Either we've done something to annoy the publicity department at Yale University Press or they're not big on sending out review copies, because Janet Malcolm's Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, published last month, never showed up in the mail. The other night I saw it on the front table at a bookstore and bought it, because the second I saw it the only thing I wanted was to take it home and read it. I read most of it in my living room but toward the end, feeling restless, I took it to a bar. A stranger leaned over and asked what it was.
It happened to be underwear night at this particular bar, but he was clothed. I told him it was a book about Gertrude Stein.
"Gertrude Stein. Gertrude Stein," he said. "Was she a feminist?"
A friend of his leaned in and said, "Gertrude Stein? Uh, yes, she was a feminist. She wrote A Room of One's Own." He knew this, he boasted, because he had been an English major.
Well, whatever, they both knew about Gertrude Stein somehow—they'd heard of her, they'd read something, hadn't they? They couldn't remember. Definitely knew the name. It's funny that Stein is, in posterity, famous for being famous; even lots of people who know she was a writer can't name something she wrote. Malcolm's book adds dimension to the there-was-just-something-about-her phenomenon. Stein comes across, in photos, not unlike a cow, but Hemingway "always wanted to fuck her," according to a letter Malcolm digs up (she counters that this is "the sort of macho showing off one expects of him and only half believes"), and as Malcolm writes: "She seemed to shine when she walked into a room, and the work, even at its most hermetic, possesses a glitter that keeps one reading long past the time when it is normal to stop reading a text that makes no sense."
This shine, this special something, is related to the mystery of how Stein and her girlfriend, Alice B. Toklas, two aging Jewish lesbians living in France, survived the Nazis—a friend of theirs was a bad guy, "one of the very worst guys," Malcolm writes—which is the focus of the first section of the book. In the second section, Malcolm reads (and reports back on, since almost no one has read it, including academics) Stein's The Making of Americans. "I finally solved the problem of the book's weight and bulk," Malcolm writes, "by taking a kitchen knife and cutting it into six sections."