Odd Couple's Great Escape; Odd couple'sLiterary Pedigree: Alice (Left) and Gertrude with Their Dog, Basket

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Rosenthal

TWO LIVES: GERTRUDE AND ALICE by Janet Malcolm (Yale University Press,[pounds sterling]16.99)

ALICE B. TOKLAS is to Gertrude Stein what James Boswell was to Dr SamuelJohnson. But to understand just how brilliantand how sheer, bloody awfulStein was, you need to imagine Boswell and Johnson were homosexuals who livedamicably and spitefully together for 40 years in a foreign country.

And that Boswell's life of Johnson was written by Johnson himself.

To anyone interested in the culture of the 20th century, Gertrude Stein(1874-1946) is known physically via her great portrait by Picasso andintellectually by her celebrated, and now notorious, line: 'Rose is a rose is arose is a rose.' This statement is held by many to be a key to the literarymodern movement and by others as a grossly over-rated banality. Yet, because ofthe Paris salon maintained by Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas (whose'autobiography' Stein wrote to show herself off in the best possible light),she has been endlessly written about.

She crops up, usually taken entirely at face value, in the dozens of memoirsand biographies of the period and the geniuses who shaped it, from Picasso andMatisse to photographers such as Man Ray and writers including ErnestHemingway.

Hemingway was often reputed to have had his distinctive plain style perfectedby Stein's. She was not remotely in Hemingway's league, but she wrote endlesslyin her own distinctive, abrupt and endlessly repetitive prose.

Janet Malcolm is a distinguished writer and biographer with a sometimesdisconcerting skill as a merciless debunker, and neither Stein nor Toklasemerges with much credit from her cunning research and unblinkingly sour gaze.

Malcolm is not above hanging Stein periodically on her own words.

In the putative voice of Toklas, Stein writes: 'I must say that only threetimes in my life have I met a genius, and each time a bell within me rang and Iwas not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was anygeneral recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses ofwhom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.'Thus, as Malcolm puts it:

Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.' Thus, as Malcolm puts it: 'Steincan entirely dispense with the fiction of humility that the conventionalautobiographer must at every moment struggle to maintain.' STEIN'S egomania iseffectively shredded, and Malcolm also makes it clear that Alice B. Toklas wasno cipher in her manifestly subordinate role, and frequently gave as good asshe got in her regular battles with Stein. …