Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

Janet Mal­colm
  • Review
By – February 24, 2012

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.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions