When author Janet Malcolm passed away earlier in the year, I was reminded that I’d not yet read any of her books, despite owning a copy of her book on Sylvia Plath, “The Silent Woman”. However, I didn’t particularly feel like picking that one up right now, and I remembered reading about “Two Lives”, her book on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on Simon’s blog. So I sent off for a copy of it, as I’ve read a reasonable amount of both authors, and I was intrigued to see what Malcolm’s take on them would be. If I’m honest, after reading the book, I don’t think I’m any the wiser…

Malcom was an American author, journalist and collagist, and she’s know for using psychoanalytic processes in her work. Often tackling controversial subjects, she seems to have polarised opinions and was apparently very critical of her own profession of journalism. Her books have ranged over a number of topics, from the biographies of Sylvia Plath to Chekhov to psychoanalysis, and she was also a long-term writer for the New Yorker. The Stein/Toklas book was published in 2007 and I’ve read mixed responses…

“Two Lives” is an odd thing, really; it’s made up of three sections, essays almost, the first of which is the longest. In this one, she explores Stein and Toklas’s time in rural France during the Second World War, asking the question ‘how did a pair of Jewish-American lesbians survive through the war in occupied France’? (Quick answer – influential, if unpleasant, friends). However, much of her narrative is concerned not with the answer to her question, but how she gets there, and that’s the nub of this book. It seems to be Malcolm’s MO to dig into the effects of new discoveries on literary posterity and how they upset our preconceptions; the art of the biographer; and meditations on how much we can ever know about another person’s life. This is all well and good, but I have reservations…

The two later (and shorter) sections of the book cover posthumous revelations and Toklas’s life after Stein’s death. I found these often uncomfortable to read; literary estates can be tricky things, and I *have* read “The Aspern Papers” (which Malcolm references), but it was more her attitude to her subjects that bothered me. I don’t want to just read hagiographies, but Malcolm is very judgemental about Stein and Toklas, her commentary often very barbed and her attitude towards their work comes across as disinterested, often mocking. Although the book is titled “Two Lives”, that’s a misnomer because this is in no way a biography of the women; and it might give some insights into aspects of their lives, but nothing of depth.

So why Stein and Toklas? Malcolm doesn’t actually seem to like them or their work much and instead they become a hook on which she can hang her theories. That would be all well and good, but the book doesn’t cohere enough, I don’t know what point she’s trying to make and the connections between the three sections are tenuous. The book is more about Malcolm and her biographer colleagues than about the subjects, and I ended up uninterested in what the author had to say as well as feeling sorry for Stein and Toklas for having to receive this treatment. They were real people who lived real, sometimes troubled, always interesting lives and they seemed to me to become ciphers for the author to play with, which I didn’t actually like much. I’m never that comfortable when a biographer displays an obvious hostility to his or her subject(s), and here I felt positively upset. Yes, Stein and Toklas had unpleasant traits – they were complex and human after all – but it’s very easy to judge with hindsight, and parts of this book bordered on the salacious.

Despite my reservations about “Two Lives”, I *did* finish it – I suppose because I wanted to see what conclusions Malcolm was going to draw, though tbh the book petered out a bit at the end. I *did* find her reading of Stein’s “Wars I Have Seen” quite interesting and moving in places, presenting a Gertrude engaged with tragic reality around her rather than her usual abstract look at the world. However, I was less happy with Malcolm physically hacking up “The Making of Americans” into sections to make it easier to read, and again was confused by her ambivalence towards her subject.

Gertrude Stein statue in New York – Arnoldius, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

So this was an odd, occasionally interesting read, but not at all what I was expecting from the book which in the end seemed unsure what it wanted to do. I was constantly reminded of Richard Holmes’ “Footsteps” which not only explored wonderfully the lives of those characters he was following but also meditated upon the biographer’s art in a most fascinating narrative, drawing together both strands of the book brilliantly. In comparison, I felt that Malcolm never quite knew what she’d set out to do, and so never quite got anywhere – a missed opportunity perhaps, although not without some interest.