While people rarely understood Gertrude Stein's writing, she rarely understood people. A pampered child, she grew up believing that other humans existed to satisfy her needs. Surprisingly, this did her little harm. Life proceeded as she wished.
She believed she was a genius and had friends who agreed and others who tried to. She was the subject of Picasso's greatest portrait. She created a renowned salon in Paris. Many considered her one of those artists who are famous for being famous, but history overruled them. She became a sovereign figure of modern culture, though her fate was always to be more written about than read.
There are now Stein scholars who believe her early book, The Making of Americans, which runs 925 densely printed pages, should stand among the great works of modernity, beside Ulysses and The Wasteland. (If only someone would read it.)
Janet Malcolm's new book, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale University Press), describes Stein's life and encourages us to appreciate her writing -- even though Malcolm at one point calls her style "rebarbative."
Malcolm tells a striking story about life obeying Stein's blissful assumptions. When the Germans occupied France, friends told Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas, that as Jewish lesbians they should leave for Switzerland immediately.
Nonsense, they said. They had been living as Americans in France for decades and would continue to do so. And in fact they stayed in a French village, unharmed, till the war ended. Stein's fascist friend, Bernard Fay, became their protector. A collaborator who helped the Gestapo bosses, he persuaded them to ignore Stein and Toklas. He even preserved Stein's art collection.
Fay, an anti-Semite, adored Stein. Why? Malcolm says, "Anti-Semites, as is well known, often actually have best friends who are Jews; it comes with the territory. It gives them a thrill."
It's not clear that Stein knew what Fay did in the war. It seems the Vichy government assigned him to control the Freemasons, whose secretive nature made them dangerous. Having imprisoned thousands and caused the death of 540, he went to jail after the war. With Stein having died in 1946, Toklas assumed the responsibility for repaying his kindness. She sold a Picasso drawing and used the cash to help him escape from prison.
Two Lives, one of Janet Malcolm's triumphs, displays a great journalist in top form. Earlier books of hers include an exploration of the furious infighting among scholars studying Sigmund Freud, an account of the more vicious methods of investigative journalists and a subtle disentangling of the questions clustered around the legend of Sylvia Plath. She writes New Yorker articles that grow into short, engrossing books, always in the same small, elegant format.
Usually, she picks a formidably knotty subject and then sorts through huge mounds of material, ordering it carefully, building her own narrative. In Two Lives, she returns to a favourite theme, the process that transforms scattered and conflicting data into persuasive history and biography.
She studies, for instance, the one fact that millions of people think they know about Stein, her last words. Toklas, recalling the deathbed scene after seven years, reported in a letter that Stein said, "What is the question?" Toklas didn't answer, so Stein repeated herself and then said, "If there is no question then there is no answer."
But in her 1963 book, What is Remembered, Toklas improved those lines. Now she had Stein saying, "What is the answer?" When Toklas remained silent, Stein said, "In that case, what is the question?" Much better. Much more Steinian.
Biographers naturally chose the version that rang true, even if it was written 17 years (rather than seven years) after the fact. As Malcolm points out, a strong narrative defeats a weak one.
As in her book on Freud, Malcolm brings both sympathy and a sense of humour to the obsessions of scholars, particularly their habit of jealously hoarding research. She introduces Leon Katz, who drives other scholars nearly mad with rage. In the 1950s, he spent weeks with Toklas, asking her hundreds of questions about notebooks Stein kept when producing The Making of Americans. Katz won't let any other scholar see the material till he publishes his own book, which, after 50-odd years, he's failed to do. He's one of those people, familiar to disappointed publishers, who always have reasons for not publishing. He will not be hurried.
Serious discussion of Stein dances nervously on the edge of comedy. A book about her is haunted by the fact that many readers, after briefly testing her relentlessly monotonous prose, wonder whether she's crazy or just working an elaborate con. But Malcolm bravely dives into The Making of Americans, the toughest Stein book of all.
Many have admired it, but often from afar. As Malcolm says, "It is believed to be a modernist masterpiece, but it is not felt to be a necessary reading experience. It is more a monument than a text, a heroic achievement of writing, a near-impossible feat of reading."
Edmund Wilson, a great critic who was also possibly the world's most ambitious reader, admitted he hadn't read all of it "and I do not know whether it is possible to do so." Malcolm notes that in the universities it remains "unstudied, unassigned, unread." These days, it is treated with slightly more respect than in the past, according to Malcolm: Few people comment on it without reading it. "Critics who write about the book are expected to read it," she says -- a remark that would be altogether obvious about any other book on Earth.
Malcolm, who trudged through it twice, reports back to base camp that it's among other things a meditation on the author's refusal (and inability) to write a novel. Stein understood only one character -- herself -- and in this case depicted herself as a writer trying desperately to write. Malcolm says, "Only the narrator remains a full-blooded person, for whom one feels increasing sympathy and a sort of stunned admiration."
Malcolm's readers, on the other hand, regard her prose as a model of clarity. We, too, may feel a sense of stunned admiration, as much for Malcolm's talent and industry as for Stein's grim, merciless attempts to produce masterpieces that would justify her life as a genius.