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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice    by Janet Malcolm Amazon.com order for
Two Lives
by Janet Malcolm
Order:  USA  Can
Yale University Press, 2007 (2007)
Hardcover
* * *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

In the singular literary universe that was briefly populated by the so-called Lost Generation in Paris in the early twentieth century, one personality looms large, positioned like an immensely immovable muse who presided over all others: Gertrude Stein. However, merely mentioning Gertrude Stein almost always forces one also to mention - nearly in the same breath, as if the names and the personalities were inseparable - Stein's enigmatic lesbian companion of nearly forty years, Alice B. Toklas.

Now, in a wonderfully perceptive and compact study, the brilliant scholar Janet Malcolm takes a fresh look at Stein and Toklas. With most of her attention given to Stein, Malcolm - insofar as any analysis is ever possible - deftly analyzes the strangely iconic author who befriended and guided (and sometimes alienated) many of the early twentieth century's greatest artists, musicians, and writers.

What often emerges, at least initially, when one looks too closely at Stein (through other biographies and anecdotal reports) is a self-absorbed, egocentric intellectual; a closer look - courtesy of Malcolm - shows a woman notable for her 'chronic contrariness,' a Jewish lesbian who seemed intensely covert (or indifferent) about her Jewishness, a woman who was politically na´ve (or was she shamelessly irresponsible or even culpable) in ways in which she responded to (or ignored) Nazis and the Holocaust, and a woman - even in the production of her literary works - who was perversely manipulated in a complicated passive-aggressive relationship by a fiercely jealous and devoted Toklas.

Malcolm, going beyond biography and social history, also takes time to look at and attempt to make sense out of Stein's peculiar literary productions, especially her ponderously bloated 'text of magisterial disorder,' The Making of Americans.

There are so many wonderful gems of discovery in the book's 229 pages that it is nearly impossible to give justice to Malcolm and Two Lives in this brief review. Let the final words, then, be simply this: By relying upon conversations with a number of important Stein scholars, by re-examining and critiquing precedents in Stein biography and scholarship, and by deconstructing and analyzing The Making of Americans (a massive, virtually incoherent work of more than 900 pages that few English professors or Stein scholars have ever managed to read), Malcolm presents a fresh new look at two misunderstood (and perhaps not fully embraceable) eccentrics from twentieth century literature and culture. Two Lives is an absolute must read book for anyone interested in trying to understand the two women who became one of the most controversial couples in relatively recent history, Gertrude and Alice.

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