Magazine article The Spectator

Stein and Toklas Limited

Magazine article The Spectator

Stein and Toklas Limited

Article excerpt

TWO LIVES: GIERTRUDE AND ALICE by Janet Malcolm Yale, £16.99, pp. 229, ISBN 9780300125511 £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

As in her brilliant study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Janet Malcolm's focus in Two Lives is on the writing of biography, especially the biography of a couple -- here, the ebullient Gertrude Stein and her ugly, much exploited lover, Alice B.

Toklas -- and, behind that, the construction of identity itself. Like Stein's own work, the book is vivid, elliptical and distrustful of artificial order. It's un-Stein-like, though, in the lucidity of Malcolm's underlying thesis: that life-writing often has a lot more in common with fiction than its practitioners have tended to admit.

In the early 1930s, Stein wrote The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas as a way of praising her own genius, rather as if the author of Boswell's life of Johnson had been the Doctor himself. But the invention of Gertrude Stein didn't stop here. Or start here, for that matter. Between 1902 and 1911, when her salon at 27 rue de Fleurus became, at least in her own eyes, the topmost peak of High Modernism, Stein kept a series of private notebooks which, later, as the second world war loomed, she sent to Yale's Beinecke Library for safe keeping.

They are an intimate record of her thoughts and imaginings, among them not only ideas for her work, especially the massive and unreadable The Making of Americans, but assessments of her friends, and her 'friends'.

Not long after her death in 1946, the notebooks were studied by a clever, assiduous American doctoral researcher, Leon Katz, who decided to fill in as many of the gaps as he could by going through the text with Toklas. 'From November 1952 to February 1953, ' Malcolm writes, 'eight hours a day, four days a week, Toklas received Katz in her sitting room and pored over the notes with him, "line by line - word by word".' The subjects of these lines and words, often unflatteringly depicted, inevitably included Toklas herself. In exchange for a promise from Katz that he would not publish his research, she became indiscreet.

To this day, Katz has kept his word, though he was arguably released from it by Toklas's death as long ago as 1967 and has not lacked offers from publishers. To Malcolm, though, the interest of Katz's work is not its -- anyway illusory -- unavailability. …

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