Gertrude and Alice
by Janet Malcolm
Yale, 240 pp., $25
"How had this pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?" Janet Malcolm asks straightaway in Two Lives, which is subtitled Gertrude and Alice.
The first name is a reference to Gertrude Stein, an ardent deployer of automatic writing which resulted, with few exceptions, in dense and unrewarding tomes--and, more famously, a friend and collector of Picasso and Matisse whose talent and reputations far outclassed hers. The second name refers to Stein's lover, Alice B. Toklas, a bent and sour little pickle whom no one, except Gertrude, liked at all.
As both ladies spent World War II in Vichy France in the village of Culoz, not far from an orphanage where the Gestapo rounded up more than 40 Jewish children who were then deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered, Malcolm asks a valid question. How did Stein and Toklas survive the ceaseless calamities inflicted on other Jews in France? The short answer is--and it will save you a world of trouble rifling through this meandering, jumbled narrative, and also $25--they sucked up to scumbags.
Had Malcolm been as forthright about her subjects, it is likely no one would care to read about them. But trust me, that's the gist of this book. You wouldn't want them as neighbors. Despite her headline status, Toklas is given only short shrift, defined as an afterthought by a contemporary, on the next-to-last page, as "a voracious, ravenous animal throwing itself on its food, eyes fixed on the other half of the bite she had just swallowed for fear it might escape." Gertrude, much better treated by the author, who waxes rapturous about her charm, had great, even prescient, taste in art, and a transient fondness for Ernest Hemingway with whom she eventually fell out. But the bottom line is: She and her sidekick were often indistinguishable from the rogues and opportunists they cultivated.
On page 52, for example, Gertrude takes a break from her 30-minutes-a-day of impenetrable writing to translate, at the behest of a friend who happened to be a French anti-Semite with excellent Vichy connections, the speeches of Marshall Pétain, France's collaborator-in-chief. It was a project she continued after the deportation of French Jews. It is also worthy of note that so close were she and her live-in companion to their Vichy friend, that when he was jailed at the end of the war, Toklas sold some Picassos to effect his escape.
No notion is too batty for Stein; none, once embraced by her, fails to rise to the level of inspired revelation. Hitler, as an Austrian, actually harbored a deep-seated hatred of Germany, she maintained, and therefore wanted to destroy that noble country by leading it to perdition. It was a conviction, Stein believed, that she felt compelled to share at a Paris dinner party where the guests "all thought I was trying to be bright but not at all it is true" [sic]. Later, she told Eric Sevareid, "Hitler will never go to war. . . . You see, he is the German romanticist."
Indeed, examined from every angle, Gertrude Stein behaves most of the time precisely like the kind of well-oiled, sour-breathed character one might, with very bad luck, meet on a neighboring barstool around midnight or, more likely, on a plane--but only after takeoff.
"Slowly and in a way it was not astonishing but slowly I was knowing that I was a genius," Gertrude confided to readers.
Interestingly, Janet Malcolm doesn't pause here to snicker. Far from it. She agrees entirely with Stein's opinion of herself: "She seemed to shine when she walked into a room," is her eager appraisal, "and her work, even at its most hermetic, possesses a glitter that keeps one reading long past the time when it is normal to stop reading a text that makes no sense."
Not everyone Stein encountered was quite as smitten with the senselessness of her texts. With the exception of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, a succès d'estime which possessed the virtue of being comprehensible--but which Malcolm, clearly appalled, claims was on Gertrude's part an act of prostitution--most of Stein's books didn't sell. Gertrude's brother Leo believed her work to be "silly twaddle" and her admirers "fatuous idiots." Nor can his criticism be chalked up to the rancor of a lesser sibling, as Malcolm seems to indicate. As she does not mention, Leo was, of the two, the earlier collector of Picasso, and had a time of it convincing his sister that the artist was worthy of her patronage.
But these are by no means the biography's only defects. Organization has never been Malcolm's strong suit, but here the author, possibly inspired and heartened by her subject's own disjointed ramblings, has abandoned it altogether.
Encounters with other Stein scholars (one of whom first makes and then misses an appointment, before repenting and refusing his help outright, and another of whom reports her dreams concerning Stein and Toklas, the details of which the biographer treats reverentially); the death of Stein's second white poodle seven decades ago; the notebooks and dissertations of the better informed; the memories of a Polish-born opera singer; a long-dead rabbi who happened to be an antecedent of Toklas--each of these surfaces, in order to be allotted a carefully measured dose of respectful treatment in a paragraph or a chapter, before dissolving altogether.
Nothing melds. Nothing follows. Nothing makes too much sense. Gertrude would doubtless have approved.
Judy Bachrach is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.