the past. Malcolm discusses the vital biographical step of constructing a narrative while at the same time surveying the narratives that have been constructed about Stein and Toklas and also constructing one about them herself. She is candid about this process and implicates herself within it, discussing the real fear of other writers stealing your coveted original narrative and the dangers of the illusion of closeness to people whose lives you have never lived.

In this way, Two Lives is incredibly valuable for understanding Stein and Toklas, the biographical sphere that has posthumously surrounded their lives, as well as the art of biography itself. Malcolm suggests one should look at biography with a critical eye while she also displays all the wonderful things that can be gleaned from engaging with biography.

My one critique is that Malcolm fails to implicate herself sufficiently in this equation. As noted earlier, the book begins with her and she is present throughout as a researcher, a critic, and a biographer, but she fails to become a character like all the others Malcolm features in Two Lives. Malcolm criticizes Stein and Toklas for their reticence about certain aspect of their identity and their lives, but she fails to follow her own advice in this regard. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is clearly about Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas most significantly, but it is also about the people most interested in and committed to Stein and Toklas, which means that it is therefore about Malcolm herself, too; I would have liked to have seen a greater exploration of Malcolm’s own character within the narrative she has constructed in Two Lives.

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© 2020 by Abigail Swoboda.