For anyone unfamiliar with Janet Malcolm’s felicitous prose and original perspective, Two Lives is a great introduction. For anyone not particularly familiar with Gertrude Stein, it should be noted that her earliest publication was entitled Three Lives, which included an exploration of the consciousness of a young Black woman named Melanctha. Published in 1909, it was considered a daring literary experiment, gaining for Stein instant fame. Stein herself is immortalized in a portrait by Picasso, one of her close friends and fellow “geniuses”— Stein’s own designation. Stein is most famous as the author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in reality her own story as narrated by Toklas.
Malcolm turns her lens on the eccentrics Toklas and Stein, American expatriates living in Paris, interweaving their personal stories with examinations of ongoing scholarly analysis of Stein and her works. Stein is known as an avant garde modernist and her major work, The Making of Americans, is considered, by Malcolm, practically unreadable (“a text of magisterial disorder”). Her quest in this work is, first, to discover how two American middle aged Jewish lesbians managed to survive World War II in Belignin, a small town in France — and not in hiding; and, second, to discover why and how Stein continues to be the darling of some literary scholars. Why Stein and Toklas were never betrayed to the Gestapo seems to have been because of the protection of one Bernard Fay, a French collaborator who was otherwise responsible for sending hundreds of French Jews to the death camps. (After the war Toklas actively sought Fay’s release from prison and was implicated in Fay’s escape.) There is no evidence that either Stein or Toklas identified as Jews although Malcolm does include one wartime episode in which Stein was vocal about her views of a Jewish child’s adoption, insisting that he be adopted by Jews. It’s a slim volume: the weight is in the writing — agile though it is.