Book Review

Two Lives by Janet Malcolm

great literary biography but not AS GREAT as other malcolm i've read

After reading the equivalent of eating only packets of crisps as the entirety of every meal, I decided to give myself something more worthy next, though still within the realm of biography. I selected Two Lives by Janet Malcolm, a 200x non-fiction text about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Though it was great and very enjoyable, in comparison with the two Malcolm books I have read before, it was much simpler. My expectations were sky high, so although Two Lives was definitely good, I felt a little disappointed…

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Oh god, oh god, it was weeks ago that I read Two Lives.

It was weeks ago that I did many things.

Back when I read Two Lives I hadn’t restarted exercising, I hadn’t received any government money… it was a different world.

No, not a different world, I was just less hopeful in the world I was within, and going into this book with CN Tower-high expectations (#localreference) and a pandemic around me and no forthcoming delivery from financial peril, I perhaps wasn’t as kind to it in that opening paragraph (and my initial reaction) as I should have been.

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Gertrude Stein is – obviously, of course, you’re here, you know who she is –

Gertrude Stein is one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. Though some of her works (Tender Buttons, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) are firmly considered staples of the canon, and others of hers (eg The Making of Americans) are considered daunting, heady, modernist texts that require study rather than reading, Stein is most famous for the “salon” she had in Paris in the 1920s, where she brought together the luminaries of the Parisian art scene and the expat American literary scene and made waves through the connections she wrought.

Anyone who was anyone was in Paris (at least for a bit) in the 1920s, and anyone who was anyone in Paris was at 27 rue de Fleurus partying it up with Stein and Toklas.

Like many white men, I first learned about this salon through reading (and rereading) Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast when a hip, young, floppy-haired undergraduate. Though Hemingway’s weirdly veiled but very homophobic sections about the dissolution of his friendship with Stein have always been strikingly offensive to anyone not a cock who reads that posthumous memoir, the bits that are more gushing about 27 rue des Fleurus (like that weird W**dy *ll*n movie that won him his third(!) “Best Screenplay” Oscar) make it seem like the greatest place on Earth.

It probably was.

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The time I visited Paris with my Parkinsonian father, only a few years before he became too unwell to leave the town he lives in, we walked together along Rue de Fleurus and stopped outside number 27. I remember being really fucking excited, standing on the pavement where some of the world’s most acclaimed individuals had once stood. Reading Janet Malcolm’s book allowed me to stand in that spot again, although Two Lives mostly focuses on the time after the Parisian salon, on the Nazi occupation of France, and opens with the stark question: how did two prominent, homosexual, Jewish, American women avoid arrest (and thus murder) while living in Vichy France?

The answer, of course, was money, hypocrisy and class.

The nasty anti-Semite who was elevated to the head of the Académie Française (or something similar, I forget) after all the most prominent French intellectuals fled the city, wanted to be in Stein’s good graces, and effectively kept her and Toklas under his personal protection.

As Malcolm explores the wartime situation, it becomes apparent that this man (whose name I’ve forgotten) was directly responsible for the incarceration and thus genocidal execution of many other people, so his protection of Stein and Toklas was not part of a wider campaign attempting to undermine Nazism, but rather a singular exception made in thrall to Stein’s international connections.

The question, which preoccupies Malcolm in the opening part of the book, is swiftly answered, and then the rest of the book explores Toklas’ life after Stein’s death and the ways in which she tried – and failed – to remain financially afloat despite no money but very expensive tastes.

Two Lives is a fascinating book about two important, intriguing, people, but it doesn’t have as intense a metatextual/philosophical third act as the other books by Malcolm I have read. It’s a cracking literary biography, but it’s not the elevated, conspicuously perfect explosion of the form that I found in, for example, The Silent Woman.

Two Lives is well worth a read, but if you only read ONE book by Janet Malcolm, don’t make it this one.


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