Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

As much as I like Janet Malcolm, I’m a little suspicious of her biographical intent, peering into Gertrude Stein’s life with her microscope. Or maybe my hackles are raised whenever anyone attempts to summarize Stein and lacks appreciation (cf this work). At least Malcolm is honest in her appraisal, how reluctant she was to read Stein’s 1911 The Making of Americans, a whopping 900+ page experimental novel which hasn’t gotten its proper due (a fact Malcolm lays at the feet of Katz, the PhD student whose extensive interviews with Alice Toklas left tons of notebooks locked up and unpublished, which would have eased the scholarly notes and transitioned the work into something studied). Malcolm does tend to sneer at the pair, wrestling with how they (as American Jews) were able to live in the Nazi-occupied French countryside without harm. And yet she appreciates Stein’s genius: “Every writer who lingers over Stein’s sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.” Her usual caveats about biography are evident throughout this, including “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best. And almost nothing we are told remains the same when retold.”