Saturday 23 January 2016

Exactly what turns me towards Two Lives on a sullen day in January is as unknowable as humans will always be, however prolix our musing. The lives are those of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, weighed half a century later by Janet Malcolm in their complicated voices, their bad and unforgivable behaviours, with attendant Gertrude obsessives and Alice sympathisers all tight in their chairs, holding onto their manuscripts before the memory of large, warm-faced, egomaniacal Gertrude.

There is, as Janet Malcolm observes, no Gertrude Stein school of writers. She may not have a school, (whew), but many have passed through, often without finishing the book, and come out altered. In Everybody's Autobiography, the book that followed the much more popular Autobiography of Alice B Toklas, 'she reverts to her old way of writing as if the reader were an uninvited guest arriving on the wrong night at a dark house'. To make your way through The Making of Americans, all close-spaced 900 pages of it, by cutting it up into sections with a kitchen knife, as Janet Malcolm did, is the behaviour of an assailant, not a guest, invited or otherwise.

I have always liked writing that repels. My years with Mallarmé attest to this. You look at this language and you almost have to fight it off even as you press on, but you don't forget it. And one day you go back for another look. Gertrude Stein always repays another look, however short, she overwhelms in minutes. Alice Toklas over there, hiding in her chair. The soft, irregularly cut pages of this Yale University Press edition hold giant egos and suppressed rage tenderly.

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