Two Lives, More

Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives is a parade of everything I have been thinking about.

I’ve had the copy I’m reading for several years. While I wait for my edits to come back to me from my editor, and prepare for AWP next week, it’s the perfect companion. To be specific, it is a book Janet Malcom wrote about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in France during World War II, or, even more specifically, as she puts it, “How did two elderly Jewish lesbians survive the Nazis?” But it also seems to be very much about what I spoke of in my most recent post, about self-belief. In this section, Malcolm is describing an awakening a young Gertrude Stein had after moving in with her brother Leo, who she loved, and who she had followed to Paris. He was the one who introduced her to Modernist art.

…Leo, too, was found wanting. “Slowly and in a way it was not astonishing but slowly I was knowing that I was a genius,” and “There was no reason for it but he was not and that was the beginning of the ending and we always had been together and now we were never at all together. Little by little we never met again.”

Malcolm returns with some thoughts on Leo:

Leo Stein’s history is the all-too-common one of early promise coupled with the incapacity to fulfill it. He started and abandoned many careers—art historian, scientist, painter, and philospher. He couldn’t finish anything. Some kind of hypercriticality kept him from doing so.

His hypercriticality extended apparently to his sister.

Leo was dismissive of Gertrude’s writing—he belived she wrote the way she did because she couldn’t write proper English—and he said something that Gertrude couldn’t forgive. “He said it was not it it was I. If I was not there to be there with what I did then what I did would not be what it was,” she writes in Everybody’s Autobiography. “It did not trouble me,” she adds. But in fact Leo’s observation troubled her all her life and continues to trouble her posterity. “Perhaps after all they are right the Americans in being more interested in you than in the work you have done although they would not be interested in you if you had not done the work you had done,” she writes elsewhere in the book.

I found this next section to be of particular interest, a few pages later:

Some years earlier, his job of making everything a pleasure for his sister had been taken over by Alice Toklas (who moved in with Gertrude and Leo in 1909), and his departure had something of the air of a shoe dropping. He and Gertrude divided the paintings and the furniture and parted forever.

It may in fact have been a hypercriticality that held him back in his various careers. It may also have been that before there was Alice B. Toklas, there was Leo. Given the furnace of need Stein is presented as in these pages, it’s hard not to imagine all of his vitality being consumed in keeping things going for his younger sister, which he felt as an obligation akin to that of her lover, who replaced him.

A few pages earlier, Malcolm quotes from Stein writing about herself in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:

This faculty of Gertrude Stein of having everybody do anything for her puzzled the other drivers of the organization. Mrs. Lathrop who used to drive her own car said that nobody did these things for her. It was not only soldiers, a chauffeur would get off the seat of a private car in the Place Vendome and crank Stein’s old Ford for her. Gertrude Stein said that the others looked so efficient, of course nobody would think of doing anything for them. Now as for herself she was not efficient, she was good humored, she was democratic, one person was as good as another, and she knew what she wanted done. If you are like that she says, anybody will do anything for you. The important thing, she insists, is that you must have deep down as the deepest thing in you a sense of equality. Then anybody will do anything for you.

It seems a strange fantasy, to believe that this deeply rooted democratic feeling… has as its product that anybody will become, effectively, your servant at that moment.

NB: I’ve never wrapped my head around the spectacle of Gertrude Stein writing the autobiography of her lover and companion–but of course, when would Alice have had the time to write one of her own? The answer being, after Stein’s death, when the preoccupations of caring for her would have vanished. It was then she wrote first the famous The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, and then her actual memoir, What is Remembered, which, ironically, I love, and have read in part because I love the tone of it, and it helped me in writing my own new book.

The portrait of Stein that is emerging thus far is a woman who must have gotten even the Nazis to cooperate in her care, though we’ll see, I suppose–it’s still early in the book. But the other portrait is of the lives around her, potentially emptied of everything except constantly caring for her. We’ll never know if her older brother Leo really was brilliant and consumed by her, or if he would always have found an obstacle—and as for Toklas, her genius seemed to emerge in her caring for and love for Stein, who also bloomed under Toklas’ attention. And yet I can’t help but think, “Why can’t she wash a dish? Why can’t she turn the crank of the car?” This kind of artist, who is always cared for, is the kind that makes every arts colony experience potentially dicey. They show up, away from their support system, and look to repopulate it with you. Last year on my residencies, for example, I made an omelette for a fellow fellow who did not know how to cook an egg, I endured food theft from fellows who would not go shop to replace what they needed, I did dishes left behind in the sink because it seemed disgusting–until I remembered I hadn’t taken the residency to do their dishes. I was there to do my own work.

In any case, I’m enjoying the book—it’s fascinating to me to view it partly through the lens of her selfishness, to see her works as created out of it—I normally assume such selfishness precludes the ability to offer any insight at all. But then I think I suffer from one of the prejudices of my age, and perhaps a peculiarly American one, more than I might like, as, well, it drives me crazy in others. This is the belief that a writer must necessarily be a good person—or a person I have any affinity with at all—if I have an affinity with their work.

It’s facile to assume that connecting to a writer’s work also means you’d connect to them personally, but it is a mistake so many of us make all the time. Even worse is when you reverse it and begin to think that a writer must be a good person in order for you to read them, and by good person I mean good per the arbitrary values you personally assign to that idea of good—for example, if you feel you can’t read Republicans, well, that was in fact Stein’s political stripe.

In the meantime, it seems to prove, all too horribly, what I said about the “soulless careerist” in this post recently.

I’ve decided to re-read Alice B. Toklas What is Remembered alongside this now and comment on it as well.


  1. Alex, This is a thoughtful and insightful post, as ever, but I did have this thought. A biography of Hemingway, for example, or any male writer, would take for granted that his wife washed his dishes, took care of the household, took care of *him.* Stein was only acting as the man in a typical heterosexual relationship. Would Hemingway drive you crazy at a colony? No doubt. But would his biographer examine who did the dishes or wiped up the crumbs? Never.

    1. Thanks. And to be clear, it was almost always men—all of the chore criminals at colonies last year were men, with one exception—a woman who simply ate whatever she wanted out of the common fridge and at the end acted surprised that the food there wasn’t just for the taking. At one, a Turkish woman and I were often doing the dishes and then after two days jointly decided to stop, despite being repulsed by their being in the sink.

      I wonder, though, if that’s true about Hemingway—it seems to me his wives come under a great deal of scrutiny, especially the one who supported him. And isn’t it better if no one “acts the man”—or “acts the woman”—and is just a decent person with ordinary obligations to themselves and others? I’m not singling Stein out for acting above her station. I’m singling her out for simply being a creature of extraordinary self-belief and a laziness that she used to control those around her, perhaps to their detriment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s