Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gertrude and Alice:
A book about Gertrude . . . and . . . WWII.

One would think a book entitled Gertrude and Alice would be about, well, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: either as individuals, or a portrait of their relationship. Or both! Unfortunately, Janet Malcolm's latest book is neither.

In spite of her notorious reputation, Janet Malcolm is a fantastic critic and journalist . While I was interning at The Paris Review, I had the pleasure of transcribing an interview between her and Craig Seligman, which whet my appetite for her work. The managing editor turned me onto her collected essays, called The Purloined Clinic, and when I found out she had written a book about Sylvia Plath (The Silent Woman), I was hooked.

Malcolm's infamous rep comes from her demonstrated ability to get people to say things they normally wouldn't tell a journalist. (See: Masson Case). Unsurprisingly, Malcolm puts said quotations to good use in her books on controversial topics such as the criminal justice system and psychoanalysis. She is unsparing in her biases. In the introduction to The Silent Woman, she unabashedly states her hatred for Plath's poetry. In many ways, to many people, this violates her integrity as a journalist.

But it is Malcolm's razor sharp prose and her analytical style which makes all of her essays and books intensely readable and thought-provoking. Even if you don't agree with Malcolm, her questions concerning truth and narrative are some of the most interesting and most important questions raised regarding the future of journalism and biography.

No doubt Gertrude and Alice began in the same vein as Malcolm's other endeavors. But for some reason, it goes awry in this book. First of all, there is little to no biographical information on Alice B. Toklas. Perhaps this is simply because very little is known about her. Obviously Stein is the major player in this book, and in the annals of history, but to entitle your book Gertrude and Alice one would hope both parties would be discussed. This slight is not only frustrating to Toklas' legacy, but also to the nature of Stein and Toklas' relationship.

Malcolm takes another path, asking the question "How is it possible that two Jewish lesbians were able to survive the Nazis?" During WWII, Stein and Tolkas lived in German occupied-France. Malcolm goes on to cite several reasons for their survival, mainly their friendliness with notorious Nazi sympathizers who happened to find Stein (albeit a Jew) very charming, and shielded her and Alice from any aggressors.

Of course this is a valid and frustrating suggestion, that Stein and Toklas could have been thriving while thousands upon thousands of Jews were murdered merely miles from their home in Bilignin. And while Malcolm makes a few attempts at deciphering Stein's indecipherable body of work, they are superficial attempts. After reading this little book, I was no more knowledgeable about Stein's writing or her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, but I was certain that Stein may have been a fascist and Toklas ended her life as a bankrupt, crazy old convert to Catholicism.

Of course discussing solely the positives of someone's life work or biography would be a crime. But to simply label Stein as a potential criminal (by association and denial), tossing off her contributions to modernism and not to mention to the careers of major artists such as Picasso and Hemingway, feels unfair, and dishonest . . . especially for those who may be approaching these women for the first time.

On her death bed, Stein asked Toklas, "What is the answer?" When Toklas did not respond, Stein then went on, "In that case, what is the question?" Stein may not know, but unfortunately, in this book, neither does Malcolm.


ro said...

agree completely. I was hugely disappointed and frustrated by this book. I felt it barely scratched the surface in every respect. The subject of Stein's collaboration seemed scant and superficial with no real analysis of the details. The relationship between these two women and how they survived the war in relative luxury are both fascinating subjects. This book left me with little insight into either.

Paul Pincus said...
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Paul Pincus said...
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Paul Pincus said...
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