Magnetic manner of a modernist maven
Two Lives: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas By Janet Malcolm Melbourne University Publishing, 229pp, $ 32.95
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