How Stein and Lover Avoided the Nazis; BOOKS Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm. Yale. Pounds 16.99. Reviewed by RICHARD EDMONDS

Article excerpt

Byline: RICHARD EDMONDS

Janet Malcolm's intricately observed study of Gertrude Stein and her partner, Alice Toklas, asks how on earth a pair of ageing Jewish lesbians, living in occupied France during the war, managed to avoid the Nazis, at the time of the occupying power.

The story of these two women who somehow missed the death camps is told accurately and well.

But occasionally Malcolm's brash attitude occasionally displays a want of sensitivity.

Did we need to know, for example, minute details of their sex lives? Probably not, to my mind.

I have enjoyed Gertrude Stein's marvellous writings for years - particularly the less exacting books such as Wars I Have Seen, written in France during the war, along with her devastatingly funny The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which, of course, is an autobiography of Gertrude herself.

I never concerned myself with their sex lives and knowledge of these things does not add to my appreciation of Stein's gifts as a writer of genius (and friend of Picasso).

An interesting feature of the book is Malcolm's sharp point about the nature of autobiographical truth.

"The instability of human knowledge," she writes, "is one of our few certainties."

Some of her frustration arises from conflicting opinions of Stein. These arise from Toklas herself who, as old age began to take its toll since she lived on after her partner's death, gradually lost focus on past events.

Yet, in a way, old people don't exactly lie - like Shakespeare's Justice Shallow, they simply forget and give you the next best thing to truth, which is slightly hazy distortion of what they remember.

Domestic warfare between the couple, which gets a reference here, of course, was observed much earlier by Ernest Hemingway.

He inserted one of these feminine passages of arms in his book describing Paris in the 1920s, which he called A Moveable Feast. …