I’ve been reading Janet Malcolm’s short study, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. The larger theme is the impossibility of biography. How can we really know about a person’s life, regardless of how well documented it might be? Much less, how can we interpret intertwined lives, like that of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas or any long-term couple?
“Whew! A biographer is a devil,” says the young genius Edwin Mullhouse in Steven Milhauser’s great creep-fest of a novel, getting quite to the heart of it.
But still…. Malcolm asks, how is that Stein and Toklas, two American Jewish lesbians, survived Vichy France? Two who – Malcolm doesn’t make as much of this – were so intimately tied with modern art, that “decadent” bete noire of the Nazis. In Vichy, though, they had a protector: Bernard Fay, a French Catholic fascist anti-Semite most commentators seem to agree was a disgusting human being. Gertrude and Alice, on the other hand, doted on him, and vice-versa. He was responsible, via his Vichy office and Gestapo boyfriend, of having nearly 600 Freemasons murdered. After the war, he was tried and sentenced for war-crimes. Widow Toklas (Stein died in ’46) helped him escape from jail in ’51 (she put up the money by selling some of Stein’s paintings), along with the Catholic Church, which helped many Nazis and other fascists escape from justice through the Vatican’s “ratlines.” (As the plague of priest/child-molesters showed, the Church fathers look to their own above all else.) Malcolm and her Stein-scholar peanut gallery believe that Stein and Toklas didn’t know about Fay’s true role, although they couldn’t have escaped knowledge of the man’s anti-Semitism. Stein, a reactionary admirer of Franco and hater of Roosevelt, never discussed what was happening to other Jews around her in France. Indeed, both she and Toklas shied away from any mention of their own Jewishness, Toklas to her dying day in ’67 (when she converted to Catholicism, dottily believing it would get her reconnected to Gertrude in heaven). Poor Alice, though (the domestic drudge of a Snacho Panza to the monstrously egotistical, but everybody agrees much warmer, Gertrude, self-proclaimed genius of La Mancha, although Alice wore the pants in the bedroom) cheated of all Stein’s paintings by some shit of a relative, thrown out of her apartment, poor as a... uh, church mouse at the end.
In a strange way, I was reminded of Paul de Mann, the Dutch anti-Semite journalist who rose to fame in the American academy with his trendy absolution of the author; such a convenient theory, to argue that language is so indeterminately slippery that its writer really has no control of its meanings. The willful obscurantism of Stein’s writings, its notorious impenetrability, the way certain hermeneutic acolytes praise it as the height of modernity… doesn’t the artfully dodging of it all suggest something? What is hidden in the logorrhea? How different from Orwell’s call for good, clear, cliché-free prose as the antidote to the language of totalitarianism (and it’s idiot child, advertising). Out of the towers of gibberish, professors!
Orwell, referring to that nasty old bastard Ezra Pound, also noted: “One has a right to expect ordinary decency even of a poet.”