Reviewed by Meryle Secrest
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Gertrude and Alice
By Janet Malcolm
Yale Univ. 229 pp. $25
Gertrude Stein wrote monstrously unreadable prose on the theory, in vogue circa 1905, that she could bypass her conscious mind and write directly from the subconscious. Her great love, Alice B. Toklas, was a cookbook author prone to instructions such as: "First, catch your goose." Both women might seem bound to a fading era, with little to offer modern audiences. Why, then, has a talented writer such as Janet Malcolm become passionately interested in them?
In Two Lives, Malcolm offers not so much a joint biography as a meditation on literature and morality, built around the disquieting fact that Stein and Toklas, both Jewish, remained in Europe throughout World War II without either hiding or being swept up in the Holocaust.
Stein and Toklas are in some respects akin to Bernard Berenson, the expert in Italian Renaissance art, who also remained in Europe during World War II, fixed in the belief that Hitler was bluffing and that the menacing rise of the Third Reich could not possibly affect him personally. So, as war loomed and although given ample warning and opportunity, Stein and Toklas were unable to decide whether to leave their country house in France until the matter was decided for them.
In lucid and elegant prose, Malcolm charts the course of this dilemma with its feints and starts, its sudden shifts of mood and the rationalizations that went into a horrendously wrong choice. Miraculously, the ladies stayed out of danger, but it was a close thing.
In the same way, Malcolm goes on the hunt for the possible reasons why Stein and Toklas made friends with the odious Bernard Fa, a French university professor and author. His particular specialty was American history and culture, and since he was also head of the Biblioth¿que Nationale, the fact that he translated into French Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, as well as other works, meant he was culturally and politically influential.
In a memoir written after the war, Fa claimed to have protected Stein and Toklas, pleading their cause personally to Marshal P¿tain. Since neither woman ever alluded to this incident, it seemed doubtful, but according to Edward M. Burns, a Stein scholar cited by Malcolm, it turned out to be true. As a collaborator during the German occupation, Fa denounced others and was directly responsible for many deaths. His overwhelming allure to Stein and Toklas seems to have been a capacity for flattery. When he was imprisoned after the war, Toklas continued to defend him and eventually helped him to escape. Others found him "detestable."
Neither Stein nor Toklas comes off particularly well in this account. Stein was a person of great charm and good humor with a gift for getting what she wanted. Her "playful egomania" found its mirror image in the dour and unlikable Toklas, who acted as her friend's "worker bee," taking that role "almost to the point of parody." A great part of that self-imposed task involved tending to Stein's literary ambitions. Stein's method was to compose in a semi-trance and then go to bed, leaving the results for Toklas to decipher.
The ministering Toklas fed Stein's "self-admiration and self-assurance," but there was a price to be paid just the same. Toklas could be insanely jealous and her tongue lashings "part of a regular repertoire of sadomasochistic games the couple played." When Toklas discovered that Stein had fallen in love with a woman named May, in a frenzy of rage she destroyed May's letters, which had served as raw material for one of Stein's early novels. By Toklas's own admission, she became irrational about the very word "may." In Stein's poem "Stanzas," every "may" becomes "can," adding illogic to what one critic called "perhaps the dreariest long poem in the world."
Malcolm sees Stein as a 20th-century modernist innovator and gamely tries to follow the inner logic of her rhapsodically elliptical style; still she occasionally throws up her hands in despair at such works as The Making of Americans, an impenetrable 925 pages. In the end, the lovable Stein, with her blithe expectation that the reader will find her as endlessly fascinating as she does herself, loses out to her recessive and morose companion, who wrote with such authority about the things in life that really matter.
Speaking of her early discovery, with friends, of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, Malcolm writes, "Her de haut en bas footnote pointing out that 'a marinade is a bath of wine, herbs, oil, vegetables, vinegars and so on, in which fish or meat destined for particular dishes repose for specified periods and acquire virtue' filled us with ecstasy."
It is almost axiomatic nowadays that bad prose is enshrined between the covers of beautifully published books. Janet Malcolm's experience is the reverse, a consummate stylist let down by her publisher. A group of first-rate pictures has been destroyed by foggy and monochromatic reproductions on the same paper used for the text. The discrepancy seems to point up the myopia of some publishers and the need, in this day and age of cheap messaging, for a small perfect keepsake of a small, perfect book. ¿
Meryle Secrest, author of "Shoot the Widow: Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject," is working on a biography of Modigliani.