I'm reading Two Lives, Janet Malcolm's compelling new book about Gertude Stein and Alice B. Toklas that focuses on their time in France during the Occupation; she asks how did this 'pair of elderly Jewish
lesbians escape the Nazis?' I've been a fan of Malcolm's ever since reading The Journalist and the Murderer...
via London Review of Books (12/13/07):
[excerpt of review] Malcolm begins Two Lives, disarmingly enough, with a simple yet troubling set of questions. Riffling one day through the gravy-stained pages of her old copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook -- the delightful culinary memoir of 1954 in which Toklas, eight years after her companion's death, reminisced about 'Miss Stein' and the various elaborate meals she (Toklas) had prepared for her and their famous friends-- Malcolm was suddenly struck, she relates, by the dearth of information Toklas volunteered about their life during the Occupation. True, in one sense there was no mystery. As Toklas explains, she and Stein spent the Vichy period safely domiciled in the south-eastern part of France known as the Bugey: first, at the comfortable country house at Bilignin, near Belley, in which they had spent their summers in the 1930s; subsequently, in another house, equally picturesque, in Culoz. Anyone with even a passing interest in the pair will almost certainly have seen one or two of the snapshots, now iconic, of Stein at Bilignin before the war: clowning with friends on the ancient stone terrace (in one photo she is holding sheet music and mouthing the words of her favourite song, 'On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine'), greeting guests from a sunny upstairs window, or relaxing full-length on a stripey deckchair -- massive and butch and strangely fashion-forward in her usual voluminous woolly skirt, embroidered vest, thick stockings and men's sandals. (I myself am the gratified possessor of one of these sun-dappled pix – a sepia-tinted 5 x 7 in which Stein, supine and enormous on said deckchair, appears to be in a sort of Pasiphaë-like embrace -- magnificent and unperturbed -- with her huge white standard poodle, Basket. Both Stein and the photographer, Carl Van Vechten, have signed it; it is inscribed to Alexander Woollcott. The stunning Basket, alas, has left nary a paw-print.)
Yet something was 'off', Malcolm sensed, in Toklas's account of this protracted rustic sojourn. World wars are seldom propitious for the lovers of haute cuisine, but even so, Toklas's ration-based recipes from the period ('A Restricted Veal Loaf', 'Swimming Crawfish') were singularly unenticing; her commentaries crimped and full of 'painfully forced gaiety'. Awkward questions began to loom. How, wondered Malcolm, had this 'pair of elderly Jewish lesbians' escaped the Nazis? Why, when Paris fell in 1940, had they not gone to Switzerland, as friends recommended, or back to the United States? What made them think Bilignin was safe? And why did Toklas say nothing in her memoir – even obliquely – about her and Stein's Jewishness or the apparent danger they had been in?
Of course, Malcolm writes, in the 1950s 'one did not go out of one's way to mention one's Jewishness. Gentlemanly anti-semitism was still a fact of American life. The fate of Europe's Jews was known, but the magnitude of the catastrophe had not registered; the term "Holocaust" was not yet in use.' Yet even granting that, no one, it seemed, grasped the obvious: that the plain fact of Stein and Toklas's survival, more or less unruffled, was strange. That they had made it through the war unharmed, even as thousands of less fortunate Jewish residents in France – some from the very part of the Unoccupied Zone in which the couple had taken refuge – were being herded onto trains and sent to death camps, seemed a curiously neglected topic.
Much of Two Lives – a book as elegant as it is disconcerting – is devoted to Malcolm’s ensuing investigations into Stein and Toklas's life in the murky period in question. Readers of other Malcolm productions – In the Freud Archives (1984), The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001) – will recognise the method: Malcolm offers a sort of reporter's diary, a circuitous, episodic, highly self-conscious narrative about her own search, ultimately somewhat inconclusive, after the 'truth' of the matter. It's a detective novelist's technique and one that Malcolm has mastered to perfection. And inevitably it broadens out into something more philosophical. Even as Malcolm reports -- drolly -- on the intrigue-filled world of Stein-Toklas scholarship, an area of study replete with more than the usual number of literary mavericks, oddballs and feral academics in the grip of obsessive-compulsive disorder, she also provides a canny assessment of Stein's personality and achievement, the relationship with Toklas, and a telling if melancholy parable of the biographer's art. [read on...]