three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
32-Jan-Feb-2008
user_rating: 
0

Gertrude and Alice

A-Two LivesIn this dual biography, Janet Malcolm explores the 40 years Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas spent together-from their meeting in France in 1906 (Stein originally wrote in her diary that Toklas was "sordid," "mean," and "low") to Stein's death from stomach cancer in 1946. Toklas spent the next 20 years in poverty and obscurity, mourning the great love of her life. Between the wars, these two emigrants from prominent Jewish families in San Francisco became celebrities, and their Parisian salon attracted budding artists and acclaimed expatriate writers such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. Malcolm digs beneath the cherished myth of eccentric genius and devoted caretaker to reveal the truth about their relationship and their survival in Nazi-controlled France.
Yale University Press. 240 pages. $25. ISBN: 0300125518

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Malcolm's writing in Two Lives is brilliant, penetrating and playful. There is in her cleverest, most arcane intellectual analysis a grace, a lightness of touch, that one rarely finds in a work of scholarship." Katie Roiphe

Newsday 4 of 5 Stars
"[Malcolm's] fascination and identification with Stein swamp the punisher in her, and her book, though it starts off building evidence for a prosecution, turns into a rollicking, richly entertaining homage to Stein's powers of self-invention." Laurie Stone

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"[Ms. Malcolm] makes Stein's work seem more meaningful than most commentators do by bringing out its full psychological interest. And while she doesn't flinch from showing Stein at her worst, she reminds us of her good qualities too-her humor, for instance, her offbeat intelligence, her courage in following her own artistic road." John Gross

Chicago Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"In Two Lives, Malcolm makes her way through the entire Stein-Toklas oeuvre and many ancillary works related to the couple, consulting with prominent scholars along the way, to shape what becomes partly a psychological probing of them and partly a meditation on questions underlying biography and narrative itself. ... Malcolm's account becomes a literary thriller, in an academic sense." Art Winslow

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"If Malcolm is as baffled by Stein's writing as most of the rest of us (and she's utterly candid about admitting the degree to which she is), that hasn't prevented her from writing a sharp and entertaining look at Stein's life-or, more specifically, the part of her life that she shared with the equally unusual Alice B. Toklas. ... If the idea of a quirky, zesty dive into early 20th-century European celebrity culture and an odd but bracing literary backwater appeals, this is your book." Marjorie Kehe

Pittsburgh Trib-Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Malcolm's 'reading' of Stein's work is highly illuminating, and her selection of passages gives a fair representation of-and substitute for-Stein's highly repetitive and seemingly aimless writings. ... Malcolm's book . . . opens new doors to an understanding of her writing and of the indispensable presence of Alice B. Toklas in its creation." David Walton

Houston Chronicle 2 of 5 Stars
"Two Lives is getting a lot of attention because of its subject matter and its author, but it's not much fun to read. Malcolm's account is meandering and jumbled and often difficult to follow." Elizabeth Bennett

Critical Summary

Janet Malcolm, a writer for The New Yorker and an accomplished biographer, recognizes the limitations inherent in her chosen medium: "The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best." Malcolm consulted many scholars, literary critics, and journalists while researching this book, and they surface as characters. The very pursuit of information becomes a plotline in itself-to mixed reactions. Malcolm examines the sadomasochistic tenor of Stein's and Toklas's relationship, their dealings with the Nazis, and Stein's unreadable, experimental writing with honesty and clarity. Academic but charming, Two Lives isn't so much the biography of individuals as it is the story of a love affair and the extraordinary, sometimes incomprehensible, works it produced.