Two Lives


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Gertrude and Alice

Janet Malcolm

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Winner of the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography: the story of the mystifying relationship between the brilliant and affable Gertrude Stein and her brooding companion, Alice B. Toklas

"Janet Malcolm deftly captures Alice B. Toklas's legendary 40-year partnership with the brilliant modernist Gertrude Stein in Two Lives, clearing up a few mysteries along the way—including how two Jewish women were able to survive World War II in their provincial French château with the help of a Vichy collaborator."—Vogue

"Shrewd, humane, and beautifully written."— John Gross, Wall Street Journal

"How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?” Janet Malcolm asks at the beginning of this extraordinary work of literary biography and investigative journalism. The pair, of course, is Gertrude Stein, the modernist master “whose charm was as conspicuous as her fatness” and “thin, plain, tense, sour” Alice B. Toklas, the “worker bee” who ministered to Stein’s needs throughout their forty-year expatriate “marriage.” As Malcolm pursues the truth of the couple’s charmed life in a village in Vichy France, her subject becomes the larger question of biographical truth. “The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties,” she writes. 

The portrait of the legendary couple that emerges from this work is unexpectedly charged. The two world wars Stein and Toklas  lived through together are paralleled by the private war that went on between them. This war, as Malcolm learned, sometimes flared into bitter combat.

Two Lives is also a work of literary criticism. “Even the most hermetic of [Stein’s] writings are works of submerged autobiography,” Malcolm writes. “The key of  'I' will not unlock the door to their meaning—you need a crowbar for that—but will sometimes admit you to a kind of anteroom of suggestion.” Whether unpacking the accessible Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Stein “solves the koan of autobiography,” or wrestling with The Making of Americans, a masterwork of “magisterial disorder,” Malcolm is stunningly perceptive.

Praise for the author:

“[Janet Malcolm] is among the most intellectually provocative of authors . . .able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight.”—David Lehman, Boston Globe

“Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography.”—Christopher Benfey

Janet Malcolm (1934-2021) was the author of The Journalistand the Murderer, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and Reading Chekhov, among other books. She frequently wrote for The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books.

Click here for an extended question & answer discussion with the author. 

Listen to Maureen Corrigan's recent review of Two Lives on NPR's Fresh Air.


Read the New York Times review of Two Lives, "Portrait of a Marriage." (Also selected as an 'Editors Choice' in the Times' Sunday Book Review.) 

Read extended reviews in The Wall Street Journal, and a feature Q&A with the author from The Boston Globe.

"Sharp criticism meets playful, absorbing biography in this study of Stein and Toklas."—"Editors' Choice," New York Times Book Review

"Sparks fly when Malcolm brings her psychological and literary expertise and strong ethical sense to bear on the work and lives of writers. In her latest smart and zesty bio-critical foray . . . she considers two easily caricatured yet little understood literary lights, Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas. . . . Precise and scintillating, Malcolm offers original and illuminating analysis of Stein's 'austerely impenetrable' work, particularly its 'submerged autobiography.' But the pièce de résistance is her divining of the true nature of the relationship between Stein, bright and warm, and Toklas, sour and 'repellent.' Neither the modern genius nor her jealous keeper will ever be seen again as simple cutouts."—Booklist


"If there is one top title from university presses for the fall, this is it; booksellers are excited by the combination of writer and subject."—Publishers Weekly (Big Books on Campus)

"In this startling study of Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, acclaimed journalist Malcolm puts their relationship in a new light, demonstrating that lives and biographies are not always self-evident. . . . Malcolm gets into more controversial territory in exploring Stein and Toklas’s stormy and complicated relationship—fraught with sadomasochistic emotional undercurrents—and their energetic sex life. But her real discovery is that Stein and Toklas—two elderly Jewish women—survived the German occupation of France because of their close friendship with the wealthy, anti-Semitic Frenchman Bernard Faÿ, a collaborator responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Freemasons. . . . Malcolm’s prose is a joy to read, and her passion for Stein’s writing and life is evident. This is a vital addition to Stein criticism as well as an important work that critiques the political responsibility of the artist (even a genius) to the larger world."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[A] fascinating portrait. . . . Part biography and part literary criticism. . . . [The] volume is hard to put down."—Entertainment Weekly

"A deliciously bitchy study of the modernist writer and her partner—and a disquieting biographical hit-and-run."—Charlotte Abbott, Advocate

"In Two Lives, author Janet Malcolm gives us a very personal warts-and-all look at two iconic characters. . . . Both Stein the woman and Stein the writer get a very different (and separate) treatment in Two Lives than I have seen in other works of fiction or drama. . . . Any reader with an interest in Stein and Toklas will find the going easy, infromative, and entertaining."—Hen Furtado, Echo

"[A] fascinating new study of Stein and Alice B. Toklas. . . . Through the drama of her own sentences, Malcolm transforms interludes of literary criticism into a page turner. There is in her prose the atmosphere of sleuthing. . . . Malcolm's writing in Two Lives is brilliant, penetrating and playful. There is in her cleverest, most arcane intellectual analysis a grace, a lightness of touch, that one rarely finds in a work of scholarship. . . . Here in this slender, elegant book is much wisdom, not only about Stein and Toklas and their peculiar ménage, but also about the creation of personal mythologies in general. If Two Lives has a weakness, it is that one wishes, at the end, for more."—Katie Roiphe, New York Times Book Review

"Two Lives contains all the elements of a Malcolm potboiler: tightly woven narratives that on her tugging unravel, thread by thread; the interests, conscious and unconscious, that undergird testimony; good and bad faith, the quiet acts of disloyalty and the loud accusations of betrayal. . . . We're given, in Malcolm's short, tightly written book, a view of Stein and Toklas that is nuanced if ambiguous and as messy as real life. . . . Malcolm lets the messy and fraught details of her story remain even as she expresses it with utter clarity."—Eric Banks, Bookforum

"[A] perceptive and very readable little book on this famous literary partnership—a union of voices and aesthetics, as much as it was a domestic partnership. . . . Malcolm's book . . . opens new doors to an understanding of [Stein's] writing and of the indispensable presence of Alice B. Toklas in its creation."—David Walton, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

"An elegant study of Gertrude Stein and her lover."—John Freeman, The Phoenix

"Janet Malcolm deftly captures Alice B. Toklas's legendary 40-year partnership with the brilliant modernist Gertrude Stein in Two Lives, clearing up a few mysteries along the way—including how two Jewish women were able to survive World War II in their provincial French château with the help of a Vichy collaborator."—Vogue (Books people are talking about)

"Ms. Malcolm's book is shrewd, humane, and beautifully written. She makes Stein's work seem more meaningful than most commentators do by bringing out its full psychological interest."—John Gross, Wall Street Journal

"Two Lives, one of Janet Malcolm's triumphs, displays a great journalist in top form. . . . Malcolm's readers . . . regard her prose as a model of clarity. We, too, may feel a sense of stunned admiration, as much for Malcolm's talent and industry as for Stein's frim, merciless attempts to produce masterpieces that would justify her life as a genius."—Robert Fulford, National Post

"[An] intriguing literary and biographical whodunit. . . . Malcolm takes no one, not Gertrude Stein or Alice B. Toklas, not the friends who knew them or the biographers who stalked them, not the current scholars who welcomed her among them, at his or her word. She accepts nothing as what it seems to be. She is a witty, hardboiled, gimlet-eyed gumshoe, picking up on every clue and turning it over and over until it yields half a dozen new questions. Make no mistake, the book is a page-turner."—Ellen Feldman, American Heritage

"The real service Malcolm has rendered here is this: She went to the trouble of reading all of Stein and Toklas's work (and much of what has been written about them) and has distilled the lot into just the essential incidents, distortions, omissions and inadvertent revelations that illuminate these two shadowed lives."—Charles Trueheart,

"Those who know Stein only by way of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, or even those who know absolutely nothing of her many poems, plays, vignettes, speeches and novels, will find Janet Malcolm's Two Lives hard to put down."—Christine Smallwood,

"In Two Lives, enchantment sets loose the dog in [Malcolm] that follows scents, whether or not they lead to buried bones. We trail her, rapt by the shaggy zigzags of her passions, by her ability to make drama out of her chained ruminations, her zest for language, her spiky self-scrutiny. Some of the best books, like the best stories, are impossible to plan and can only be seized in the telling. At seducing the reader to share her off-road adventures, Malcolm proves a genius."—Laurie Stone, Newsday

"Even if you don't like Gertrude Stein's writing—as it seems Ms. Malcolm herself doesn't, really—Two Lives offers a fascinating study of the sausage-factory conditions in which even the most compelling biographical legends are produced."—Adam Kirsch, New York Sun

'...Malcolm turns the biographer's impulse toward the biographers.  They become characters in the search for insight into Stein's life, and the prcoess of writing biography, of accumulating facts, is itself narrated like a story.  Malcolm's astonishing gift is largely the gift of the novelist.'  - International Herald Tribune

"[A] remarkable work. . . . Two Lives is the most intelligent sort of biography precisely because it doesn't claim to be a true biography, only an essay that inquires into biography."—Michael Kimmelman, New York Review of Books

'Malcolm's research into those murky war-time and post-war events reads like a great detective story...This short, cogently argued, wholly original book will irrevocably alter history's view of Stein and Toklas...'  - Tom Rosenthal, The Daily Mail

'The most touching parts of Malcolm's book are those in which she addresses a matter tactfully skirted round in standard short tours of Gertrude Stein - the unreadability of most of what she wrote, and certainly everything in her "modernist" mode.'  - Alexander Cockburn, The Sunday Times 'Culture'

'Malcolm's account of US Stein-criticism is fascinating.  By framing her version of Stein's life within the story of how she reached it, she humanises her subject and, in conveying the origin of her own fascination, she increases ours.  What she never does is simply give in and write anything approaching straight-forward biography.' - Matthew Dennison, The Times

'Janet Malcolm also has the gift of keeping her readers glued to the page, and she peppers a fascinating story with her insights into biographical form.'  - Frances Wilson, Sunday Telegraph

'Almost everything Malcolm writes, though, germinates in the reader's mind.  Her stimulating book will also save anyone hereafter from feeling they ought to read The Making of Americans, of which it supplies a vivid, respectful and utterly off-putting account.'  - Jeremy Treglown, The Spectator

"A literary thriller. . . . Malcolm, it turns out, can be as tart and amusing as Stein."—Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune

"Two Lives is . . . deeply engaging."—Cathleen McGuigan, Newsweek

Listed as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by the New York Times Book Review

"Malcolm, with her inquisitive mind and effortless prose, is, as always, a pleasure to read."—Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today

"Janet Malcolm's little book about writer Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, folds together dishy biography, refreshingly blunt criticism of Stein's work plus intriguing journalistic forays into the insular world of Stein scholarship. It's hard to know how to classify Two Lives, but a gem is a gem is a gem."—Entertainment Weekly (Best Books of 2007)

"I ended feeling that Malcolm's brief, complex, contradictory, and multi-layered anti-narrative narrative had, magically, brought her subjects to life."—Carlo Gebler, The Irish Times

"Two Lives is a fierce little book that does its subjects no favours, except perhaps to rescue their reputations from idolatry—cute, cozy or camp. Janet Malcolm renders anything such as that impossible in prose as riveting as it is careful, icily elegant and free of cant."—David Livingstone, Toronto Globe and Mail

"Two Lives is eminently readable in its gentle rambling, and its patchwork portrait of Stein and Toklas, and the legacy of Stein's work, is as enjoyable as it is well researched."—Brian Jewell, Bay Windows

“Janet Malcolm is a crusading writer and a consummately elegant one. “—Richard Eder, Boston Globe

“Even as Malcolm reports—drolly—on the intrigue-filled world of Stein-Toklas scholarship, . . . she also provides a canny assessment of Stein’s personality and achievement, the relationship with Toklas, and a telling if melancholy parable of the biographer’s art.”—Terry Castle, London Review of Books

"The book is an excellent example of literary reportage by an author who knows that the pursuit of truth requires a writer to be constantly suspicious of it."—Time Out (The Best of 2007)

"Anyone interested in Gertrude Stein—and anyone who wants to know more about her writing—will appreciate this useful, interesting book. . . . This book serves not only as an introduction to Stein's work but also as a guide to its more challenging aspects. Highly recommended."—Choice

"Two Lives discloses a great deal about its subjects in a remarkably compact space, and does so via a lovely sort of Steinian circumlocution. . . . Splendidly entertaining and informative."—Robert Leiter, Jewish Exponent

"By far the best book I read in 2009 ws Janet Malcolm's Two Lives. Like everything else Malcolm has written, her account of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas's marriage, or whatever you want to call it, and the effect that relationship had on Stein's work, is a masterpiece of emotional and intellectual precision."—Ariel Levy, "The Book Bench Blog," The New Yorker ("What We Read This Year")

Praise for Janet Malcolm
“There is more intellectual excitement in one of Malcolm's riffs than in many a thick academic tome. . . . She is among the most intellectually provocative of authors, . . . able to turn epiphanies of perception into explosions of insight.”—David Lehman, Boston Globe

“Not since Virginia Woolf has anyone thought so trenchantly about the strange art of biography.”—Christopher Benfey, Newsday

"Janet Malcolm is the most morally illuminating literary journalist in the country."—Jeffrey Rosen, Slate

'No other writer tells better stories about the perpetual, the unwinnable, battle between narrative and truth."—Margaret Talbot, New York Times Book Review

Listed as #5 on the Editors' top 10 list in Biography and #4 in Gay & Lesbian for 2007 by

Named one of the 100 Notable Book of 2007 by The New York Times Book Review

Listed as one of the 2007 Biography 'Books We Liked Best' by the Christian Science Monitor

Selected as a Best Book of 2007 by Entertainment Weekly

A 2007 Top Seller in Literature as compiled by YBP Library Services

Fiualist for the Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction, presented by the Publishing Triangle.

Finalist for the 20th Annual Lambda Literary Awards in the category of Women's Memoir/Biography, given by the Lambda Literary Foundation.

Winner of the 2008 Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction, presented by the Publishing Triangle.

Winner of the 2008 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography.

Selected as a 2008 AAUP University Press Book for Public and Secondary School Libraries.
ISBN: 9780300125511
Publication Date: September 27, 2007
240 pages, 5 1/4 x 7 3/4
12 b/w illus.

Sales Restrictions: Not for sale in Australia and New Zealand
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