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Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice

3.6  ·  Rating Details ·  545 Ratings  ·  121 Reviews
"How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?" Janet Malcolm asks at the beginning of this extraordinary work of literary biography, criticism, and investigative journalism. The pair, of course, is modernist master Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, the "worker bee" who ministered to Stein's needs throughout their forty-year expatriate "marriage." As Ma ...more
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published September 27th 2007 by Yale University Press (first published January 1st 2007)
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Sketchbook
Aug 23, 2016 Sketchbook rated it did not like it
Janet Malcolm craves attention. She landed herself and the NYer in a zilly dollar lawsuit some years ago. Now, she's at it again -- throwing stones at Gertie & Alice for daring to survive W2 Occupation in France. They didnt blow farts and scream obscenities at the enemy in Vichy; they had the temerity to stay civilized. Super writer Tom Junod once said of Mme, "She's full of shit." So are her pals high in publishing ozones.
Jenny McPhee
Mar 07, 2012 Jenny McPhee rated it it was amazing
If things truly come in waves, we seem to be riding a Gertrude Stein tsunami. Recent Stein events and books include:

-- "The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde" (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, February 28-June 2). This extraordinary show presents paintings collected in the early twentieth century by Gertrude Stein, her brothers Leo and Michael, and Michael's wife Sarah and displayed at their weekly salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. Visually demonstrating the family's signif
...more
Peggy
Dec 21, 2014 Peggy rated it really liked it
Malcolm investigates the lives of Stein and Toklas and discusses some of Stein's impenetrable writing. Stein remains a significant, even legendary literary figure associated with the rise of modernism in art and literature. The mystery in my mind has always been--why? Malcolm describes her as a sexy, happy, self-proclaimed genius who naturally attracts followers. Stein learned early on that she was not creative, meaning that she could not create characters or conversations for the literature she ...more
Justin Evans
Apr 03, 2016 Justin Evans rated it liked it
I was really enjoying this when I started: I was hungover, I wanted to learn about Stein, and Malcolm can write sentences that sometimes rise above (or fall below, either way) the usual New York journalism. It was exactly what I wanted: three essays, one about Stein and Toklas in occupied France, one about Stein's work and academic criticism of it, and then one about Toklas' life. Also: super short, and really nicely designed.

Having finished it, though, I see that had I not been hung over, I wo
...more
Sara
Aug 01, 2009 Sara rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: literary gossip types, Francophile Americans, those puzzled by Gertrude Stein's actual writing
Exactly how DID two rather prominent Jewish lesbians manage to lead a rather idyllic French country life in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France? This is the question Malcolm starts with in her attempt to get a foothold in the much-chronicled, much more hinted and insinuated life of Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B Toklas.

Full disclosure: I spent my adolescence reading gossipy accounts of Gertrude Stein's involvement with William James, with Hemingway, with Picasso, with the Shakes
...more
Stephanie
Feb 11, 2009 Stephanie rated it it was amazing
I returned this to the library before I could properly quote from the way Malcolm sort of unravels, against her will, especially in her reading of Making of the Americans. It may be true she has no 'intuition' towards Stein (something Malcolm loves to admit, endlessly comparing herself - negatively - to Ulla Dydo, I think she even sets up a metaphor somewhere of Dydo as the foodie of Stein criticism and Malcolm as the eater of hamburgers and french fries, I wish she'd have said 'hamburger helper ...more
James
Dec 12, 2010 James rated it it was amazing
Normally, a book about 2 dead lesbians would be the last thing I'd want to read.
But after the Journalist and the Murderer,
I developed a liking for Malcolm's style of writing.

Colorful metaphors, snappy one liners, a little psychological insight.

This book isn't as good as the other one but is still very enjoyable,
and confirms an insight as to the nature of the author.

Janet is basically a quidnunc who loves to expose the foibles of others.

Taking a cue from Stein, who's "autobiography" of Alice
...more
Anna
Dec 04, 2012 Anna rated it liked it
I was a bit 'meh' about the gossipy parts of this book - sometimes the colour of 1920s Paris can come off a bit "Henry and June" for me.

The part that really shone was the analysis of The Making of Americans - Malcolm's documentation of her struggle to read it, and when she finally did, what it revealed, rejuvenated my fascination with Stein and her style all over again.

Which doesn't mean that I'll read it, mind. Books that large are only used for squishing spiders at my place.

Also, Malcolm's c
...more
Kp
Aug 14, 2009 Kp rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoir
I just picked this up in a pile of books at the Russian River vacation cause I'm a little fascinated by Gertrude and Alice B. Toklas... or maybe just the idea of the brownies made me think they must be cool. Oh, and having read The Book of Salt that was tangentially about them, I was interested. Learning about them was interesting, but the book didn't thrill me. Gertrude Stein is a famous writer, however most of the books she wrote, according to the author, are completely unreadable, even by the ...more
poingu
Jun 09, 2015 poingu rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction, history
Janet Malcolm begins with this question: How did two elderly Jewish lesbians survive the Nazis? and then takes us on her journey of investigative journalism that leads her, and us, to ever more unexpected places. The book never really answers the question with which it begins. Instead the book becomes a loving meditation on the nature of how we remember other people. Malcolm explores how our understanding of even those we love most, and know best, is distorted by the limitations of language itse ...more
Sarah B.
Although this is a very well-written book, I found it dry. Malcolm has done a wonderful job piecing together the evidence to form the narrative of Stein and Toklas' lives. I loved the story of how Stein defaced her poem Stanzas by crossing out every instance of the word "may" and replacing them all with "can", even when the change made nonsense of the sentences, because she was erasing any allusion to May Bookstaver in order to appease Toklas's jealousy. But, in the end, if Stein was a warm pers ...more
Amanda
This is not the book I had understood it to be, which is my fault. This is purely an academic work, and if you're not familiar with Stein's writing, then you will be at a loss. I also have to say I don't really care much for the style of the author of this book. It's more about name dropping. There's focus on her subjects in there, but she's much more interested in the historiography of the subjects than her subjects themselves.

What is good is that it's not necessarily about Toklas & Stein's
...more
Hermien
May 15, 2016 Hermien rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was informative and entertaining. Having said that, I may read The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, but doubt if I will try any of Gertrude's other works any time soon!
Mark Victor Young
Mar 15, 2016 Mark Victor Young rated it really liked it
Great little bio and appreciation of Gertrude and Alice's life together. Part literary analysis, part history, and part meta-history, as the author delves into her meetings and relationship with some of the Stein experts she consulted on the content. Really well done.
Joanna
Sep 11, 2012 Joanna rated it did not like it
I think I am not a big enough Stein fan to have appreciated this book. Where I expected Holocaust literature. I instead found literature literature. Not a bad thing. but not my thing.
Megan
Jan 18, 2017 Megan rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book, read it in one day. Malcolm's approach is both thorough and chatty. I was glad to gain insight into how, as she asks, two Jewish lesbians survived the war. By the end of the book it wasn't so clear to me, though, why these two women chose to be together for forty years. OK, everyone loved Gertrude, and thought Alice was a pill. But what did they see in each other? Gertrude was lovable, and loved Alice because she took care of her? As I finished the book, and was turni ...more
Tommie
Oct 31, 2016 Tommie rated it liked it
Shelves: france
The middle essay of this book was for me the most intriguing. Malcolm and her Greek chorus of Stein scholars and the hunt for tidbits of Toklas locked away, or maybe not, in the head of a fifth man offstage. It is essentially the plot of the first part of Bolano's 2666, but with less sex.

Overall the book is interesting. The first part tackling how did two Jewish American lesbians manage to just chill out in France during WW2, the middle with the scholars, and the last on Jewish identity and fam
...more
Calvina
Sep 29, 2016 Calvina rated it it was ok
Shelves: own
I came by this completely randomly in Spoonbill & Sugartown in Brooklyn, and picked it up because it was a NYT Book Review notable book of 2007. The book is very readable, smooth writing and short interesting segments. But I wish I had known it's not a coherent book but rather three separate longreads, and that the awesome and compelling question on the back ("How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?") never comes close to being answered in a satisfactory way. The firs ...more
Gina
Nov 05, 2007 Gina rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Lovers of Lit and WW II History
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas have always fascinated me. They probably excite most people's curiosity on some level since their commitment to each other in a "gay marriage" in the early part of the 20th C. was daring to say the least especially since they also were Jewish: two reasons the Nazis should have carried them off posthaste.

Having read a long biography of the pair in my undergraduate years, I learned how genuinely inevitable the lifestyle is for those born into it. In Countee Cul
...more
Brendan
Sep 29, 2007 Brendan rated it liked it
Contra Ron Silliman, who wondered here on goodreads "why biographers choose to write about an artist for whom they have neither interest nor intuition," I liked Janet Malcolm's new book, a short meditation on the lives of Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas. It should be noted, however, that Malcolm is not a biographer. Her mission strikes me as more personal, more idiosyncratic and essayistic, at times more journalistic. This may put off some readers -- just don't mistake Two Lives for a biogr ...more
Kevin Hoag
Sep 19, 2016 Kevin Hoag rated it really liked it
A short book, and very easy to read. It was not a detailed or systematic walk through their lives, but captured various stories, anecdotes and memories, several of which were new to me (admittedly I'm not a Gertrude Stein scholar).
Sue
Sep 19, 2016 Sue rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this little, beautifully-wrought book, Janet Malcolm brings the reader into the heart of the enigmatic, complex emotional relationship between two remarkable women. Fascinating.
Kenny
May 08, 2013 Kenny rated it liked it
Shelves: biography
I labored over the first half, and then breezed through the last half, even though it's a relatively short book, given the subject matter. I knew I wanted to read this book due to a confluence of reasons - Janet Malcolm is a bright light in high-brow literary nonfiction (I had already bailed on an attempt at her Psychoanalysis book); there seemed to be a Gertrude Stein resurgence with an exhibit at the Yale Beinecke of Stein paraphernalia, and this year I read The Book of Salt by Monique Truong, ...more
Kallie
May 30, 2016 Kallie rated it really liked it
Again, Malcolm demythologizes without denigrating. Her research brings Gertrude and Alice alive, freeing them from their image as eccentric, literary royalty. Malcolm shows that life was much more complicated and confusing and capricious with Stein and Toklas, as for most of us. I suppose that Stein acolytes will feel that this work diminishes their heroine, but to me she just seems more human now and Malcolm's sympathetic view of her life and admiration for her work are obvious. Yes, she report ...more
Ruth
Jan 07, 2008 Ruth rated it liked it
Fascinating and odd exploration of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas alongside an exploration of the "uncertain" and "unreliable" act of writing biography. This book has lots of levels as Malcolm sifts through Stein's (mostly) and Toklas' writing, a good deal of writing and interview info by Stein scholars burrowing into a couple driving questions: how did these 2 Jewish lesbians avoid Nazis while living in Vichy France and what else can we learn about the inner dynamics of their relationship?

I fe
...more
CS Barron
Jul 18, 2016 CS Barron rated it it was ok
A meandering account of these two prominent people. The book opens with Stein and Toklas already an established couple, finding a house in southern France together. Halfway through the book I was still asking myself, how did they meet? what was their relationship like? Eventually the author gets around to telling you...a little. Their personalities, their relationship, Stein's instinct for 20th century modernism, their friendships with great artists of their time, Stein's fabulous art collection ...more
Dorian
Dec 25, 2007 Dorian rated it it was amazing
After reading a wonderful review of this book by Terry Castle in the London Review of Books, I made sure to find this at my local library. Brought it home, sat down with it that same evening, and finished it several hours later. (It's quite short; much of it printed in the New Yorker a few years ago.)

Malcolm has long been a favourite of mine--her psychoanalytically-inflected close biographical and textual readings are a model of intelligent, restrained, elegant non-academic criticism.

Castle su
...more
Nancy
Mar 06, 2008 Nancy rated it really liked it
Malcolm takes Stein scholarship/biography a step further in untangling truth from fiction and reticence. She questions Stein and Toklas' decision to remain in France through WWII when they were both warned of the dangers, and given offers of help in escaping, and looks at how they made it through the war as Jewish lesbians with the help both of friendly villagers, but more so the protection of a major Nazi collaborator who was responsible for sending some thousands to their deaths in concentrati ...more
Kevin
Jul 25, 2013 Kevin rated it it was ok
To note the perversity of choosing to tell the story of Gertrude Stein’s and Alice B. Toklas’ relationship by asking how two Jewish Americans avoided exposure to the Nazi’s in Occupied France is not a criticism in itself as long as something interesting is the result. Malcolm stages each detail she relates as if she were plotting a detective novel where a narrative of the discovery will be important to the solution, but unfortunately for the reader, the clues never provide even contingent answer ...more
Kristen
May 13, 2009 Kristen rated it it was ok
Shelves: feminism
Snore. Wow. What a disappointment. I had high hopes from this short book that chronicles the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. They are such interesting figures from a literary and feminist perspective. Given that they considered their relationship a "marriage" yet never identified as lesbian, they seem to understand fluid sexuality well before their time. I read the book hoping to garner some sort of perspective into female friendship, feminist struggles, sexuality. But, rea ...more
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Janet Malcolm is a journalist, biographer, collagist, and staff writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of In the Freud Archives and The Crime of Sheila McGough , as well as biographies of Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath, and Anton Chekhov.

The Modern Library chose her controversial book The Journalist and the Murderer — with its infamous first line — as one of the 100 best non-fiction
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