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The Last Act

Janet Malcolm begins her remarkable work on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas by recalling how, half a century or so ago, like many other pretentious young Americans feeling hemmed in by Eisenhower-era conformity, she gravitated to Toklas’s cookbook. Its carefree, worldly snobbishness “fit right in with our program of callow preciousness,” she writes. “We loved its waspishly magisterial tone, its hauteur and malice.”

Years later, coming again upon her old food-stained copy, she reads the chapter about life under the Nazis, which she hadn’t read before. Toklas recalls how she and Stein hid in an area of provincial eastern France called Bugey, where they kept a house in the town of Bilignin, discovered one summer day in 1924 on the way to visit Picasso. When the war broke out, they wheedled a military pass and drove to Paris, fetched winter clothes, then settled back in the countryside for the duration. Toklas’s tone is cheerful. Malcolm, who has made a career of not taking writers at their word, asks herself what Toklas must be hiding. Two Jewish Americans in occupied France, and she is reminiscing about “Restricted Veal Loaf”? Why no mention of their Jewishness, “never mind [their] lesbianism,” she asks.

And so begins a rich meditation, born from articles in The New Yorker, on a storied relationship in modern letters, which, not coincidentally, also leads Malcolm to contemplate the slippery and shifting nature of language. As much as any experimental twentieth-century writer in English, Stein made a point about getting to the deep truth of language, its fundamental nature, but she also manipulated words to mean things very different than they usually do. In life, it turns out, as in art.

Stein was, Malcolm reminds us, intent on becoming famous, convinced of her own genius from childhood. She trained to be a medical doctor, then dropped out of Johns Hopkins in her last year, 1901, imagining herself a writer. Her scientific interests were perhaps what later inclined her, in a gigantic and impenetrable work like The Making of Americans, to seek a way of categorizing and organizing qualities of people she happened across, to create a sort of catalog of human types. It produced in that case what Malcolm calls “a text of magisterial disorder.” Malcolm comes to admire the book—as she does other of Stein’s so-called “difficult” writing—because its chaos, she concludes, expresses a willingness to embrace the chaos and complexity of the real world. Something of Stein’s spirit of a detached outsider, looking in on others, may also have had its roots in her elective life as an expatriate.

Stein settled in Paris in 1903 and began producing the stories that she was convinced would bring her “gloire.” Her notebooks reveal a peevish, cynical, and impatient young woman, initially isolated among relatives and other Americans, hateful toward nearly everyone, including the woman with whom she would spend her life: “A liar of the most sordid, unillumined, undramatic unimaginative prostitute type, coward, ungenerous, conscienceless, mean, vulgarly triumphant and remorseless, caddish, in short just plain rotten.” That was worse than the nasty, petty things others would say about Alice B. Toklas over the years, but it would be Alice who, as Stein came to put it, would “say yes” to what she was writing, and “then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed that you had then when you were writing or liking the thing and not any one had said yes about the thing.”

Gradually Stein finds her voice in this abstracted English, where nouns and verbs are liberated from traditional meanings and placed in sonorous felicities that imply fresh meanings. She was soon achieving cultish fame in avant-garde circles during the heyday of the avant-garde, the stars of which seemed to be often almost quite literally at her feet, in the famous salon on the Rue de Fleurus, which she shared with her brother, Leo, until he couldn’t take her any longer and left.

Slowly and in a way it was not astonishing but slowly I was knowing that I was a genius,” she wrote. “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.” That summed it up neatly.

Can you blame him? But then, Stein was mostly right. It was Leo who first grasped modern art and persuaded her of its quality, and then found her stealing the limelight as its champion. Even so, Bernard Berenson once described Leo as a man “who was always inventing the umbrella.” Self-important and not particularly creative, he was deeply intelligent, a condition that left him crippled with a persnickety, hypercritical temperament according to which everything and everyone else was wanting, especially his sister, whose writing was “silly twaddle.” Her success simply mortified him. He would go around, in a state of disbelief, telling everyone that she was merely a celebrity. Again, Gertrude put it best: “he said it was not it it was I.” She claimed not to be troubled by his remarks, but clearly she was because Leo had a point. Her celebrity did matter. But Malcolm puts it rightly: “If she had not been as interested in herself as she was she would not have written what she wrote…. The ‘it’ and the ‘I’ are never far apart.”

Alas for Leo, who couldn’t spare even himself the scalpel, as he wrote in 1934:

Gertrude’s sort of massive self-admiration, and, in part, self-assurance, enabled her to build something rather effective on her foundations. I, on the other hand, through the upsetting, complicating and stultifying effects of a terrific neurosis, could build nothing substantial on my intelligence, which came through only in fragments and distorted bits.

Exit Leo.

Enter Alice, the dark protectress, as countless visitors to their home recalled—they were yin and yang, affable and brooding, brilliant and quotidian, inseparable, harmonically united. Or were they? “I had cajoling ways, one has when one continues to be the youngest,” Malcolm quotes Stein, about being raised as the youngest in a family of five children. These ways would serve Stein well throughout her life. Toklas would take care of her, unstintingly and apparently with pleasure, save perhaps in one matter, nourishing Stein’s genius by relieving her of any bothersome chore or task. Stein got similar service out of others, too, from Carl Van Vechten to Mabel Dodge to Thornton Wilder.

The exception in Toklas’s case is alluded to in a footnote by Malcolm: it seems that Stein gave Toklas orgasms but received none, or so a scholar has deciphered various cryptic passages about “cows” in Stein’s notebooks. “Toklas does all the work—she is cook, housekeeper, typist, secretary—but in bed it is Stein who labors,” Malcolm sums it up. This tidbit may be contemplated alongside Hemingway’s recollection of overhearing a heated argument between Toklas and Stein (possibly because of an affair Stein once had with another woman?). Hemingway recounts Stein pleading, like a supplicant, with a steely Alice: “I’ll do anything, pussy,” she repeated over and over. Stein having written him off, Hemingway had an ulterior motive in telling the story, but it has the ring of truth.

All relationships are of course finally unknowable from the outside; but this one seems, like most, to have achieved a private balance of power that depended on the bedroom. It’s very odd to come across skepticism, well into the 1970s, long after Alice’s death, about the sexual nature of the Stein-Toklas affair. “She was a golden brown presence,” Toklas recalled of her first sighting of Stein in France. Stein would, over the decades, abandon friends and devotees whenever they became too famous or questioned her genius or if Alice perceived them as rivals. But between the two of them, nothing would be withheld.

Stein felt that, in fact, nothing should ever be withheld from her by anyone—she deserved everything she wished, as the just spoils of genius. Her charm disguised a fundamental disconnect from other people. As Malcolm writes, and others have observed, she had the ability to talk easily to anyone but never thought of others as equals. She loathed FDR, admired Franco. In 1937, she told the journalist Eric Sevareid:

Hitler will never really go to war. He is not the dangerous one. You see, he is the German romanticist. He wants the illusion of victory and power, the glory and glamour of it, but he could not stand the blood and fighting involved in getting it.

Sevareid summed her up: “She knew persons, but not people.”

Which leads to the question Malcolm initially asked: What really happened to the two women during the war? In the cookbook, in that mysterious chapter called “Food in the Bugey during the Occupation,” Toklas says visitors came from far away, “all in the Resistance, naturally.” Naturally. As in practically every recollection of France during the war, everyone suddenly fought in the Resistance. And they were all eating crawfish and veal loaf with Alice and Gertrude during breaks from the war.

But then there was Bernard Faÿ. Since he published his memoirs in 1966, it has been known that Faÿ, a university professor and specialist in American literature and history who translated Stein’s autobiography and closely advised Marshal Pétain, protected the two women under the Occupation. A high-ranking Vichy collaborator who became head of the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1940 when he replaced a Jew, Faÿ was a man who appalled everyone who remembered him after the war, save Gertrude and Alice. Oily, obsequious to Gertrude, a royalist, gay, anti-Semitic, he made sure, as he wrote in his book, that his “two friends lived a peaceful life.” Neither Stein nor Toklas mentioned his intercession in their separate memoirs. Stein defended Faÿ in a letter to the court that convicted him after the Liberation, pointing out that he helped save her collection of paintings. About his having saved her from arrest, and possibly saving her life, Malcolm notes, she said nothing, and neither did Alice. Why?

That question, not in itself seemingly hard to answer, leads Malcolm on an apparent digression, which in fact turns out not to be a digression at all, during which she introduces a trio of senior Stein scholars, charming and intrepid monomaniacs, dry and whimsical, who become her aides and, you might say, her Greek chorus. Malcolm’s reportorial process and conversational, elegant prose has always been about transparency, including toward the characters who come along to lead her through her investigations, and whose motivations, like her own, she investigates. Stein’s prose was not transparent. But here the author and her subject share a desire to explore how words convey meaning, which brings them to common ground.

We are introduced to Edward M. Burns, a burly, loquacious professor specializing in Stein’s biography, and to Ulla E. Dydo, a tart, slender, soft-hearted woman, so Malcolm tells us, whose expertise is textual analysis. Their research assistant is a tall, thin septuagenerian actor and painter named William Rice. Burns and Dydo, it turns out, once wrote an essay about Stein during the war years, in which they chastised her for befriending Faÿ. Stein, notoriously, even went so far as to undertake, at Faÿ’s behest, the translation of Pétain’s speeches into English, continuing that project after Vichy’s edicts against Jews and deportations began. “She had always been conservative, reactionary, and fearful of communism, and in the Spanish Civil War she had been anti-Loyalist,” Burns and Dydo wrote. But her liaison with Faÿ remains “a troublesome puzzle.”

They reported, most interestingly, that Toklas sold a few works of art after the war to finance Faÿ’s escape from jail. In 1946 Faÿ had been sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor for his Vichy activities, serving five years before slipping out of a prison hospital to Switzerland. He returned to Paris finally, after François Mitterrand (then minister of justice) pardoned him, which is where Burns, a Jew, found him in 1968, excited by gaining access to someone so close to Stein, and also feeling “unclean” by virtue of exchanging civilities with someone who, under other circumstances, clearly wouldn’t have agreed to sit in the same room with him. Malcolm learns much from hearing firsthand about Burns’s encounter. She concludes that Stein was for Faÿ “a perfect object for the obligatory transgressive fantasy of friendship with an exceptional Chosen Person.” Gertrude’s evasiveness about her Jewishness helped grease the relationship, and dovetailed with her willful obliviousness to any conflicts. When conflict was unavoidable, Stein’s writing often seemed to tumble, as Claudia Roth Pierpont once put it, “into nonsense or baby talk.”

Or was it nonsense? Thornton Wilder in a letter in 1933 to Alexander Woollcott (Burns and Dydo quote it in their article) remarked how Stein’s The Making of Americans: Being a History of a Family’s Progress, which like all her work is autobiographic at heart, “does not mention that the family she is analyzing in such detail is a Jewish family.” Wilder points out: “It’s Henry Adams’ wife, again. It’s possible to make books of a certain fascination if you scrupulously leave out the essential.”

For Malcolm, Stein’s writing, in this and other respects, struggles constantly with the anxiety of disclosure. Wars I Have Seen, her engrossing wartime memoir, “is a work of realism struggling against itself,” Malcolm believes. Reality has become so unreal during the war that the experimental language of modernism suddenly fails Stein. Despite herself, she can’t help but acknowledge the terror and fear, which gives way to a kind of frantic joy at the Liberation, but meanwhile the terror becomes displaced, focusing on the deportation of young Frenchmen rather than on the fate of Jews like herself. At the same time, she unburdens herself of inane thoughts like the one about a Jewish “instinct for publicity” being “the real basis of the persecution of the chosen people.”

The affection for Faÿ therefore becomes part of a larger pathology. Zealous in following Pétain’s orders, he had helped to create Gestapo files on 170,000 Freemasons, six thousand of whom were imprisoned, and 540 of whom were shot or killed in the camps. Stein and Toklas almost certainly knew nothing directly of this. But then, they may also have preferred not to know too much about what he was up to. It took the course of the war for Stein finally to acknowledge about herself that she had been naive, that totalitarianism was not preferable to democracy. For Malcolm, Stein’s language of equivocation—her evasiveness about the truth—suggests something fundamental about her being, quite aside from her charm and lucidity and ease in private conversations.

Meanwhile, with her celebrity receding, her work has now, in the twenty-first century, become a little easier to regard on its own. Stein, it’s often said, started no school of followers, and she’s no longer a campus requirement, but it’s hard to imagine that many later poets, or the Surrealists, or dozens of Paris memoirists, or generations of feminists would have written as they did without her, or even the millions of e-mailers for whom prolixity has been eliminated as a hurdle to publication (the mind reels at the thought of Gertrude with e-mail). The technical care with which she put together words, her refusal of stale phrases and standard thoughts, remains a model of serious writing, notwithstanding that the writings of course can be immediately off-putting and impenetrable. It has always been what James Mellow, the Stein biographer, called “closet literature,” with, I suppose, both the literal (because no one published the work for years so it sat in Stein’s closet or drawer) and figurative implications intended. The so-called “difficult” works are crabbed and obstinate in the purposeful way that Stravinsky or Picasso, during similar periods, could be, and this dovetails with a certain tiresome self-importance, a trait of pioneering modernism.

But a work like Tender Buttons will reveal a freshness and surprise, a quality of joy over time, which Malcolm says she finally came to find “thrilling”—the way Stein, cultivating a strictly simple vocabulary, will make the sudden appearance of a new word approximate the entrance of a character in a drama. Among other things, Malcolm’s book may cause skeptical readers to give Stein another try. The poet Robert Creeley once suggested that we “trust the writing and presume it will discover its own patterns.” Stein was always proud that H.G. Wells, to whom she early on sent a manuscript (she was a tireless self-promoter), wrote back to her to say that he had first been “repelled” by her writing but then read it “with a deepening pleasure & admiration.” Malcolm describes a similar transformation herself.

Best read aloud, Stein’s writing can be heard like poetry or music, unmoored and set free to sail past logic while implying meanings that invite decoding. Mabel Dodge called it “sensuous music.” Inspired by Spanish gypsy women and the way they moved about, Stein’s familiar prose-poem “A Sweet Tail (Gypsies) encapsulates her erotic use of words:

This is the sun in. This is the lamb of the lantern with chalk. With chalk a shadow shall be a sneeze in a tooth in a tin tooth, a turned past, a turned little corset, a little tuck in a pink look and with a pin in, a pin in.

Win lake, eat splashes dig salt change benches.

Win lake eat splashes dig salt change benches

Can in.

Innumerable books and dissertations have naturally ventured explanations of such incantatory texts, based on Indo-European philology or on Jung, about which Stein apparently knew next to nothing, or on whatever passing fad or fancy has inspired an English department; these analyses have uncovered the disguised presence of a lover or some erotic motif, but as with the analyses of Cubist pictures, finding a pipe or a smokestack or a cigar only goes so far in explaining the deeper meaning of the art. Spontaneity, as Virgil Thomson once pointed out in these pages, mattered greatly to Stein, at the same time that she wished readers to know the subtlety and care with which words had been chosen and put together. In the obligatory modernist spirit of the day, Stein strove to reinvent language as if from scratch, in a grand, revolutionary manner, but rooted in plain words and in the here and now. Sherwood Anderson’s apt analogy for the modern writer was to a wholesome cook in a “kitchen of words,” preferring homemade goods to store-bought fancies.

As with Picasso, Cézanne was a big influence. His method of breaking ordinary things down—landscapes, fruit, tables, a face—into component building blocks, each redolent with meaning but abstract, was a model for Stein’s use of words. The process, reality translated into bits of pure form, courts incoherence but sustains meaning. Again, about The Making of Americans, Malcolm calls the book a laboratory for Stein, ponderous and unforgiving, a morass, a nervous breakdown of a novel, swerving between conventional narrative and gibberish, “a work that Stein evidently had to get out of her system—almost like a person having to vomit—before she could become Gertrude Stein as we know her.” But Malcolm admires its refusal to “impose a false order on disorderly complexity,” which might also be said of Cézanne’s art, in all its ambiguity and mystery.

In the end, this is Malcolm’s ambition, too. By and by, as she comes to grips with her own inability to know, truly, Stein and Toklas, she acknowledges the risk of trying to impose a narrative on any lives. Is the distaste, often cruel, for Toklas that permeates so many writings on Stein deserved? Or, as Malcolm asks, does it belong to a mythic structure of biography that determines who is likable and who is not among the famous? Alice, who would convert to Christianity late in life, doesn’t mention her Jewishness in her cookbook; Stein suppressed her religious identity—but then “what do we know,” really, about that either? “Perhaps Stein had a secret Jewish life,” Malcolm wonders. “Biography and autobiography are the aggregate of what, in the former, the author happens to learn, and, in the latter, he chooses to tell.” Two Lives is the most intelligent sort of biography precisely because it doesn’t claim to be a true biography, only an essay that inquires into biography.

It ends with a section about Toklas after Stein’s death. Alice assumed the classic role of literary wife and lonely widow. These were the years when she fell into poverty, the victim of a famous struggle with Stein’s heirs, thanks to the mess that ensued from Stein’s will. Here Leon Katz, another Stein expert, makes a kind of appearance. It was Katz, revered by fellow Stein scholars but elusive, who, patiently insinuating himself into Alice’s trust, extracted from Toklas and from the access she provided to Stein’s notebooks confirmation of the fact that Stein had had a relationship, early on, with a woman named May Bookstaver. Its breakup devastated Stein and would haunt Alice, who tried so hard to suppress Bookstaver’s existence over the years that she even compelled Stein at one point (this from Ulla Dydo, building on Katz’s research) to change the word “may” to “can” in various passages of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, making them incoherent.

Malcolm attempts to meet with Katz, who, after decades, has still not published his promised masterwork on The Making of Americans. He avoids her, not wanting his research to be disclosed by anyone else, he explains. Malcolm first says she understands him, but then passingly speculates, either resentfully or because she is forever skeptical, about Katz’s reliability: “We have only his word that Toklas told him what he says she did.” And this returns Malcolm to her theme, which is at the heart of Stein’s work, too: “the instability of human knowledge.”

It is, she writes, “one of our few certainties. Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best.” True. Gertrude couldn’t have put it better.

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