Husbands and Wives

Terry Castle

  • Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore edited by Louise Downie
    Tate Gallery, 240 pp, £25.00, June 2006, ISBN 1 59711 025 6
  • Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice by Janet Malcolm
    Yale, 229 pp, £16.99, October 2007, ISBN 978 0 300 12551 1

First, a somewhat spittle-laden squawk: how one positively slavers for a good biography of the astonishing French artist known as Claude Cahun (1894-1954). Mention her in conversation and you are likely to draw a puzzled ‘Claude who?’ even from otherwise predatory culture vultures. In my own case – it’s true – certain vile French diphthongs may be part of the problem: the phonetic distinctions between Cahun, Caen, Caïn, Cannes, Cohn, canne, cane, cagne, camp, cône and con remain, sadly, a perpetual trial. Yet it’s also undeniable: though one of the most extraordinary personalities associated with both the French Surrealist movement and the Resistance, Cahun is still scarcely known to an English-speaking public.

Which isn’t to say she has languished in utter obscurity. In the baleful little world of academic ‘gender studies’ (strap-ons and piercings strongly advised) the cross-dressing Cahun has been a cult heroine for a decade or two. Nor is it difficult to see why. She was an inventive and fearless early practitioner of set-up photography: the self-conscious ‘staging’ of images in order to produce a theatrical or conceptual effect. And as with many other set-up specialists, Cahun was her own favourite subject. Though it’s hard to say if she knew the work of either, two of her most notorious precursors in this regard were the Countess of Castiglione (1837-99), a wealthy and eccentric Franco-Italian narcissist who hired a studio photographer to take scores of secret pictures of her in bizarre poses and costumes, and the Stieglitz associate F. ‘Fred’ Holland Day, whose semi-nude impersonation of Jesus Christ on the Cross – at once gauzy, grisly and homoerotic – provoked a scandal when he exhibited the photographs in 1898. The most prominent practitioner of the style in recent years has been the rubber-visaged, now slightly shopworn Cindy Sherman – known particularly for the gender-bending self-portraits she made in the 1970s and 1980s.

Something about the genre seems to invite sexual self-mystification, but Cahun’s photographic experiments are truly extraordinary. In a discomfiting series of self-portraits rediscovered in the 1980s – most of them apparently produced in the 1920s and 1930s with the assistance of Marcel Moore, the lesbian companion with whom she lived as a recluse on the island of Jersey between 1937 and 1954 – the wildly androgynous artist can be seen vamping it up in a boggling array of cross-sex get-ups. Long before dyke-daddy chic Cahun and Moore were mounting an ongoing private drag show with Cahun in all the starring parts.

Claude Cahun, self-portrait, c.1920
Claude Cahun, self-portrait, c.1920

Coinciding as it did with the (brief) heyday of ‘queer theory’, the reappearance of Cahun’s work in the late 1980s and 1990s provoked a fair amount of endgame academic twaddle of the gobstopper variety. Cahun’s disjunctive corporeal self-iterations interrogate heteronormativy and gender binaries in order to demonstrate that performativity is the discursive mode by which ontological effects are installed and that the substantive appearance of gender is always already constructed by those hegemonic forces policing the social appearance of the subject. Exactly! Had Claude Cahun not existed, Man – or a Gender Theorist – would have had to invent her.

Something more is needed now: some real homage. The images remain: freakish, unsettling, impossible to ignore – Scenes from a Funhouse Mirror. In one photo the mercurial Cahun impersonates a bald semi-human creature with a conical skull; in another, a crew-cut blond Narcissus floating naked in a Jersey rock pool. Elsewhere she’s a Jazz Age aviator in cravat and huge round goggles; a hairless albino with two heads; a dapper Baron de Charlus-style boulevardier; a shiny and querulous-looking Buddha. Not all the pictures show her, it should be noted, in cross-sex or hermaphroditic guise: in three outdoor photographs, she is seen from above, supine on a beach mat, wearing what appears to be a standard 1920s ladies bathing costume. She has contorted her arms and legs as if to imitate the letters of the alphabet. It’s like Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday redone by the Soviet Constructivists.

One is almost tempted to say Cahun looks stranger as a woman than she does as a man. In one campy picture from 1938 she glowers in the watery Jersey sunlight: a hatchet-faced paysanne bretonne in traditional costume and absurd towering headdress. In another, she’s a mincing Elle from Barbe-bleu. In the image reproduced on the cover of Don’t Kiss Me, the recent Tate catalogue of Cahun photographs owned by the Jersey Heritage Trust, she sports a white leotard and boxing shorts – comically accessorised with cattle-rustler kerchief, wrist-guards and Betty Boop lipstick. Crudely printed across her chest, graffiti-style, are the gnomic words ‘I Am in Training Don’t Kiss Me’ and a pair of pouty lips. Cahun never breaks role or smiles; the effect is at once fey, deadpan and disturbing.

At the time of their rediscovery the Cahun photographs – so droll yet so peculiar – seemed to have come out of nowhere and even now they retain a dateless, uncanny, hermetic quality. Many appear to have been taken inside La Rocquaise – the large and dilapidated Jersey house Cahun and Moore shared – or else on a nearby rock-strewn beach. Apart from the occasional tabby cat – intrigued enough by his eccentric owners to enter the picture-space – other living creatures seldom appear in them. Sometimes Cahun wears masks or poses with ramshackle homemade props: in one photo from 1939 she stands in a doorway next to what looks like a life-sized dress mannequin. Both are draped in hieratic black robes; the dummy has a papier-mâché mask for a face and a Duchampian mop-head for hair.

Why – or how – Cahun and her companion made these images remains mysterious. The two women were long-time artistic collaborators. Even more: their 45-year relationship bordered, literally, on the incestuous. Cahun, whose real name was Lucy Schwob, was from a prominent Jewish newspaper family in Nantes and the niece of the celebrated Belle Epoque writer Marcel Schwob, dissipated friend to Valéry, Wilde and Colette. (Ah, the digressive pleasures of Wikipedia: Marcel’s death in 1905, according to H. Montgomery Hyde in The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name, resulted from ‘a syphilitic tumour in the rectum, resulting from his relations with a youth’.) During the Dreyfus Affair Lucy Schwob was sent off to a girls’ school in England, where she learned English and became a lifelong anglophile. She returned home two years later to attend the lycée in Nantes. There, in 1909, she met Suzanne Malherbe, daughter of a prosperous doctor, who shared her passion for art and literature. At some point the two girls fell in love. By 1914 they had begun to publish drawings and articles together in the local press – Schwob under the pseudonym Claude Courlis (later to become Cahun, the surname of her paternal grand-uncle) and Malherbe under the name Marcel Moore.

In 1917, when both women were in their early twenties, Schwob’s divorced father married Malherbe’s widowed mother, making ‘Cahun’ and ‘Moore’ stepsisters. To the horror of the parental newlyweds their amorous children subsequently eloped: first to a flat in Nantes, then to Paris, where Cahun enrolled in the Sorbonne and cultivated an ever more eccentric appearance. She had cut her hair off before leaving Nantes – and I mean really cut it off. In some of the first photo portraits – presumably made with Moore in the 1910s and early 1920s – she is nearly bald. Uncaptioned or seen out of context, the pictures seem to come, ominously, from a different time altogether: Cahun has the grotesque look of the camp survivor or one of those hapless French female collaborators who had their heads shaved in public by vengeful neighbours after the Liberation. Not for her a merely fashionable bob à la garçonne: this was something far more radical and strange.

Cahun and Moore struck up a friendship with Adrienne Monnier – partner of Sylvia Beach and owner of the famous Montparnasse bookshop Maison des amis des livres – and became fixtures in avant-garde circles. They helped to found the Union des Amis des Arts Esotériques, an experimental theatre troupe; Cahun performed in several of its productions. Some of the best-known Cahun photos date from the Paris period: the ‘Don’t Kiss Me’ image, for example, and the portrait of Cahun as Elle in Barbe-bleu, a play mounted by the Union des Amis. Yet Cahun longed also for literary recognition. In 1925 she published Héroines, a set of imaginary Ovidian monologues spoken by famous women in history and literature, and in 1930 collaborated with Moore on an exquisite (and now extraordinarily rare) book of poetry and photomontage, Aveux non avenus (or ‘Voided Avowals’). The single copy of the latter currently for sale on the internet – O how one yearns to clutch it in one’s little postmodern paws – is going for more than £5000.

Lasting success, however, proved elusive. In the early 1930s Cahun and Moore became involved in left-wing politics and joined the Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires, a radical group in which André Breton was active. When Breton subsequently broke with the AEAR in 1933 – he had become disenchanted with the openly Communist direction the group was taking – they followed suit and threw in their lot with the Surrealists. Both became members of Breton’s new organisation, Contre-Attaque: Union de Lutte des Intellectuels Révolutionnaires, and in 1934 Cahun published Les Paris sont ouverts, a passionate defence of artistic freedom. Yet with the deteriorating political situation across Europe such gestures came to seem increasingly pointless. In 1937 Cahun and Moore retreated permanently to Jersey, where they had previously spent holidays. It was a decisive break: though they continued to make photographs they seemed to lose interest in showing or publicising their work and cut ties with friends and associates in Paris (with a few exceptions such as Henri Michaux). To the taciturn islanders they were simply a pair of middle-aged spinster ‘sisters’, living in somewhat eccentric seclusion above the beach at La Rocquaise – the long-derelict house next door to St Brelade’s church and the island’s rocky and windswept cemetery.

Yet the most dramatic – indeed terrifying – phase of the couple’s life together was about to begin. With the German invasion and occupation of the Channel Islands in July 1940 Cahun and Moore faced a dilemma: whether to evacuate to England, return to Paris as discreetly as possible, or remain where they were and hope for the best. Though hardly religious, both women realised that Cahun’s Jewishness put them in grave danger. Other Jews had fled the Channel Islands in advance of the German landing. Astoundingly enough, the two women decided to remain and devote themselves, in some ad hoc fashion, to Resistance work. Eschewing violence yet full of loathing for the Nazi occupiers, they were determined to remake themselves – as one of their German captors would later remark – as francs-tireurs of the ‘spiritual kind’.

In October 1940 Cahun quietly ignored an order that all Jewish residents on Jersey register with the German Kommandatur. Over the succeeding months, convinced that most of the young German soldiers they met were not Nazis and could be persuaded to rebel against their officers, she and Moore began a DIY subversion campaign of quite startling temerity and panache. Moore knew German well enough to write it almost like a native speaker, so the two women began producing hundreds of clandestine broadsheets, handwritten or typed in German, purportedly by an anti-Nazi German officer – ‘der Soldat ohne Namen’ – stationed on the island. The ‘anonymous officer’ passed on Allied news and propaganda – Cahun and Moore had a contraband radio and surreptitiously transcribed BBC broadcasts – and exhorted his fellow soldiers to mutiny. Cahun and Moore then left these subversive ‘newspapers’ all over the island, in cafés, shops, unoccupied German staff cars – wherever the opportunity presented itself. Many missives were secreted in cigarette packets; others placed in the coat pockets of unsuspecting soldiers in St Helier.

Incredible as such activities may seem – the two women also regularly smuggled bundles of food to the Eastern European slave workers in a Nazi camp – the couple’s sex, age, reclusiveness and lack of close acquaintance on the island made it possible for them to operate without eliciting suspicion. They took alarming chances nonetheless: on one occasion they dropped ‘newspapers’ into the cars of German officers attending the funeral of a comrade in the cemetery next to their house; on another, in a gesture oddly reminiscent of some of their quasi-Dadaist exploits of the 1920s, they propped on one of the German graves a bizarre rickety cross they had made and inscribed with the words ‘Für sie ist der Krieg zu Ende’ in Gothic script.

The island Geheime Feldpolizei finally caught up with them but not – fantastically enough – until Cahun and Moore had carried on their campaign unmolested for four years. They were arrested in July 1944, imprisoned in St Helier jail and immediately attempted joint suicide. (They had brought with them a little cache of ‘Milk of Magnesia’ tablets – purportedly barbiturates – which they had long intended to take should they be captured.) Something went wrong, however, and though ill for days, both survived. They were separated and placed in solitary confinement. For many weeks neither knew if the other was alive. In November 1944, four months into their captivity, they were put on trial together for distributing propaganda and sentenced to death by firing squad. Yet despite the grim fate assigned them – and a constant fear they might be tortured in the meantime – both put on a spirited show of defiance in the courtroom. They rebuked their Nazi judges and declared their willingness to die. Though no official execution date was set, the women knew they might be murdered at any time; several fellow inmates – mostly German deserters – had been shot without warning during the couple’s incarceration.

Sheer intransigence – they made another failed double suicide attempt – may paradoxically have saved their lives. (Fortunate too that the German authorities seem never to have realised they were homosexual lovers rather than spinster ‘sisters’.) For months the prison authorities were convinced the pair were part of a larger Resistance network and questioned them incessantly about supposed accomplices. The two women always answered truthfully that they had acted alone; Cahun, apparently hoping to exculpate Moore, even revealed her own Jewishness. (She knew that were she and Moore somehow to escape the firing squad, she would still face almost certain deportation to the East.) One can’t help thinking that something about Cahun’s lack of perturbation – combined, perhaps, with that eerie charisma so evident in the photographs – unnerved her captors. Months passed and though ill, frightened and depressed, the women remained alive.

Indeed, they made the best of things. Throughout their nine-month captivity Cahun and Moore seemed to operate as if under some quasi-aesthetic protective dispensation. Like the Surrealist pranksters they once were, they knew how to flummox and mystify their German guards. They were full of feints and tricks and phenomenally brave. They found a way to communicate with one another with the help of the slave workers who emptied out the jerrycans used in the cells for toilets; they smuggled letters out to ‘Vera’, one of their few acquaintances on the island; indeed, they continued as much of their Resistance work as they could. Their fellow prisoners, the misfits and deserters, watched with sympathy and admiration.

And in the end, with the same amateur’s luck with which they had avoided the Nazi military police for four years, Cahun and Moore won a last minute, deus ex machina style reprieve. By February 1945 German forces were retreating across Europe and it was clear that the Channel Islands would soon be retaken by the Allies. Fearing harsh reprisals should they be discovered to have put two frail, middle-aged, pacifistically-inclined French ‘sisters’ to death, the local Nazi authorities abruptly rescinded the execution order. Cahun and Moore remained in prison: they had ostensibly still to serve a six-year sentence for listening to BBC broadcasts. But the Fates ruled otherwise. Though the very last political detainees on Jersey to be released, they were allowed to go free on 8 May 1945 – a day before the liberation of the island by British naval forces.

Returning to La Rocquaise, the couple commemorated their homecoming with a characteristically peculiar snapshot: a half-length image of Cahun – now visibly aged and Hausfrau-like in headscarf and baggy raincoat – posing in the doorway at La Rocquaise. Between her teeth, like a perverse Carmen, she holds a German eagle badge from a military uniform – a gift from one of the deserters. Though the gesture suggests a certain pale residual gaiety, her expression is at once weary, coy, remote. After chronic ill-health, exacerbated by her prison term, she would die in 1954. Moore lived on till 1972, when – lonely and similarly ailing – she took her own life.

And remote Cahun still seems today: a woman whose imaginative world, despite the gripping events of her life, remains frustratingly opaque. Yes, there’s a French biography – François Leperlier’s Claude Cahun: L’Ecart et la métamorphose (1992). But if you don’t know it Cahun’s renegade life and art are likely to seem alienating, even incoherent. Unlike similar figures from the period, she hasn’t, so far, acquired a context or what might be called a set of biographical insides: that organised simulacrum of interiority that an inspired biographer can provide. Cahun’s remarkable story has yet to be told deeply or dramatically enough – enriched from ‘within’, as it were, by a tenacious and empathetic storyteller – to register in a compelling way.

The recent Cahun volume, jointly produced by Tate Modern and the Jersey Heritage Trust, is, alas, a mediocre stopgap. It’s not without value: various contributors – a motley gaggle of art historians, literature professors and feminist scholars – supply basic information in a serviceable if unadorned way. (Particularly useful are Kristine von Oehsen’s overview of Cahun’s life and Claire Follain’s essay on Cahun and Moore’s Resistance work.) The V&A’s photographic manager, James Stevenson, is illuminating on the subject of Cahun and Moore’s startlingly unprofessional approach to picture-making. It’s a shock to read that they produced virtually all their work – at least 500 photographs between 1910 and the 1950s – using the same ultra-primitive pre-World War One Kodak Folding Pocket Camera. Neither possessed sophisticated darkroom skills: they sent their negatives to professional processing laboratories on Jersey or else in London or Paris. The local jobbing men managed to produce some thrilling results (one wonders what they thought of the weirder snaps). Disappointingly, however, most of the ‘art’ pictures survive only in the form of negatives and contact sheets: many more – possibly including exhibition-quality prints – may have been destroyed by the Germans.

The more speculative offerings, however, disappoint. One exception is an essay by Tirza Latimer on the so-called ‘authorship’ controversy: the role played by Marcel Moore in the creation of the Cahun archive. The conventional view – somewhat dutifully rehearsed here by Stevenson – is that Cahun should be considered sole ‘author’ of the images, despite the fact that Moore probably operated the camera in most instances. (Cahun and Moore’s antique Kodak lacked a delayed-action feature.) ‘Whether [Cahun’s] artistic intentions were derived from a performance or theatrically-based form of creation does not really matter,’ Stevenson writes; she was the person with the creative ‘eye’ or ‘vision’. By contrast, the random snaps taken by Moore after Cahun’s death have, he declares, ‘no artistic merit whatsoever’. Like the Countess of Castiglione – who is believed to have chosen all the outfits and poses in which she was photographed – Cahun deserves credit, Stevenson argues, for ‘some of the best examples of the self-portrait in the history of photography’.

Latimer takes an opposite view: that these same images are not ‘self-portraits’ at all but should be seen as the shared achievement of Cahun and Moore – if not emblems of their enigmatic relationship. Moore was after all a talented collagist and stage designer; it’s more likely, Latimer infers, that she played a significant part in both the conception and staging of the now talismanic images. The photographs themselves, she points out, exhibit a telling obsession with mirrors, doubles and blurred boundaries. One of the best-known images – in which a very blonde Cahun, sporting a crew cut and a clownish shirt-jacket with giant checks, stands by a mirror and glares intensely at the camera even as her reflection appears to gaze off vacantly to one side – seems to be half of a sort of psychological diptych. In a matching photograph taken a few moments before or after, a smiling Moore poses in exactly the same place – her head reflected in the same off-kilter manner. (Though pleasant enough to look at, Moore seems to have had little of Cahun’s spooky physical magnetism.) Latimer blames lurking homophobia – a disinclination to look too closely at the things women ‘do together’ – for the lack of scholarly attention given to Moore: ‘What social prejudices and artistic hierarchies does the erasure of Moore accommodate,’ she muses darkly, ‘and to what extent did the two artists foresee, forestall, foreclose (or, on the contrary, foreordain) this erasure?’ Considering a bleak and unpeopled snapshot Moore took of the Jersey coastline after Cahun’s death, Latimer sees ‘a naked stage, haunted by the absent subject of Moore’s photographs, lifelong object of her devotion and desire’.

Provocative it may be, but Latimer’s thesis goes mostly unexplored elsewhere in the volume. (The book is marred by the absence of an encompassing editorial vision: it sometimes seems that individual writers have yet to read the offerings of the other contributors.) The remaining essays mostly consist of predictable ‘gender studies’ lucubrations on how Cahun ‘interrogates dominant representations of subjectivity in terms of sexualised, gendered, classed and ethnically constituted subject positions’ – i.e. academic business as usual. None of the essayists seems wrenched by the photographs – jarred out of careerist complacency by their ferocious oddity – or able to convey their motley, caustic, often nightmarish beauty. For beautiful the photographs are when seen in a gallery: tiny, dense, rectangular mysteries – the inky gothic interior spaces behind the jester Cahun as black as black can be. Hardly any of this velvety depth is visible in the Tate’s washed-out (in many cases blurry) reproductions: for a supposedly authoritative production sponsored by a world-class museum they are shockingly poor.

Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice is a short yet absorbing book about how another female couple, the rather more renowned Stein and Toklas, likewise survived the Nazi Occupation – in this case, in eastern France. After a disagreeable bolus of ‘gender theory’, Malcolm’s new book is peptic indeed. (It began as a New Yorker article and has all the informal stylishness one would expect.) One has only to register the wily epigraph – ‘the endearing elegance of female friendship’, a delightful, possibly satiric phrase from Rasselas – to feel the world-weariness subside. No more odious subject positions! No more anti-patriarchal strategies! I can dance the samba again!

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as seen by Cecil Beaton on the terrace at Bilignin, 1936.
Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, as seen by Cecil Beaton on the terrace at Bilignin, 1936.

There are intriguing historical parallels too, however. The two couples – Stein and Toklas, Cahun and Moore – might easily have met, one imagines, in 1920s Montparnasse. Though expatriated and slightly older, Stein and Toklas inhabited the same densely networked cultural milieu: the louche, taboo-breaking, decidedly Sapphophilic world of the postwar Parisian avant-garde. But the similarities went deeper. Like Cahun, Stein and Toklas came from prominent assimilated Jewish families – from Pennsylvania and San Francisco respectively – and grew up in prosperous and cultivated circumstances. Stein and Toklas were likewise New Women of a sort – educated, bohemian and rebellious in outlook – and like their French coevals they rejected marriage and family ties in favour of beauty and heterodoxy on the Left Bank. When Cahun and Moore moved to the French capital in 1922, Stein and Toklas were already permanently ensconced. They had been hosting their celebrated weekly salons at 27 rue de Fleurus since 1910 and Stein was well known for both her visionary collection of modern art and her daring experiments with grammar and English prose. (The famous Picasso portrait of her dates from 1906.) Her first story collection, Three Lives, had appeared in 1909; Tender Buttons in 1914. By 1911, though the book was not to be published in full until 1925, she had also completed the work she always considered her artistic masterpiece: the massive and almost impenetrable ‘family’ saga, The Making of Americans.

Both couples, in turn, led profoundly lesbian lives. Stein and Toklas were a discreet yet fiercely devoted pair: inseparable soul-companions from the moment they met, in Paris in 1907, until Stein’s sudden death after abdominal surgery in 1946. (Toklas – to her engulfing sorrow – outlived Stein by 21 years; Moore survived Cahun by 18.) In each relationship one partner dominated (Stein, Cahun), while the other (Toklas, Moore) seems to have been happy in a supporting or helpmeet role. Convinced of her lover’s insuperable genius Toklas in particular took deep satisfaction in playing the self-effacing wife to Stein’s bullish, egotistical, amply upholstered husband. And not surprisingly – as with Cahun and Moore – critics have wondered how much Toklas contributed to Stein’s creative enterprises. Toklas is known to have typed all her partner’s manuscripts – with only spasmodic accuracy unfortunately – and it’s been bruited off and on that she may have done more. Two feminist scholars in the 1980s went so far as to hypothesise that Stein’s hoaxing Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) – the bestselling spoof-memoir written in the voice of Toklas, in which Stein described her life and friends and shamelessly touted her own literary greatness – either really was written by Toklas, or barring that, had resulted from some kind of pleasingly osmotic, sisterhood-is-powerful collaboration between the two women. From which one can only conclude (forgive me, Tirza): it takes two lesbians to screw in a light bulb. Except when it doesn’t.

Hard to say if – in fact – the two couples ever crossed paths: Adrienne Monnier and Sylvia Beach could have brought them together, though the French pair’s left-wing activities, especially as the decade wore on, would hardly have endeared them to the increasingly reactionary Stein and Toklas. (Among the many unsettling revelations in Malcolm’s suave study: that Stein admired both Pétain and Franco and had a lifelong aversion to Franklin Roosevelt.) That said, both couples shared the same fundamentally sophisticated outlook on art and life: a love of irony, archness and artistic mischief, and a commitment to modernity in all its forms.

All the more stark, then, the contrast in their war experiences. Malcolm begins Two Lives, disarmingly enough, with a simple yet troubling set of questions. Riffling one day through the gravy-stained pages of her old copy of The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook – the delightful culinary memoir of 1954 in which Toklas, eight years after her companion’s death, reminisced about ‘Miss Stein’ and the various elaborate meals she (Toklas) had prepared for her and their famous friends – Malcolm was suddenly struck, she relates, by the dearth of information Toklas volunteered about their life during the Occupation. True, in one sense there was no mystery. As Toklas explains, she and Stein spent the Vichy period safely domiciled in the south-eastern part of France known as the Bugey: first, at the comfortable country house at Bilignin, near Belley, in which they had spent their summers in the 1930s; subsequently, in another house, equally picturesque, in Culoz. Anyone with even a passing interest in the pair will almost certainly have seen one or two of the snapshots, now iconic, of Stein at Bilignin before the war: clowning with friends on the ancient stone terrace (in one photo she is holding sheet music and mouthing the words of her favourite song, ‘On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine’), greeting guests from a sunny upstairs window, or relaxing full-length on a stripey deckchair – massive and butch and strangely fashion-forward in her usual voluminous woolly skirt, embroidered vest, thick stockings and men’s sandals. (I myself am the gratified possessor of one of these sun-dappled pix – a sepia-tinted 5 x 7 in which Stein, supine and enormous on said deckchair, appears to be in a sort of Pasiphaë-like embrace – magnificent and unperturbed – with her huge white standard poodle, Basket. Both Stein and the photographer, Carl Van Vechten, have signed it; it is inscribed to Alexander Woollcott. The stunning Basket, alas, has left nary a paw-print.)

Yet something was ‘off’, Malcolm sensed, in Toklas’s account of this protracted rustic sojourn. World wars are seldom propitious for the lovers of haute cuisine, but even so, Toklas’s ration-based recipes from the period (‘A Restricted Veal Loaf’, ‘Swimming Crawfish’) were singularly unenticing; her commentaries crimped and full of ‘painfully forced gaiety’. Awkward questions began to loom. How, wondered Malcolm, had this ‘pair of elderly Jewish lesbians’ escaped the Nazis? Why, when Paris fell in 1940, had they not gone to Switzerland, as friends recommended, or back to the United States? What made them think Bilignin was safe? And why did Toklas say nothing in her memoir – even obliquely – about her and Stein’s Jewishness or the apparent danger they had been in?

Of course, Malcolm writes, in the 1950s ‘one did not go out of one’s way to mention one’s Jewishness. Gentlemanly anti-semitism was still a fact of American life. The fate of Europe’s Jews was known, but the magnitude of the catastrophe had not registered; the term “Holocaust” was not yet in use.’ Yet even granting that, no one, it seemed, grasped the obvious: that the plain fact of Stein and Toklas’s survival, more or less unruffled, was strange. That they had made it through the war unharmed, even as thousands of less fortunate Jewish residents in France – some from the very part of the Unoccupied Zone in which the couple had taken refuge – were being herded onto trains and sent to death camps, seemed a curiously neglected topic.

Much of Two Lives – a book as elegant as it is disconcerting – is devoted to Malcolm’s ensuing investigations into Stein and Toklas’s life in the murky period in question. Readers of other Malcolm productions – In the Freud Archives (1984), The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), The Crime of Sheila McGough (1999), Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey (2001) – will recognise the method: Malcolm offers a sort of reporter’s diary, a circuitous, episodic, highly self-conscious narrative about her own search, ultimately somewhat inconclusive, after the ‘truth’ of the matter. It’s a detective novelist’s technique and one that Malcolm has mastered to perfection. And inevitably it broadens out into something more philosophical. Even as Malcolm reports – drolly – on the intrigue-filled world of Stein-Toklas scholarship, an area of study replete with more than the usual number of literary mavericks, oddballs and feral academics in the grip of obsessive-compulsive disorder, 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.

The story unfurled is not exactly a pretty one. Early in her researches Malcolm encounters the unsavoury figure of Bernard Faÿ (1893-1978), an insinuating, obsequious, discreetly homosexual professor at the Collège de France who became Stein’s great friend and promoter in the 1930s. (There’s a chummy picture of the two of them, side by side, on the terrace at Bilignin.) Faÿ, a specialist in American history and literature, translated The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas into French and helped arrange Stein’s 1934 lecture tour of the United States. But he was also, Malcolm soon learned, an ultra-right Catholic royalist, vicious anti-semite and lifelong crusader against Freemasonry. Whether out of self-interest or chicanery, he seems not to have shared with Stein and Toklas the racial and religious opprobrium he was happy to offload elsewhere. Stein and Toklas adored him.

In a 1966 memoir Faÿ revealed himself as Stein and Toklas’s clandestine protector during the war. Though he suppressed some of the creepier details, the claim was compelling. Thanks to various right-wing ties – including a boyfriend in the Gestapo – Faÿ had been made chief of the Bibliothèque Nationale in 1940, a post in which he reported directly to Pétain. (The previous director, a Jew, had been purged.) Soon after his appointment, Faÿ related, he spoke to Pétain ‘about Gertrude, her genius, the peril she was in, and, more particularly, about the danger that she might freeze to death in the coming winter’. Pétain immediately ordered the sous-préfet at Belley to make sure that Stein and Toklas were not harried or arrested and that they received all the food and fuel they needed to live comfortably for the duration. ‘During this horrible period of occupation, misery, and nascent civil war, my two friends lived a peaceful life,’ Faÿ wrote; ‘they didn’t lack courage, they didn’t lack intelligence, they didn’t lack a sense of reality, and they didn’t lack coal.’

In 1946 Faÿ was charged with collaboration and sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. Among those appealing his conviction – unsuccessfully – was Gertrude Stein. (She died four months later.) In 1951, aided by unknown accomplices ‘dressed as nuns’, Faÿ escaped from prison and fled to safety in Switzerland. Some Stein scholars believe the Catholic Church engineered the escape. Toklas seems to have helped to finance it, purportedly by selling one or several Picasso works on paper. After his flight, sponsored by other mysterious backers, Faÿ landed an academic post almost at once at the University of Fribourg. Gradually war memories began to recede and in the late 1950s he was officially pardoned by François Mitterrand, minister of justice under De Gaulle. Despite eventually being forced to retire from his university job after student protests, Faÿ lived on, more or less serenely, until 1978.

How bad was Faÿ and how much did Stein and Toklas grasp about his wartime exploits? In search of answers Malcolm arranges a Manhattan summit with an eminent if somewhat eccentric trio of Stein experts: Ulla Dydo, an eighty-something European-born professor emerita at CUNY and the reigning doyenne of Stein studies (she is the author of a magisterial analysis of Stein’s experimental writings, Gertrude Stein: The Language that Rises 1923-34 and has devoted herself since 1976 to preparing the first accurate editions of Stein’s works); Edward Burns, the editor of Staying on Alone: Letters of Alice B. Toklas, the Stein/Van Vechten correspondence and more recently (with Dydo) Stein’s correspondence with Thornton Wilder; and William Rice, a painter and actor in his seventies with a longtime interest in the Stein/Toklas circle.

All three, Malcolm soon finds, discuss Stein and Toklas as if they knew them and in fact they do – with a collective knowledge at once wry, preternaturally detailed and utterly unillusioned. (While editing the Toklas letters Burns even interviewed the sinister Faÿ himself.) Listening in on their intense little conclaves, inevitably enlivened by Malcolm’s descriptions of each scholar’s mannerisms and quirks and the book-lined New York apartments in which they meet, one feels like a guest at some fancy uptown intellectual cocktail party: that is to say, safe and sound, vaguely ennobled by the conversation, and avid (even as one sips discreetly at one’s glass of Sancerre) to hear as much about other people’s bad behaviour as one can. The windswept prison cell on Jersey – the one with the deserters and Claude Cahun – seems far away indeed.

Yet a reader looking for extenuating circumstances – an excuse for Faÿ or some exculpatory explanation for Stein and Toklas’s intimacy with him – will not find it in Two Lives. (Perhaps something has yet to emerge: Barbara Will, a Dartmouth professor, is presently working on a book called Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ and the Vichy Dilemma.) The more Malcolm reveals of his history, for example, the more loathsome Faÿ sounds. Animated by her questions, Edward Burns, in France, manages to unearth more information about Faÿ’s trial, and the new input is grim. Despite Faÿ’s postwar claim that no one ever died as a result of his actions, because of his ‘zeal in naming names by way of executing Pétain’s 1940 order banning secret societies’ – Malcolm writes – ‘170,000 Masons had files created for them, 60,000 were investigated, 6000 were imprisoned, 990 were deported and 540 were shot or died in camps.’ (Throughout the 20th century totalitarian regimes of both the right and the left regularly outlawed Freemasonry.) Add the murderous Faÿ at once to one’s mental rogues’ gallery of wayward wartime college profs: Heidegger and Paul de Man seem like milquetoasts in comparison.

And, however enigmatically, the findings do appear to compromise Stein and Toklas. (Burns thinks the couple knew little if anything about Faÿ’s Nazi ties; Malcolm seems undecided.) Though neither Stein nor Toklas ever spoke of it, Faÿ, most scholars now believe, was the couple’s wartime guardian and Maurice Sivan, the sous-préfet at Belley, the likely go-between. Both Stein and Toklas sought to shield Faÿ after the Liberation. Toklas’s personal loyalty to the man deepened in the 1950s when she became his co-religionist: she converted to Catholicism in 1957. She did so in large part, one gathers, because she liked the idea of meeting up with Stein in heaven. Perhaps they are all three up there now, with Alice, ravishing in droopy crêpe-de-chine and moustache, serving tea and little éclairs.

But Malcolm is interested in something more than retroactive whistle-blowing. Like Freud (about whom she has written) she has always been an edgy, nervy investigator of the human psyche: magnetised by the contradictory mixture of fears and cravings that prompt us to act as we do. She feasts on ambiguities and casuistical moral dilemmas. Why were Stein and Toklas so susceptible to the scoundrel Faÿ and his charms? Would one have done much better oneself under the same circumstances? Malcolm’s search for answers results in a psychological portrait of Stein and Toklas as penetrating if also disturbing as any yet written.

To be sure Malcolm is very hard on Stein. She has none of the worshipful sentimentality encountered, say, in the feminist 1970s, when various heavy-set American actresses went around the US impersonating ‘Gertrude’ in folksy one-woman shows. (I saw one of these right-on concoctions once, and when the actress playing Stein – who had supposedly risen from her grave in Père Lachaise and flown over to Minneapolis to talk to us – started rhapsodising over Alice B. and the tender buttons and gooey nuptial bliss they shared whenever Hemingway and Picasso left the room, a warm cooing sound emanated from the largely lesbian audience.)

Malcolm instead sees narcissism on a Brobdingnagian scale. Stein was the last of five children and Malcolm, always adroit with the scalpel, reckons she had all the tricky and selfish charm of a ‘youngest child’. (Odds on: Malcolm has to have been either a first-born or a last-born.) Stein often referred to her childhood as singularly pleasant and carefree. ‘Naturally I had privileges the privilege of petting the privilege of being the youngest one,’ she wrote in Wars I Have Seen (1945). ‘If that does happen it is not lost all the rest of one’s life, there you are you are privileged, nobody can do anything but take care of you, that is the way I was and this is the way I still am, and any one who is like that necessarily liked it. I did and do.’

As an adult Stein accepted praise and coddling as a birthright. (‘Baby’ was Toklas’s nickname for her; Toklas herself was ‘Mama Woojums’.) To read any of the ‘popular’ Stein autobiographical works – The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Everybody’s Autobiography, Wars I Have Seen – is to be struck by the vaunting, almost predictive force of this apparent self-satisfaction. She always knew, Stein boasts, that she was a ‘genius’. Happily Everybody who was Anybody came to agree: she was the world’s pampered child. The sheer preening self-confidence here reminds one of another adipose and somewhat infantile early 20th-century American icon – the legendary baseball hero Babe Ruth. Among the ‘Babe’s’ boldest feats: the time he came up to bat, pointed nonchalantly to a faraway corner in the outfield stands, and with his first swing, hit a homer to exactly that spot. Stein was always pointing and hitting and (if you take her word for it) basking complacently in the inevitable applause.

This close-to-hallucinatory sense of self-importance no doubt helps to explain the potentially reckless decision to remain in France throughout the war. Even in 1943, during one of the Occupation’s darkest moments, when Jews were being rounded up at nearby Vichy, Stein could not really comprehend the need for flight. (Aware of the danger, Sivan, the friendly sous-préfet, had urged Stein and Toklas to escape to Switzerland and discreetly proffered false papers.) Stein was shockingly naive, politically speaking, Malcolm suggests, but also profoundly unable (or unwilling) to imagine herself or Toklas in mortal danger.

Yet Stein’s megalomania also masked a history of considerable distress. As evidence Malcolm educes nothing less than The Making of Americans – the looming, cloud-capped, mindwarping Everest of the Steinian oeuvre. Although Stein couldn’t get it published in its entirety for years, she always regarded this 925-page experimental work – begun just before she moved permanently to Paris, in 1903 and completed, after much revision, in 1911, soon after she had begun living with Toklas – as her crowning artistic achievement. Few critics have agreed – not even avowed Stein friends and enthusiasts like Carl Van Vechten or Edmund Wilson. No doubt contributing to the polite silence: the fact that reading The Making of Americans is rather like getting trapped in one of those clammy-horrible examination dreams in which the test questions morph into illegible squiggles or thousands of ants marching senselessly across the page:

There are some when they are being living and when they are beginning being living are ones completely being living and are ones completely being living to themselves then and to mostly every one and are ones being completely being living doing many things and doing them, most of them, very often. There certainly are some being living who are ones certainly being ones completely being living and are such ones and any one can be completely certain of this thing being one knowing such a one, being one knowing any one knowing such a one. Certainly there are very many being completely living in being living and are such to any one and are ones doing some thing and another and another thing and doing one again and again and again and doing the other thing again and again and doing the other thing again and again and again.

Depending on one’s enthusiasm for extreme linguistic experiments, such a passage – chosen more or less at random – is either Stein at her most radical and daring or Stein at her most stupefying and pointless. Most readers will probably incline to the latter view. Either way the extract is emblematic of the whole. The Making of Americans is a close-to-impossible proposition – so visually and verbally dense, page by page, that at points it becomes painful just to look at it. The restricted vocabulary, programmatic syntactical permutations and deadening repetition operate as a sort of firewall; the reader, like a piece of spam, keeps getting bounced back. Malcolm has managed to get through it – twice – but she’s uncertain if the achievement makes her heroic or foolish. Even at its more accessible moments, she admits, Stein’s book leaves a reader feeling like ‘an uninvited guest arriving on the wrong night at a dark house’.

In the very monstrosity of the work, however, she also finds a key insight into Stein’s character. Weirdly enough, Stein seems to have conceived the book as a sort of late 19th-century Bildungsroman: the heroine, Julia Dehning, belongs to a wealthy second-generation German-Jewish immigrant family and is about to be married to an unscrupulous suitor. But this melodramatic wisp of a plot disappears after a few pages when the Stein-narrator turns to the oddly named Herslands, Julia’s prospective in-laws. Here what was to have been a ‘novel’ torques towards crypto-autobiography: the Herslands appear to be modelled on the Stein family and ‘Martha Hersland’, one of the daughters, on Stein herself. Yet even as the narrator attempts to limn them, the prose (already strange and ungrammatical) begins hardening inexorably into the brutally boring idiom everyone loves to hate. Further excruciation lies ahead: the Herslands themselves disappear after a while and hundreds of thousands of words are given over to a punishingly abstract elaboration of human ‘types’: part of the narrator’s increasingly neurotic struggle (to which she often refers with great pathos and frustration) to provide a ‘completed history of every one who ever is or was or will be living’. Or so I’m told – I’ve never got that far myself.

In yielding to this shattering style, Malcolm argues, Stein was dramatising in the only manner available to her: she was unable to disclose the ‘real story’ of her own grief-shadowed adolescence. Early on Stein realised, says Malcolm, that unlike ‘Tolstoy and Dickens and Jane Austen’, she could not ‘invent’: she could write only about herself and the people she knew. But for the damaged, perceptive, oddly delicate young woman behind all the bluster, writing honestly about oneself was painful and terrifying. Stein would later dismiss such candour as pointless. If something ‘is real enough’, she opined in Everybody’s Autobiography, ‘what is the use of it being a story.’ Even more annihilating: ‘What is the use of remembering anything. There is none.’ When it came to recollecting her sad early life, ‘Baby’ was not quite as nonchalant as she was later wont to assert.

Crucial to Malcolm are the scores of passages in The Making of Americans relating to Mrs Hersland, the ‘little unimportant mother’ of the Hersland family, who, in the narrator’s words, ‘was lost among them and mostly they forgot about her, now she died away among them and they never thought about her, sometimes they would be good to her, mostly for them she had no existence in her and then she died away and the gentle scared little woman was all that they ever after remembered of her’.

Stein lost her own mother to cancer at 14 and seems to have ‘forgotten’ her – or tried to – in exactly the same blasé manner. (In the foregoing the narrator speaks of the mother almost as if she were a minor piece of luggage mislaid in transit.) It was too sad and horrible, one might venture, to do otherwise. Indeed, so ferocious the suppression – and so comic Stein’s later assertions of indomitability – a reader today can barely imagine her ever having had a mother, let alone losing one. How, after all, would a genteel upper-middle-class Jewish-American mother of 1910 have responded to a hulking daughter like Stein: one who lived by choice in Paris with another woman, patronised raffish painters and poets and their even shadier mistresses, cut her hair like Caligula’s and otherwise resembled one of the massive heads carved on the rocks on Mt Rushmore? Equally imponderable: would Stein herself have even been the same person? Try to imagine Stein and this hypothetical mother sitting in the parlour together at 27 rue de Fleurus, but it’s well-nigh impossible; for one thing, the tiny glowering Toklas is inevitably there where the mother should be.

Yet combined with Stein’s dawning awareness of her lesbianism, this repressed bereavement seems to account in some partial wise for the relentlessly butch, self-blinding Stein persona. Some of the most wrenching and honest writing Stein ever did, Malcolm argues, is buried deep in The Making of Americans:

In Stein’s oblique telling of her story of unacceptable loss, she achieves an extraordinary level of expressiveness. The refrain about the mother’s unimportance has the effect, of course, of implying the opposite. Stein breaks through the hard shell of her child’s self-protectiveness, and allows herself to mourn her mother.

But in the end the pain was too much, perhaps, to integrate and absorb. As The Making of Americans moves bleakly on – page after page – the Stein-narrator becomes ever more confused and dissociated: lost in agitated incantatory reveries about death (‘I am thinking of every one always growing older and then dying, now when I am thinking about each one being sometime a sick one each one being sometime a dead one’) and desolate in the knowledge that for all her attempts at empathy, the inner lives of other human beings remain radically inaccessible to her:

Perhaps no one ever gets a complete history of any one. This is very discouraging thinking. I am very sad now in this feeling. Always, hearing something, gives to some a sad feeling of realising everything they have not been hearing and that they are not knowing and perhaps they can never have really in them the complete history of any one, no one ever can have in them the complete history of any one.

At such defeated and self-defeating moments, Malcolm observes, the ‘novel’ resembles a psychic ‘morass into which writer and reader are sinking together’.

No doubt the eight years Stein spent writing what Malcolm calls this ‘dark, death-ridden’ book were cathartic. ‘The Making of Americans,’ she adjudges,

was a work that Stein evidently had to get out of her system – almost like a person having to vomit – before she could become Gertrude Stein as we know her. A great outpouring of grief and anger and sorrow and doubt had to take place before the certainties and jollities of the mature writer could come into being. The cool ease of the mature Stein was preceded by writing of hysterical, sometimes almost mad intensity.

Yet one can’t help but feel that one result was an emotional shutdown of fairly monstrous proportions. The Stone Butch decided to stonewall.

Now it would be a caricature of Malcolm’s argument to say she thinks the young Stein’s ‘unacceptable loss’ led in any simple or straightforward way to the narcissistic evasions Stein practised in adulthood or her refusal to refer either to her Jewish background or her homosexuality. (‘The word “lesbian” was never publicly uttered by either Stein or Toklas about their relationship,’ Malcolm notes, ‘as it was the custom of the day not to utter it.’) Nonetheless, the persecution of the Jews under Vichy must have been a nightmarish late-life trial to Stein: an inference Malcolm aptly develops with reference to Stein’s last memoir, Wars I Have Seen, written between 1942 and 1943. Here, along with the usual Steinian disingenuousness, more than a few hints of existential distress slip past the self-censorship. Still, with help from the sleazy Faÿ, the immediate psychic threat passed. No disturbing admissions were required; no end to the triumphalist illusion. Faÿ in a sense allegorised – and ratified – Stein’s own practice of self-fantastication.

Malcolm is modest about her reportorial gleanings and looks to her little coterie of Stein scholars for guidance, especially Ulla Dydo, whose research on Stein, as Malcolm quite touchingly acknowledges, remains the gold standard. (Malcolm’s foregrounding of Dydo’s Herculean work on Stein and Toklas is one of the signal virtues of Two Lives.) Dydo’s visionary reconstruction of Stein’s intellectual and emotional world – not to mention her meticulous editing of Stein’s texts – has been one of the few truly awe-inspiring endeavours in literary scholarship over the past quarter-century. Stein would be elated to know that one hundred years after producing her most challenging work she has finally found a heroic partisan. (Malcolm describes Dydo as ‘perhaps the closest reader Stein has ever had’.) Over the past few decades Dydo has basically ‘saved’ Stein – once and for all one hopes – from ridicule, misunderstanding and the pawky animadversions of the philistines.

But Two Lives nevertheless encompasses and illuminates a great deal. Malcolm is marvellous on Toklas, who despite the ‘Baby’ and ‘Mama Woojums’ business seems to have been something rather more, and rather less, than the usual maternal surrogate. Toklas was in fact small, tough, jaded and just as weird as Stein. Her own mother had died of cancer when she (Toklas) was young and her rejection of the past, like Stein’s, was total. In turn, once they met – there in that mythic Parisian dream-time – she and Stein evolved a more fluid, reciprocal and erotically charged kind of intimacy than standard psychological models would seem to allow. (Hard to visualise when you look at pictures of them but the sexual connection between them was electric. It is frequently celebrated – in a sort of honeyed private code – in Stein’s erotic writings.) As Malcolm suggests, Toklas might best be understood not as a maternal stand-in but as ‘the one who said “yes” to Stein’ – a kind of necessary wizard’s-assistant. ‘It is a very strange feeling,’ Stein writes, when

you write a book and while you write it you are ashamed for every one must think you are a silly or a crazy one and yet you write it and you are ashamed, you know you will be laughed at or pitied by every one and you have a queer feeling and you are not very certain and you go on writing. Then some one says yes to it, to something you are liking, or doing or making and then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed that you had then when you were writing or liking the thing and not any one had said yes about the thing.

(In aerating the shame and fear that accompany ‘something you are liking, or doing or making’, such a passage may say as much about Stein’s sexuality as it does about her literary experiments.) Stein and Toklas were a pair of amorous changelings: two motherless girls, fat and thin, magically conjoined in a Modernist fairy tale of their own invention.

And in her own covert way Toklas turned out to be just as wily and steely-butch as her portly husband. Much of the second half of Two Lives is devoted to Toklas in her long widowhood and in particular, the Aspern Papers-like relationship she developed with the legendary Stein scholar Leon Katz. As a graduate student in 1948 Katz famously discovered a cache of previously unnoticed notebooks in the massive Stein archive at Yale. Written between 1902 and 1911, the key decade in Stein’s personal life and artistic development, the notebooks were an astonishing compendium of new and fascinating material: notes and jottings on The Making of Americans; lengthy passages of writerly self-analysis; intimate revelations about May Bookstaver, Stein’s first lover (and the violent jealousy the mere mention of her name provoked in Toklas); and a staggering amount of gossip and criticism – much of it shockingly malicious – about friends, relatives and fellow expatriates. Katz, then writing his dissertation, obtained permission from Stein’s executor, Carl Van Vechten, to prepare a scholarly edition of the rediscovered items. Toklas, it turned out, had not known of the notebooks’ existence and when Katz asked if she would consent to answer questions about them, her curiosity was piqued. At the same time she worried about potentially damaging revelations and demanded in return that Katz’s scholarly edition not be published for a very long (if unspecified) time. Katz agreed and for several months in 1952 and 1953 she pored over the old journals with him, identifying references and adding her own more or less spontaneous comments.

According to Katz, who took notes during their meetings, Toklas warmed to him at once and became ever more garrulous and indiscreet – particularly about Stein’s painful affair with Bookstaver and Toklas’s own sometimes tumultuous sexual relationship with Stein: explosive stuff – but Katz, after a fashion, kept his word. Though quoted extensively in Katz’s dissertation (completed in 1963) and the introduction he wrote for a subsequent volume of Stein’s apprentice work, Fernhurst, QED and Other Early Writings (1971), the notebooks have yet to be published. Nor has Katz ever made the notes of his conversations with Toklas – supposedly riveting – available to other researchers. The crucial transcripts, now fifty years old and presumably yellowing, Malcolm says a bit breathlessly, ‘remain locked in his possession – no scholar has ever seen them’.

Do they exist? At one point in her narrative Malcolm describes her mock-heroic quest for knowledge in Two Lives as a ‘journey into the Stein interior’. In Katz she finds her Kurtz. Desperate to interview him (he is tottery but still alive) she arranges a meeting with him at an airport near his home in the jungles of Southern California. Mystifyingly he fails to appear, then breaks off communication in a skittish email forbidding Malcolm to quote from his dissertation. He claims to fear being ‘scooped’, though as Malcolm learns from her trio of magical helpers – Dydo and Co – he’s had more than a half-century to publish his edition of the Stein notebooks. To the rage and despair of Stein scholars everywhere – unhappy Didos all – the long-awaited volumes seem likely never to appear.

Yet the rebuff also prompts Malcolm to valedictory reflections on what one might take, finally, to be her Big Theme: the biographer’s lot is not a happy one. Too many things can (and do) go wrong. It starts in the archives: one’s subject has left few traces or destroyed crucial information; documents turn out to be inauthentic; greedy or suspicious executors deny access to papers. One’s interviewees then amplify the problems: eyewitnesses forget or misremember; parents and children, husbands and wives, supply contradictory accounts of one another; friends and enemies edit out those facts that conflict with their prejudices. Understandably, these fundamental obstacles – familiar to life-writers everywhere since the days of Suetonius and Plutarch – prompt in Malcolm a kind of epistemological distress. ‘The instability of human knowledge is one of our few certainties,’ she says at one point; ‘Almost everything we know we know incompletely at best.’

In turn, her literary sophistication and Freudian attitudes make her painfully attuned to the end-stage gaffes and distortions introduced by the biographer. Human beings, she writes, crave exciting yet coherent narratives – lots of drama, but also a recognisable ‘story’ line. Like bad novelists, biographers and autobiographers try to comply. The temptation to make everything ‘fit together’ is close to irresistible. When historical narratives ‘don’t add up’, Malcolm proposes, ‘they get rewritten so that they do.’ Choice anecdotes are improved in the retelling; arbitrary events cloaked in significance. It becomes hard not to explain one’s ‘main characters’ with familiar (and simplistic) emotional paradigms. (The hoary old butch-femme distinction is one I’ve had a hard time avoiding in this piece.) ‘Minor characters’ get ‘flattened’. In one of her most amusing passages Malcolm ponders the last-mentioned syndrome:

Unlike the flat characters of fiction (as E.M. Forster called them), who have no existence outside the novel they were invented to animate, the flat characters of biography are actual, three-dimensional people. But the biographer is writing a life not lives, and to keep himself on course, must cultivate a kind of narcissism on behalf of his subject that blinds him to the full humanity of anyone else. As he turns the bracing storylessness of human life into the flaccid narrativity of biography, he cannot worry about the people who never asked to be dragged into his shaky enterprise.

Stein herself excelled at this happy-go-lucky steamrollering: in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas she flattened ‘the lesser people’ in her circle, Malcolm notes, ‘as perhaps no biographer has ever flattened a character before or since’. A Matisse or a Pavel Tchelitchew might receive a fair amount of airtime; but the dull ‘wives of geniuses’ Stein always steered in Toklas’s direction when she and her partner entertained are paper-thin nonentities. Sometimes they even lack names.

Ah, yes (one sighs), it’s all so demoralising. We’re too damn story-hungry for our own good. ‘Deep mythic structures,’ Malcolm writes in her conclusion, inevitably warp our understanding of other people – both in books and out of them. The human fondness for shapely untruths would appear to be exceeded only by the human capacity for wishful thinking. We can never see through that (much-in-need-of-washing) window in the bosom. Etc etc. For a fatalist such gloomy commonplaces can be a perverse form of pleasure. Malcolm’s no-exit, Zeno’s paradox-style thinking reminds me of one of my favourite Stein pronouncements: ‘Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches.’ Why bother trying to sift through all the residual debris in search of someone else’s soul?

But from another angle Malcolm’s kvetching also misses the point. One thinks again of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, languishing still – if only in the readerly imagination – in their dank prison cell on Jersey. No doubt – being an incorrigible fantasist – I introduced invisible errors into my potted précis of their lives: a veritable parade of little untruths. (Will someone perhaps write in and point them out?) At the same time I’m aware I may have misrepresented them as people: I intentionally gave them a heroic and slightly inhuman cast so as to set up a historical and moral contrast with Stein and Toklas. But could Cahun and her partner really have been so staunch and selfless? So radically unlike ces dames là – the cagey Gertrude and Alice? The information about Cahun and Moore one has to go on is still so limited, the biographical outline so skimpy and bare-bones: one can’t help making them seem a bit like cardboard cut-outs.

Malcolm preaches caution under such circumstances, the paranoid moral of Two Lives being that every would-be biographer goes morbidly astray in one way or another. Yet surely her own punctiliousness – the uneasy, watchful, almost vulpine attention she pays to the countless ways one can get it all wrong – in the end militates against such overriding pessimism. Like most ace reporters – and all great biographers – Malcolm is frighteningly skilled at cheater detection: the name cognitive scientists give to the ability to suss out other people’s secrets and lies. In the case of Stein and Toklas (thanks in part to years of biographical research like that described in Two Lives) we have an ever clearer notion of what some of these secrets and lies were. Likewise, because she is smarter and more critical than many other people who have written about Stein and Toklas, Malcolm, in turn, has enhanced the biographical image further. Now if only someone less romantic and trusting than me – someone more Malcolm-like in fact – would write about those camera-happy tricksters, the long-lost Claude and Marcel.