Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Janet Malcolm, _Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice_

This, apparently, is my 100th post. I've been doing this about two years -- so that averages about once a week. Not bad, I guess.

This is the fourth book of Malcolm's I've read, I think, and while it doesn't supplant The Silent Woman as my favorite of hers, I gulped it down quickly and delightedly a couple of months ago.
It examines several aspects of the Stein-Toklas partnership, but is especially interested in (1) how two American Jewish lesbians managed to survive in Nazi-occupied France (an old friendship with an unusually slimy collaborateur helped), (2) how the genesis of the first Steinian masterpiece, The Making of Americans, intertwines with the inception of Stein's relationship with Toklas, and (3) how Stein fared after WW II, and Toklas after Stein's death.

Malcolm remains a master of the old Lillian Ross strategy of letting her interview subjects ramble on long enough to reveal themselves as nakedly as any Browning monologuist. As in The Silent Woman, In the Freud Archives, and The Purloined Clinic, she gets the leading scholars and researchers of the field to perform more entertainingly than most fictional characters. On stage in this book are the magnificently-named Ulla Dydo, who solved a key textual puzzle of Stanzas in Meditation during one of her dreams, and Leon Katz, privy to extraordinary revelations in a series of interviews with Toklas while he was but a Columbia doctoral in the 1950s, revelations which he has by and large kept to himself for the fifty-some years since.

Neither Dydo nor Katz lets it all hang out quite so completely as Jeffrey Moussaleff Masson did in Freud Archives or Olwyn Hughes in Silent Woman, but one is left wondering, why does anyone ever consent to be interviewed by Janet Malcolm, knowing one is bound to end up trussed on a silver platter with an apple in one's mouth, done to a turn?

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