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 …