Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine-inSight

november 2007

Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

Two Lives

Ouch! That fire Jane Malcolm's new book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice has lit under the Steiny Road Poet is sooo hot.

For a couple of years, the Poet has been reading excerpts from Malcolm's Two Lives that were published in The New Yorker. Finding these segments exceptionally sensational, the Poet expected to see more of the same when the entire book was released. Yes, Malcolm provides more juicy details, but also there is Malcolm winking at her readership if these readers are smart enough to catch what Malcolm has crafted. Never mind that Malcolm took a real knife to Gertrude Stein's seminal novel The Making of Americans. Never mind that Malcolm said without hedging that classics professor and critic Donald Sutherland revealed to her that he, at the age of nineteen, had such a close encounter with the sixty-year-old Stein that he had an erection. Never mind that Malcolm makes backhanded compliments about Stein such as "Her charm was as conspicuous as her fatness." However, in the totality of Two Lives with all the attendant sensational parts, Malcolm creates something unexpected that might be labeled as anti-crit-lit. The bigger news is that the Poet thinks what Malcolm has written will appeal to a much wider audience than the literary and academic crowd. How on earth can this be?


Most people think literary criticism is an excruciating snore. What Malcolm effects with her steady accretion of scandal, innuendo, and gossip about Stein's life and work presents like a blog-ish version of the repartee from Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table crowd, which not only included powerful critics, editors, and playwrights but also humorist Robert Benchley and comedian Harpo Marx. Malcolm's table is more like the one at the March Hare / Mad Hatter's tea party where there are many more places set than guests. The Hare/Hatter strategy dictated that one moves a new gathering for conversation down to the next set of clean dishes to start a new tea service.  

Malcolm's In-the-flesh guests are three respected Stein scholars Ulla Dydo, Edward M. Burns, and William Rice who are individually and collectively called by Malcolm at various points in her sojourn on Stein to help puzzle out various mysteries such as: did the post-World-War-II convicted and imprisoned collaborator Bernard Faÿ protect Stein and Toklas during WW II? Stein said Faÿ protected her art from the Nazis, but neither Stein nor Toklas admitted to any other help. TGertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklashe trio of Stein experts also helped Malcolm in her quest to master The Making of Americans by urging her first to read the nearly one thousand pages comprising this work. After initially resisting their suggestion to read the book that she calls "innately rebarbative," Malcolm brandishes a knife and resourcefully cuts the heavy tome into six easy-to-carry pieces. The scholars also urged her to meet with a man named Leon Katz who for years has promised to publish an interview he had with Alice Toklas regarding their close reading of Stein's notebooks in which the modernist writer developed her ponderous anti-novel. A small passage from those notebooks limning Toklas as a liar serves as end papers to Malcolm's book. The skinny on that meeting between Katz and Toklas was that before he showed her copies made from Stein's notebooks, he warned the bereaved widow that her partner wrote a lot of bad things about her.


The ghost guests at Malcolm's wild party, where one is never sure of the rules, not only include the subjects Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, but also Leon Katz with whom Malcolm schedules a meeting that never happens and a whole boat load of World War II characters Malcolm meets vicariously through Edward Burns. These specters include the anti-Semitic Bernard Faÿ who was responsible for fingering hundreds of Free Masons exterminated in Hitler's concentration camps (over the years, the secret societies of Free Masons have been accused erroneously of promoting the interests of Jews); the Knapiks, a couple working for the CIA who befriended Toklas after Stein's death (some of his recipes appear in The ABT Cookbook) and who knew about Toklas's involvement in helping Faÿ escape from prison; and Madam Azam, a.k.a. Cohen, who told Burns that she and Toklas helped finance Faÿ's escape which was carried out by people dressed as nuns. If Malcolm's book doesn't sound like an opera (the Steiny Road Poet thinks the emotional lode in Malcolm's book lends itself to great comic arias), then how about a cult movie à la The Rocky Horror Show where successive audiences catch Malcolm's playful spirit and come back to see the film again but this time dressed in costumes?


Malcolm has divided Two Lives into three parts. The logic of these parts have made the Steiny Road Poet sharpen her pencil in an exercise of drawing Venn Diagrams to see the relationship between the sections. The Poet's thinking is that by using the tools of set theory, she might be able to discover more about Malcolm's anti-crit-lit approach. As a starting point for this discussion, the Poet offers these definitions.

Literary Criticism. This is a writing activity whereby a person, often an academic, investigates, analyzes, and evaluates literary works. Literary criticism is characterized by the process or art of examining, commenting on, and judging the contents, qualities, and writing techniques used in literary texts.The product of literary criticism is a secondary text based on one or many primary texts. Theories of literary criticism regulating the rules under which texts should be examined include practices originated by the Greeks on in to our times. Modern styles of literary criticism may feature historical, philosophical, or psychological approaches as well as other ways of examining written works.

The Literary Critic. The job of a literary critic is not to find fault with the work under scrutiny, but to help other readers of the primary text to better understand the work and to put this work into a larger context of other literary works and the timeframe and landscape the work was written in. The literary critic makes these findings with sufficient evidence from the primary text and presents this discussion in an orderly and logical fashion. Since literary works may alter everyday reality and thereby do not have one correct meaning or interpretation, the literary critic should serve as a guide in bridging the gaps between author, reader, the culture or cultures of the author and reader, and the author's language.

The Poet who is not an academic worries that she might have left something out of these definitions and hopes her blog-ish readership will comment to bring her up to speed. Nevertheless, what the Poet means to establish by these definitions is that serious literary criticism imposes a brand of predefined formality that does not include sniping at either the literary texts or the author who wrote them.

To further complicate the kind of literary commentary Malcolm offers, she has mixed in lots of details and anecdotes about Stein and Toklas. Most book critics who have already commented on Two Lives have stated unequivocally that Malcolm's book is not a biography and that's where they drop their commentary without saying what Malcolm's book might be. What is clear is that Malcolm's wielding of sensationalism lands squarely in the trail Stein herself blazed with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein's Autobiography of ABT is an anti-biography. Malcolm says that the Autobiography "slyly mocks the immorality biography seeks to bestow on its subjects. If you listen to the book's music, you will catch the low hum of melancholy. If you regard it as an exercise in whistling in the dark, you will understand its brilliance."

Maybe a good tertiary title for Malcolm's book, which might further illuminate her book organization and dispense with the Poet drawing overlapping Venn circles, is Two Lives In Three Parts Starring Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The Poet thinks the three parts of this title suggest Gertrude with Alice, Gertrude before Alice, and Alice without Gertrude. As to Malcolm's book parts (one should note if her readership were to cut up Two Lives for easy carrying that there would only be half as many parts as the divisions Malcolm carved out of The Making of Americans), the Poet offers this summary:

 Part I opens with a comparison of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas migrating into a discussion of Stein's second autobiography Everybody's Autobiography and Wars I Have Seen and then is largely consumed with anecdotes and musings about Stein and Toklas sitting out WWII in Southern France and how they survived that. The end of Part I concerns the Jewish-ness (or lack thereof) of Stein and Toklas.

Part II largely focuses on The Making of Americans, which Malcolm has also characterized as "this redwood of literature." (The Poet thinks this sounds complimentary despite the number of trees that have to fall to produce a copy of this novel). However, just after that statement Malcolm observes that the work was something Stein "had to get out of her system—almost like a person having to vomit—before she could become Gertrude Stein as we know her." (The Poet agrees that the psychology of why Stein wrote this might involve a clearing of family furniture that would otherwise block the artist from going on to write other possibly more important works.) The major point to catch is that the conception and behind-the-scenes work on The Making of Americans occurred before Stein met Toklas and this is where those notebooks enter Malcolm's tea party like an ill-mannered guest who refuses to follow house protocol. These notebooks and what Leon Katz learned about them in talking with Toklas sends Malcolm into a slippery rabbit hole (Part III) that brings down the roof on the house Alice built with Gertrude.

Part III largely deals with Toklas after Stein dies and is the shortest section of Malcolm's book. (The book is a page turning read at 224 pages and the third section comprises a little over 20 percent of the entire work.) Toklas does not fair well. She is the Jew who converted to Catholicism while Stein is the Jew who might have had a secret life as a Jew. Toklas is the liar who offers stories that serve her purpose while Stein is the brilliant babbling baby of the family who could get away with being protected by a man literally in bed with a Nazi. Malcolm is careful how she pitches the end of her Toklas chapter, conjecturing that others are probably not going to remember Toklas in a kind light. Then to be tidy, Malcolm quotes Stein, "Life is funny that way."

Maybe Toklas belongs to that Dorothy Parker school of thinking: "I don't care what is written about me so long as it isn't true." Malcolm leaves the door open on so many issues raised in this book. What Toklas said she wanted was to promote Stein and that is clearly what she did till the end of her life.


What should be understood about Janet Malcolm is that her writing career has been made on scandalous subjects like In The Freud Archives (1984) about Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, the iconoclastic psychoanalyst who was selected and then fired as director of the Freud archives (Masson sued Malcolm for libel but she won the law suit); The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1995) about the afterlife of poet Sylvia Plath who committed suicide after her husband poet Ted Hughes left her for another woman; like The Journalist and the Murderer (2004) about Joe McGinniss, the writer who befriended a former military doctor who murdered his family saying he (McGinniss) would write a book that would prove the doctor's innocence, except that is not what the writer produced so the condemned man sued the writer who Malcolm said was unethical.

As a child of a Czech psychiatrist, who fled Prague with his family in 1939 (Malcolm was five years old), Malcolm knows something about people who lived through World War II. The Poet believes Janet Malcolm, in pounding Stein, is exercising reverse psychology on her readers who by the end of Malcolm's book should be eager to discover more about Stein's work for themselves. According to Malcolm, all of Stein's writings are autobiographical if one can break the code. The Steiny Road Poet who only lights wooden matches so she won't get burned thinks Janet Malcolm is Promethean.

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©2007 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas

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Scene4 Magazine-International Magazine of Arts and Media

november 2007

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