"How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?” Janet Malcolm asks at the beginning of this extraordinary work of literary biography and investigative journalism. The pair, of course, is Gertrude Stein, the modernist master whose charm was as conspicuous as her fatness” and thin, plain, tense, sour” Alice B. Toklas, the worker bee” who ministered to Stein’s needs throughout their forty-year expatriate marriage.” As Malcolm pursues the truth of the couple’s charmed life in a village in Vichy France, her subject becomes the larger question of biographical truth. The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties,” she writes.
The portrait of the legendary couple that emerges from this work is unexpectedly charged. The two world wars Stein and Toklas lived through together are paralleled by the private war that went on between them. This war, as Malcolm learned, sometimes flared into bitter combat.
Two Lives is also a work of literary criticism. Even the most hermetic of [Stein’s] writings are works of submerged autobiography,” Malcolm writes. The key of 'I' will not unlock the door to their meaning you need a crowbar for that but will sometimes admit you to a kind of anteroom of suggestion.” Whether unpacking the accessible Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein solves the koan of autobiography,” or wrestling with The Making of Americans, a masterwork of magisterial disorder,” Malcolm is stunningly perceptive.
Praise for the author:
[Janet Malcolm] is among the most intellectually provocative of authors . . .able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight.” David Lehman, Boston Globe
Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography.” Christopher Benfey
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Q: How do you choose literary subjects? For instance, how did you get from Chekhov to Stein?
A: I stumble on most of my subjects. In the case of Stein, The New Yorker asked me to contribute to an issue on food, and I decided to write about The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. In the course of rereading Toklas's chapter on her cooking in occupied France, I became curious about Stein and Toklas's wartime history. I wondered how they survived the Nazi occupation.
Q: How did you determine the circumstances of their survival?
A: I learned of a man named Bernard Faÿ, who was an influential figure in the Vichy regime, and who protected Stein and Toklas. I was alerted to his existence by the three Stein scholars--Ulla Dydo, Edward Burns, and Bill Rice--who function in the book as a kind of Greek Chorus.
Q: Did you enjoy your encounter with the Stein scholars as much as it seems?
A: I did indeed. My encounter with them was one of unmitigated pleasure. Their splendid generosity and beauty of character was without parallel. I have written about the problem of the journalist/subject encounter, but what I wrote doesn't have bearing on this encounter. Q: How problematic was it to parse Stein's famously difficult The Making of Americans?
A: As I wrote, I had to take a knife and hack the 950-page book into six sections in order to read it. Reading it was both an ordeal and one of the most interesting literary experiences of my life. There is nothing like it in literature. I wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but for anyone who is interested in Stein, it is a necessary work.
Janet Malcolm is the author of The Journalist and the Murderer, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Reading Chekhov, among other books. She writes for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and lives in New York City.
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