Mag­netic man­ner of a modernist maven

Two Lives: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tok­las By Janet Mal­colm Melbourne Univer­sity Pub­lish­ing, 229pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kathy Hunt

THAT most fa­mous of typ­ists Alice B. ( for Ba­bette) Tok­las moved to Paris from San Fran­cisco in 1907. Shaky but strangely se­duc­tive, her fu­ture life part­ner Gertrude Stein was al­ready in res­i­dence at 27 rue de Fleu­rus. She had joined her brother Leo there in 1903 af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Rad­cliffe and drop­ping out of med­i­cal school at Johns Hop­kins. On the Left Bank, with a fixed in­come de­rived from her fa­ther’s busi­ness in­ter­ests, the comma- hat­ing Stein, in Janet Mal­colm’s words, ‘‘ be­gan to pur­sue her writ­ing ca­reer in earnest and, un­der Leo’s tute­lage, to see the point of modernist art and to be­come a fel­low early col­lec­tor of it’’.

Th­ese three ac­tiv­i­ties were to de­fine her life; in­deed, as a host­ess and pa­tron of the arts, two out of three would have made her name but, as she wrote of her­self in her most ac­ces­si­ble work, The Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of Alice B. Tok­las : ‘‘ One can only have one metier as one can only have one lan­guage. Her metier is writ­ing and her lan­guage is English.’’

Hardly a voice in the wilder­ness, Leo was the first to dis­agree, la­belling her work as ‘‘ silly twad­dle’’ and her few read­ers as ‘‘ fatu­ous id­iots’’. In 1909 most of the English- speak­ing world lined up be­hind him, un­touched by such lines as ‘‘ I mean, I mean and that is not what I mean.’’ But an ob­server noted: ‘‘ In writ­ten form her words seem bizarre and dif­fi­cult to fol­low, but when she her­self reads them aloud it is all per­fectly lu­cid, nat­u­ral and ex­act.’’ The same man re­mem­bered Stein as ‘‘ a warm and won­der­ful per­son’’, a com­mon enough re­ac­tion. On first meet­ing Stein, Tok­las had writ­ten: ‘‘ She was a golden brown pres­ence, burned by the Tus­can sun.’’

Un­like the cat­like Alice, how­ever, and de­spite her ‘‘ mas­sive heavy fat’’ up­hol­stered in cor­duroy, Stein seems some­how to have im­pressed peo­ple with her pow­er­ful per­sonal mag­netism. Mal­colm quotes a let­ter from, and typ­i­cal of, Ernest Hem­ing­way: ‘‘ I al­ways wanted to f . . k her and she knew it.’’ As a young man even the critic and aca­demic Don­ald Suther­land ex­pe­ri­enced an em­bar­rass­ing erec­tion when the 60- year- old Stein ‘‘ came too close’’. Man­i­fest­ing it­self in in­verse pro­por­tion to her squat and san­dalled self, this phe­nom­e­non was un­doubt­edly good for busi­ness but hard on Tok­las.

‘‘ One day at lunch,’’ re­calls mu­tual friend Ma­bel Dodge, ‘‘ Gertrude sent me such a strong look over the ta­ble that it seemed to cut across the air to me in a band of elec­tri­fied steel — a smile trav­el­ling across on it — pow­er­ful — heav­ens!’’ Alice bolted.

In 1932, as Stein sleuth Ulla E. Dydo dis­cov­ered, Tok­las would force Gertrude to re­move al­most ev­ery ‘‘ may’’ in her Stan­zas in Med­i­ta­tion and sub­sti­tute the word ‘‘ can’’, pay­back, says Dydo, for Stein’s af­fair with May Book­staver.

Part bi­og­ra­phy, part in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism, Two Lives is es­sen­tially an un­nec­es­sary book dot­ted with false leads, bad calls and beat- ups.

In­flu­enced heav­ily by meet­ings with Stein schol­ars Dydo, Ed­ward M. Burns and William Rice, Mal­colm raises the ques­tion of Stein and Tok­las’s ac­tiv­i­ties dur­ing World War II as they bunkered down in their manor in the pretty French vil­lage of Cu­loz. ( I like a view, wrote Stein, but I like to sit with my back turned to it.) Mal­colm says the pair con­tin­ued to hide their Jewish­ness while frater­nising with Bernard Fay, a French aca­demic and writer who had fa­cil­i­tated Stein’s 1934 Amer­i­can lec­ture tour and, in his ca­pac­ity as an ad­viser to Mar­shal Pe­tain, made life eas­ier for his friends. Af­ter the war Fay was con­victed and sen­tenced for pros­e­cut­ing Pe­tain’s 1940 or­der ban­ning se­cret so­ci­eties.

In a vaguely use­ful bit of de­tec­tive work Burns fol­lows up a lead pro­vided by Mal­colm and in­ter­views Fay who, in spite of hav­ing dobbed in 170,000 Freema­sons, was par­doned by Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand in 1958. Not con­tent with this, and in the loud­est beat- up of all, Mal­colm asks if Stein and Tok­las kept silent about Fay’s help ‘‘ be­cause they couldn’t bring them­selves to ad­mit to the world that they had been mixed up with a col­lab­o­ra­tor’’. She waits an­other 50 pages and then says, in ef­fect, no.

In her ef­forts to in­dict Fay and Leon Katz, a ner­vous doc­toral can­di­date who in­ter­viewed the wid­owed Tok­las in 1952 and has been sit­ting on his notes ever since, Mal­colm has missed the great­est vil­lain of this patch­work piece, the oc­to­ge­nar­ian Dydo. Dydo wants Stein recog­nised as ‘‘ a ma­jor modernist mas­ter’’ and her im­pen­e­tra­ble novel The Mak­ing of Amer­ica to be on col­lege read­ing lists so that hap­less stu­dents ev­ery­where can study it ‘‘ with sym­pa­thetic, rather than hos­tile, in­com­pre­hen­sion’’. Well, Ulla, that dog won’t hunt. Sur­real but not sur­re­al­ist, Stein’s work, like the move­ment Cyril Con­nolly de­scribed, rep­re­sented noth­ing more than ‘‘ the per­son who did it’’, and life — real life — ‘‘ hardly at all’’. It did, how­ever, in a new and coura­geous way, rep­re­sent ar­tis­ti­cally the last ‘‘ private re­bel­lion of the in­di­vid­ual’’, an im­pos­si­ble thing now in a world too shock­ing to be shocked. Kathy Hunt is a lit­er­ary critic based in rural Vic­to­ria.

Private re­bel­lion of the in­di­vid­ual: Gertrude Stein, right, with Alice B. Tok­las in Venice in 1908

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