Posted by: zhiv | September 13, 2011

Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, Janet Malcolm

Experiencing a rather direct Gertrude Stein rally the last week, which is surprising. 152y started things off, getting excited about Stein while studying female modernists at Oxford last year. My first reaction was really? That’s where it’s going? And I left it there, with virtually no interest.

But then I saw this book, relatively recent (2007), a small volume published by the Yale University Press (its own small surprise). The copy of Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (1993) that I brought with me on this trip was published by Knopf. But some of the papers and work that Malcolm discusses here are in the Beinecke Library at Yale, so that might be the connection. And Malcolm is already getting paid for this work by The New Yorker, and who knows how all of that works.

My interest is more in Malcolm and her meditations on biography than it is in Stein, at least to begin. One great part of Malcolm’s work is that she writes probing literary biographical essays, rather than full-blown biographies. It’s an engaging form, and the whole process is fascinating, especially in the hands of such a gifted writer and intellect. One thing Malcolm is able to do is critique other biographers, while at the same time she forms her own portrait out of a simpler set of materials, trying to find telling bits that reveal depth and ideosyncrasies of character. She seems to jump into the middle of the process, knowing that well-known and intriguing figures will have their biographers, and that these books will present different points of view. The evolution of biographical process and truth is fun to track, and it’s as much fun as biographical discovery.

And thus, as I said, I start out more interested in Malcolm than Stein, and my guess is that Malcolm will introduce a new way of looking at Stein and seeing her and Toklas together. This works well and easily enough. Malcolm begins by remembering the mystique of Toklas and her cookbook in the 50s, and she has an engaging way now, 40 years later, of characterizing herself and her kind, postwar intellectual women (she does the same thing throughout the Plath book). It’s a good way of introducing the central Stein fact: that she’s a compelling modernist celebrity, but her work is not only little read, but perhaps largely unreadable. That’s with the Autobiography (1933) aside, and it’s interesting how Stein herself used that prismatic text to begin the process of raising her life above her work–while joining herself inextricably with Toklas at the same time.

Malcolm does two important things in her approach. The first is that she seemingly admits what I started out by saying, that Stein didn’t seem to have much literary importance to her for 30 or 40 years, that she was central and certainly on-the-spot, but it didn’t matter much to read her work. Malcolm doesn’t fit this into the larger argument about the Gender of Modernism that 152y and I have been looking at and tracking, and it’s not as if Stein has been lacking basic attention. So this book is about, in part, Malcolm reading Stein, and the enterprise is timed to make a solid and accessible contribution to the gender argument, helping Stein to receive her due in a different and carefully studied way.

Secondly, Malcolm updates us and tells the story of the progress of the main Steinologists during the last four decades, the people who have been looking at her work all along, biographers and critics who have made their own steady series of interpretations and discoveries. This is all done in the best manner of late Malcolm, as she brings us into a series of serene, almost old world tea/sessions/interviews/salons with three intertwined Stein scholars, Edward M. Burns, Ulla Dydo, and William Rice. And they discuss how, in the background, there is the central work of Stein scholarship, by Leon Katz, based on interviews with Toklas 40 years ago. Malcolm sketches the drama and mystery of Katz’s Toklas interviews and makes a compelling character out of him, turning him briefly into the key subject of her biographical desire.

What’s odd and slightly uncanny for me are the continuing personal connections I find in Malcolm’s work, which started with my first Malcolm post. Reading this book I knew I had a vague Stein reference lurking in the background, and I kept waiting for it to appear. At the heart of the drought in meaningful Stein studies there is one book, what Malcolm refers to as “Richard Bridgman’s classic study Gertrude Stein in Pieces (1970)” on pg. 84. This was a book that I knew well but never looked at, as Bridgman was my primary adviser during my days at Berkeley, along with Ralph Rader. I first encountered Bridgman in a large lecture course on the European Novel, reading Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Proust and others, including Nabokov’s Ada, which was a singular choice. And I took 18th Century Lit from him, reading Johnson and Boswell and all the rest. He was publishing a book called Dark Thoreau (1982), and he was an Americanist, but my own view of his interests and work was much broader, more about the novel and biography, and just a fundamental love for literature. I don’t think we ever had a single conversation about Gertrude Stein.

The key to a deeper interpretation of Stein and her work is reading The Making of Americans (written 1902-11), her extended modernist experiment that was completed around the time of the watershed moment in December 1910 when “everything changed” (Virginia Woolf.) Malcolm notes how critics in the “drought” happily discussed Stein and felt it wasn’t necessary to read Americans, but Bridgman was one of the first to look at it carefully as part of his analysis. Part of Malcolm’s task, in reviewing and reconsidering Stein in this book, is to read Americans herself–it makes up the bulk of her second essay. I was just happy that she mentioned Bridgman, and that she did so with such respect–she calls Bridgman’s book a “classic” study in her book version, while it didn’t have that status in the article in the New Yorker (from June 2005, which, oddly, happened to be lying around at the house where I was reading the book).

I say that this is Late Malcolm, because there’s an episode in the book that shows her own evolution. She sets up a driveby meeting with Leon Katz, which doesn’t happen, though it’s unclear why. And then Katz decides that he doesn’t want to meet with her or talk to her. Although she doesn’t mention it, perhaps Malcolm’s reputation precedes her. In her book Malcolm examines Katz’s motives, while at the same time wondering what there is to hide or protect, as the vast bulk of his original material is available in his unpublished dissertation, which has guided Stein scholars for years and which Malcolm has read. But Malcolm, perhaps doing penance for past transgressions, and possibly thankful that Katz won’t suddenly force his way into the foreground of her narrative as a character, decides that Katz’s reasons are good ones, and the insights and discoveries of his book should be his own, if and whenever it is published. To anyone studying the whole of Malcolm’s work, years from now, this might be a very telling twist. It’s both an easing of biographical desire (itself a compelling concept, ebbing and flowing aside), and perhaps a recognition of biographical time and a question of form, how the stories Malcom creates are partial portraits, cross-sections of a moment, while the larger biographical and literary whole–call it the atomic weight of any given author’s life and work–is refined and recalculated over time. Malcolm ends her narrative on a similar consideration, mentioning how Stein (now being read more carefully) is fondly remembered and has a brightening posterity, while Toklas will always be, it seems, her accompanying shade, dark and unlikeable.

And so Malcolm is fascinating, readable and complex as always, and I have her Sylvia Plath book with me to finish. I should note that I’ve left out the point and prompt of Malcolm’s book, which says something about the expansiveness of her narrative. Malcolm veils her reignition of her own Stein scholarship behind a simple background mystery: how did the Jewish lesbians Stein and Toklas manage to ride out World War 2 in the provinces of occupied France? It’s a great question, and Malcolm gets good answers from her coterie of Stein scholars, while she herself catches up with Stein’s work and the nuances of her relationship with Toklas. Malcolm probes methodically at Stein and Toklas’ complex dual identity, looking for the mysterious quotient of Jewishness and its 20th century meaning.

More to come, in another Stein installment, from shows in San Francisco.

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