Monday, June 09, 2008

Review: Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice + Griffey's 600th

I know I'm almost done with the school year because I'm able to read quickly (or fairly quickly) once again. Yesterday I finished Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale, 2007), a book I'd originally bought and skimmed primarily to gain background biographical information for my lecture on Gertrude Stein. As these things go, I found a few tidbits that were useful and used them, but I had to set the book aside for so much else--the primary texts, critical works of all types, countless other things that had to be read--so that I wasn't able to return to it until recently. Yesterday that is.

I am, as I've made clear on this blog and as my own work probably demonstrates, a great fan of Stein's. What's clearer to me now more than years ago, when I first encountered her work, is that in the case of her work as opposed to some other authors, the biographical is particularly important. She is also one of the leading paragons of American experimental literature, women's writing, queer literature: in all three cases, the roads leads back to her biography. And so I returned to Malcolm's little volume, whose dust cover has an unfortunate optical illusion that I hope is corrected when the book is printed in paperback format.

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is a book you could read in only a day or two. Malcolm's main concerns can be split: to illuminate some of the hidden biographical information about Stein that clarifies her work, and to resituate Alice B. Toklas in terms of her and Stein's, and her and Stein's prior biographers', power relationships. In the first case, there is a lot anyone familiar with Stein probably knows: she came from a wealthy immigrant family, she was a pupil of William James's at Harvard, she left Johns Hopkins before taking her medical degree, she lived in Paris with her aesthete brother and cultivated friendships with many of the most imminent artists of that era, she wrote her forbidding but groundbreaking works with attracted a cult of admirers but sold little, she had her financial breakthrough with the relatively straightforward and highly ironic The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she made a succesful lecture tour of the US in the 1930s, she stayed in France long past the period when it would have been safe, which is to say during the German Occupation, she and Alice survived the war, their relationship have lasted decades, and she died in 1946. These are the well-known points, along with her egotism, insufferability at times, and undimmed belief in herself as a "genius" (she was, depending upon whether you accept the term and how you define it), which pushed her to create works that, as Malcolm rightly puts it, appear to have almost no formal predecessors or siblings in literature, unless one takes the works of prior authors and refracts them through a funhouse mirror. (Her importance as a pioneering feminist and challenger of patriarchal language, in addition to her elevation as one of the major Modernists, has now been established in the scholarly literature.) There is also her utter personal and physical magnetism and erotic power, which you learn provoked sexual arousal in Hemingway and others, male and female, and her devotion to Toklas, which Malcolm stresses, although it's also clear that Toklas's devotion to and belief in Stein's genius was crucial to the series of artistic leaps Stein made in the teens, leaps that would confirm her place as a figure whose work has lost none of its power or strangeness a century later.

What Malcolm does reveal that I found new are several aspects of Stein that might be easy to pass over. One is her reactionary political stance, the result of her "rentier" background and perspective, as Malcolm put it, which led her to castigate Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, to dismiss Hitler as a serious threat (she saw him as a "romantic" but not a murderer), and to champion the fascist Francisco Franco. She was a diehard exponent of the by-the-bootstraps, individualist credo, even though she celebrated the fact that she did not work, beyond her writing and entertaining, a day in her life. Another is her complex negotiation of her sexuality--she came to terms early on with her sexual identity and desires, but suppressed the openly queer book, Q.E.D., that would have erupted like an earthquake in American literature had it appeared when she first wrote--and her Jewishness, which she managed to both affirm, especially in personal relations, and efface when it came to her public perspective. Malcolm details how eros-suffused Stein's work truly is, how imbued it is with the narratives of her life-- for she lacked the capacity for narrative invention--many of which revolve around her female friendships and relationships, including the loss of her mother at an early age and a traumatic breakup that is at the center of one of her earliest and best known works, Three Lives. Malcolm points out that all three narratives in that work, including the very famous "Melanctha," which merited praise from Richard Wright, are fictional restagings of Stein's failed relationship. This early broken love rumbles through Stein's work, with odd consequences; passages of the nonsensical syntax of the grueling and impenetrable Stanzas in Meditation becomes clearer when you learn that every instance of the word "May" in the work, whether it referred to Stein's ex May Bookstaver, had to be replaced with "can," even when the resulting phrase or sentence made no sense, by vehement order of Toklas! With regard to the issue of religion, Malcolm notes that in Stein's acclaimed war memoir, Wars I Have Seen, Stein treats the reality of her Jewish background and experiences in Vichy France, and the experiences of French Jews, with indirection, culminating in a passage that at first glance appears to be an eruption straight out of the earlier and Cubist Tender Buttons, but that upon careful rumination, invokes Biblical themes in the face of the persecution that was all around Stein.

The fact that she and Toklas, as Jewish women and lesbians, were able to live in Occupied France without harm leads Malcolm to investigate their protector, Bernard Faÿ, a Catholic royalist gay man and collaborator, whom the book repeatedly underlines was a very nasty character. An anti-Semite, a traitor, a man whose inhuman zeal led directly led to the deaths of hundreds of Freemasons, among others, Faÿ was also an adept of Stein. A devotee, Malcolm says, to the point of obsequiousness. But that obsequy led him to protect to the full extent of his powers two people who very well might not have survived under other circumstances. In fact, the biography makes clear, Stein had the arrogance, or confidence, to turn down an American government offer to escape to Switzerland. She and Toklas did not want to move from their comfortable new home, it was that simple. At the same time, it's clear that, while she had food and heat and no immediate worry of deportation, courtesy of Faÿ, she did feel tremendous fear, which she reflects, in her war memoir not as content, but through formal and rhetorical means. Elision, understatement, and an anxious affect convey the looming threat rather than an overt description of the Germans' brutality. She continued to champion Faÿ until her death, and when he was finally jailed for his many crimes, she worked tireless to free him. Toklas, it turns out, helped him escape, because she too was convinced of his essential goodness. One imagines that if one were not one of these two it was very difficult to dissuade either of them of any of their beliefs.

Back to the question of form, Malcolm goes on to show, in her adroit and jargonless way, how form was often the means through which Stein worked out both personal and aesthetic problems. In the monumental and nearly unreadable The Making of Americans, a work often called a novel though it hardly resembles anything other work bearing that title, Stein after a fashion abandons the effort of writing what might even charitably be labeled realist fiction, and instead focuses on the process of writing itself. This is a well-known post-modern gesture, and she was not the first to do so, but Malcolm notes that in Stein's case, what was later reduced to, in the metafictionists' hands, moments of self-consciousness, structural considerations, an aspect of plot and thematics, becomes the very content and ground of the work itself. It literally goes on for pages and pages about its inability to be written, or rather, Stein's failure of imagination and her inability to produce the novel that she has been striving to write. Malcolm has to chop up the novel into pieces, and manages to get through it twice. After consultation with some major Stein scholars (Edward M. Burns, Ulla Dydo), Malcolm detours into the fascinating case of playwright and Stein researcher Leon Katz, who discovered some of Stein's early notebooks in Yale's library, used them both to write a dissertation that became a landmark in Stein scholarship and also unlocked some of the major mysteries of Stein's life through his interviews with Toklas, yet has never published the edited versions of the notebooks, thus denying several generations of scholars access to a Rosetta Stone of information. Part of what the notebooks reveal is the terrible struggle, the isolation and despair Stein felt at her early inability to produce the very works of genius she expected of herself, her crises in her personal affairs, and the personal, biographical associations that underpin the texts. With this information and her deepened understanding of Stein's method, the links between her life and aesthetics, Malcolm can appreciate the work's true importance and value as the turning-point project that permitted Stein to then write some of her famous, later works.

The work is titled Two Lives, not one, and Alice Toklas's centrality to Stein's career, her success, her mythic stature, and her reputation, is one of the other major strands of the book. Toklas appears to have been a difficult character, fiercely jealous of anyone whose friendship with and attraction to Stein grew too strong (she drove Hemingway, among others, off), and Malcolm reveals that there might even have been an S/M element to their pairing. Supposedly Hemingway even overheard Toklas browbeating Stein, a striking inversion to the impression the two usually gave to others, with Stein the fleshy, radiant monument (her head is compared several times to that of a Roman general, her tan skin celebrated), while Toklas, small, dark, with a prominent mustache, sometimes provoked repulsion in those who met her for the first time. She abetted and afforded her "genius" everything; one of my favorite descriptions is of Stein's writing process. The great author would sit at her desk, and with pen in hand scribble huge, loose words, almost in automatic fashion, across pages, leaving them to be collected and typed, as they dutifully were, always, by Toklas. Malcolm attributes this in part, on Stein's account, to her belief in ideas about birth order and familial tradition. As the baby of her family, she expected to be catered to, no matter what, and in Toklas found a most willing accomplice.

One of the other interesting bits among the many in the text is the story of Toklas's years after Stein's death. Toklas's granitic personality challenged all but the most loyal friends, and yet once befriended, she showed a more gentle and solicitous side. Though she did prepare her famous cookbook, most of her writing channeled into letters which Malcolm describes as showing some flair. Stein's death was particularly brutal on Toklas's finances. The will ended up leaving everything to one of Stein's blood relatives, but offering whatever material holdings remained to be used for Toklas's maintenance, which ultimately meant a vicious act by a greedy Stein in-law that spelled terrible poverty for Toklas at the end of her life. Not only was she thrown out of the apartment where she hoped to live our her last days, but American friends had to come to her rescue again and again. As well, she, far more than Stein, did not want to be identified as Jewish, and even converted to Roman Catholicism , becoming quite devout. Malcolm suggests that she thought that Stein's genius, in the absence of baptism in the one, truth faith, would admit her, in any case, to heaven. Both women adored young men and had little time for women of any sort (including admirers), Toklas even less than Stein. One of Stein's early biographers thought she might somehow circumvent Toklas, but it's clear who had the last laugh. The sum of Malcolm's exploration of Toklas is a far more multilayered portrait than might commonly be considered. It is to her that all who appreciate and honor Stein's work must never forget to pay a bit of tribute and offer gratitude. The sum of the book is to demonstrate how to effectively write a dual biography, and to explore the art's difficulties, its possibilities, while providing what a reader turns to it for in the first place: the indelible story of a life or lives, vivid portraits of a world.


More baseball, more astounding feats:
Griffey Hits 500th
Cincinnati Reds star outfielder Ken Griffey hits his 600th career home run tonight, against the Florida Marlins in Dolphin Stadium, Miami (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

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