Monday, 8 October 2007

Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is indeed, as Melbourne University Press' page says, about "the larger question of biographical truth".

It is in three sections. The first deals with the facts surrounding the two women's sojourn in the French countryside during the thirties and forties. Because Malcolm is a journalist, she concentrates on Stein's and Toklas' Jewishness asking, among other things, how they avoided deportation when others didn't. Malcolm has an ingrained curiosity as to truth in terms anyone can understand and so instead of focusing on the writing itself (said to be often opaque), she targets actors who may be embarassing to the protagonists.

The second section deals with the apparently innovative The Making of Americans and, particularly, a researcher named Leon Katz. For me this section of the book is unquestionably more compelling than the other two because Malcolm addresses the craft of the academic. She includes discussions held with other Stein specialists and this adds freshness and vigour to what is in general either completely ignored by biographers of famous writers, or rendered in a sketchy and unsatisfying way.

In the final section, Malcolm looks at Toklas' life post-Stein, who died in 1946 from stomach cancer during surgery held to cure it. Stein's large collection of Modernist art is not enough to support the ageing companion (wife?).

Sex is an issue Malcolm attempts to register and the attempt provides insight. Being a lesbian in those days must have been hard. In this light, Stein's remarks as to what people wanted following the cessation of hostilities in 1945, is instructive.

The thing that everybody wants is to be free ... not to be managed, threatened, directed, restrained, obliged, fearful, administered, they want none of these things they all want to feel free, the word discipline, and forbidden and investigated and imprisioned brings horror and fear into all hearts, they do not want to be afraid not more than is necessary in the ordinary business of living where one has to earn one's living and has to fear want and disease and death ... The only thing that any one wants now is to be free, to be let alone, to live their life as they can, but not to be watched, controlled and scared, no no, not.

Malcolm's book is also, again drawing on the MUP's Web site, a "work of literary biography and investigative journalism" and, being both, delivers insight (Malcolm clearly enjoys Stein's work) but does not rest until each avenue is exhausted. If a thread seems to be loose Malcolm will be in there with her fingers, picking away at it until it either reveals its source, or snaps off: a dead-end.

I read the book in an afternoon. It is a slim volume of 227 pages and has many photos in black-and-white. The wide margins make it very pleasant to read. An interview with the author is located on the October 2004 page of The Believer magazine (which I've never read), so we see how much work went into this tightly-written work. It is clear that Malcolm intended from the start to ensure no-one ceased reading due to boredom.

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