Ah, biography. There are those who offer painstaking illumination of their subject, those who fall into the pit of awe, the quick sand of over-reverence, and there are those, such as Janet Malcolm, who like to give their subjects a good lashing. This seems to give the author much pleasure, and well, perhaps her readers too? Having read the excerpts published over the years in the New Yorker, I wasn’t expecting much from the book, but how could I resist a biography of Stein? She and Toklas are compelling, not only because of the books, the documentation of a modernist moment, the literary influence, and so on, but because of their various identities and the fact that they were able to live them out so fully. Particularly given when and where they lived them out.
Not surprisingly, Janet Malcolm’s project rests on the question of how Stein and Toklas managed to survive the Second World War in Nazi-occupied France. Compelling, yes. And one wonders, one does want more information. And we are given some information in the form of Bernard Faÿ a man with a complicated relationship to Stein, homosexual/Catholic and a collaborator under Vichy. Is this altogether surprising? Stein was conflicted politically, did not seem to want to bother with politics in a direct way, and there is more than one slant reference to unseemly connections in her own writing: one assumes that there were forces at work.
The facts are glaring, and one must wrestle with them, but Malcolm offers little insight into the episode because, quite frankly, there isn’t much to illustrate. What is curious to me is the narrative of obliviousness that she crafts for Stein, a strand rooted in the by-now cliched crtique of Stein’s ego (we know all that…), her status as last born child, a person with a sense of things “always working out for herself,” and them doing so. (In a way, Stein is a perfectly modern American subject isn’t she? Just imagine help and abundance and it will arrive…). It would be interesting to imagine the making of that ego and the implications of it, the uses of it in terms of the risk of her multiple and complex identities.
The chapter on Making of Americans reads like a piece from Vanity Fair circa 1986 and might have been written by someone like Dominick Dunne (though in fairness there were moments when I thought of Lytton Strachey’s Imminent Victorians too.). In fact I would have enjoyed it in the context of Vanity Fair I’m sure, though I might have expected a little more bite, more stylish detailing, a body, some blood… On the other hand, kudos to Malcolm for actually making it through the novel, twice (I admit to not finishing it myself) and for her reading of the actual text, which I wish there had been more of. Frustratingly, Malcolm opts for a simple conclusion that Stein simply “can’t invent” “can’t write fiction,” and while I agree that the text is a kind of self-discussion, a working out of the project, I think there is much more to say about her process in creating what is a very useful failure of a novel.
In fact rather than going on about Stein’s failure as a novelist, it would have been productive to think about the impossible nature of her undertaking, which after all, isn’t news. Perhaps someone else will take up that project–other than Ulla Dydo who is both painted for the major Stein scholar she is, and again, made into a Vanity Fair character (as are the other Stein scholars).
There is a sense of playfulness (claws out, not in) in the text, as the New York Times points out, and it does achieve Malcolm’s goals, which are clarity and engagement (goals that make her a frustrating choice for writing about Stein). In short, it’s too bad that the playfulness wasn’t used in the illumination of her subject or her subject’s text, rather than the biographer herself. But then, as Roiphe points out, people will likely not read this for Stein, but for Malcolm’s by now signature style. Which leads one to wonder whether the book has any use as a means of furthering interest in Stein in the general, biography consuming public, that is outside of the avant garde?
Over at the Guardian they had a much more sober, insightful review which rightly, points out Malcolm’s overly moralizing tone, the finger pointing from one Jewish intellectual to another. Malcolm offers up a few self-revelations which mirror in some ways, the most vicious attacks on Stein. I leave you with the last paragraph:
This self-denying attitude (Toklas later and ostentatiously became a Roman Catholic) is really the driving force of Two Lives. So it is puzzling that Malcolm, who is a present narrator throughout her own text, never mentions her own European Jewish heritage. While the Misses Stein and Toklas camped out in eastern France, baby Janet was being hurried from Prague to the safety of East Coast America. One is left unsure whether her reticence on this point is a sign of exquisite and deliberate judgment, or a highly significant oversight. One thing is certain: if she found such an odd loose end in one of her subject’s lives, she’d seize it like a terrier and never let go.
And yes, there is a terrier like quality to Malcolm who enjoys her snipes, and enjoys working the bottom out from under a subject. The unearthing of the Leon Katz strand in Making of Americans was certainly worthwhile. Do we dare hope for this elusive information pertaining to the missing documents and the early stages of the writing of that novel? By the sounds of things, no. But now we might have some energetic minds who can get at the work and, as Ulla Dydo points out via Malcolm, create a bridge to the novel, and unlock some of its secrets for would-be scholars.
Perhaps the most useful review comes from Terry Castle in the London Review of Books, who glories in Malcolm’s abrasive bitchiness while sketching out both strengths and weaknesses of her text. My irritation has subsided somewhat and I can see the fun in Malcolm’s bite, ending a chapter with the line “we may assume that pussy’s way would not have been her own” for example. But I remain troubled by the insistence on painting Stein as a failed fiction writer, and I’m not sure what, aside from a kind of oblique titillation, Malcolm wanted to get at in the last section with the following quote from Hemingway: “She used to talk to me about homosexuality and how it was fine in and for women and no good in men and I used to listen and learn and I always wanted to fuck her and she knew it.”
It is perhaps unfair to want a biographer to like her subject, and perhaps even unwise. Rather one wants a range of responses and certainly more neutrality. But really, if one is going to take up the trope of the scathing and insouciant biographer, one might want to have something to say not only about one’s subject, but about one’s relationship to it, something to back up the penchant for the whip of a good quip (Malcom recently here on Gossip Girls), for the flaying of the unfortunate object who has managed to catch her eye. It isn’t that I was looking for a love affair with Stein, it’s that I was looking for some genuine insight.