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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

by Janet Malcolm

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339956,568 (3.53)19
Unlocking the truth of the mystifying relationship between Gertrude Stein, brilliant and affable, and her brooding companion, Alice B. Toklas "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… (more)
Recently added bycharl08, kelskidz, Civitella, annieoleander, stillatim, GRPearce, Katester123, geejaco, private library
  1. 10
    The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (cransell)
    cransell: Sort of an obvious recommendation for this title, but definitely worth reading (perhaps even before this book).
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I was really enjoying this when I started: I was hungover, I wanted to learn about Stein, and Malcolm can write sentences that sometimes rise above (or fall below, either way) the usual New York journalism. It was exactly what I wanted: three essays, one about Stein and Toklas in occupied France, one about Stein's work and academic criticism of it, and then one about Toklas' life. Also: super short, and really nicely designed.

Having finished it, though, I see that had I not been hung over, I would have been pretty annoyed. Malcolm writes about as much about Stein and Toklas as she does about some literary critics she met. She gets all meta with the "these people don't like this person and maybe this person is exploiting Stein but then aren't I just exploiting him too?" And slowly but surely we learn more about Janet Malcolm and the literary types she knows than we learn about Stein or Toklas. And what we learn about Janet Malcolm is that she just can't believe that there are some people in the world who don't care about their ethnic roots! Imagine the temerity! Your name is freaking Stein, how come you don't continuously write about being Jewish??

Because not post-Reagan America, that's why.

Anyway, I appreciate that Malcolm has encouraged me to read a couple more of Stein books (Everybody's Biography and Wars I Have Seen), and reminded me that this kind of meandering, vaguely Sebald-esque thing (complete with grainy photos!) really, really, really isn't for me, unless my brain is otherwise non-functional and the lack of connection between paragraphs won't bother me (slash my inability to get with the innovativeness of not caring about those connections has been suspended for some reason). ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
Interesting [true] story of how Gertrude and Alice managed to live/survive Vichy France during WW2 despite being Jewish and lesbianic types. Fascinating reading for anyone truly interested in Stein and Toklas, but probably a bit boring for anyone else. Always nice to learn more about Stein/Toklas (and get the real dirt). Anyone who has read _The Making of Americans_ certainly deserves our admiration - Malcolm has done her homework (!) ( )
  dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
Janet Malcolm begins with this question: How did two elderly Jewish lesbians survive the Nazis? and then takes us on her journey of investigative journalism that leads her, and us, to ever more unexpected places. The book never really answers the question with which it begins. Instead the book becomes a loving meditation on the nature of how we remember other people. Malcolm explores how our understanding of even those we love most, and know best, is distorted by the limitations of language itself. indeed this perspective on language--on the bleak hope that language has of breaking through to some sort of truth--is what drives much of Stein's writing. Malcolm demonstrates, through passages quoted from Stein's works as well as Toklas's and many other people who knew them both, how the words we use to describe our experiences frequently obscure as much as they enlighten--as do the words we leave out. And yet by the end of this small book I did feel enlightened and hopeful and closer to the human-ness of these two women. I understood much more about the persona each created for the public--that it was a persona. I had more of a feeling about the hiddenness and complexity of who they really were--and an appreciation of the complexity of each of us.

A tantalizing read that gives me even more respect for Janet Malcolm. ( )
  poingu | Jan 23, 2016 |
Should have been better. ( )
  chenlow | May 30, 2015 |
A literary biography of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolklas by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm. This is not a chronology of their lives but rather explorations of particular questions like "How did two Jewish lesbians survive WWII in France?" and "What is the biographer/critic's role when writing about a subject?" It is, of course, very, very well written and quite interesting if you have a basic knowledge of their lives. If you don't, you should probably start with The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolklas by Stein herself. ( )
1 vote nancyewhite | Jul 15, 2011 |
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The endearing elegance of female friendship

- SAMUEL JOHNSON

Rasselas, chapter 46
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To Anne Arensberg
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When I read The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book for the first time, Eisenhower was in the White House and Liz Taylor has taken Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds.
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Unlocking the truth of the mystifying relationship between Gertrude Stein, brilliant and affable, and her brooding companion, Alice B. Toklas "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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Yale University Press

2 editions of this book were published by Yale University Press.

Editions: 0300125518, 0300143109

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