Sunday, 7 December 2008

Two Lives

I went to the library with one objective: to find a feminine book to read. I saw this book, opened the cover and read, "How had the pair of elderly Jewish lesbians survived the Nazis?" Jewish lesbians against the Nazis? I was sold! 

And I was sold and sold and sold throughout the whole book. I loved reading about the intricacies of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas's relationship, I loved reading about their romance in its historical context, I loved how Janet Malcolm laid bare the research techniques of the investigative biographer, and I loved reading her dissections of Stein's writing, and about other Stein scholars.

One of the most fascinating episodes in the book is the story behind an important finding of the Stein scholar, professor Ulla E. Dydo. For more than two decades Dydo compared printed Stein texts with manuscripts looking for errors. 

While reading Stanzas in Meditation, Dydo came across something truly odd:
In the manuscript, she found that almost everywhere the auxiliary verb "may" appeared Stein had crossed it out and put in the word "can." ... In addition, when the month of May appeared it was crossed out and "day" or "today" was substituted. The revisions make no sense and are clear disimprovements... Why had Stein subverted her work in this way?
The answer came to Dydo in a dream. In it, she recalled an incident that Stein records in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which Toklas finds a forgotten Stein novel that features May Bookstaver, the woman whom Stein had loved before Toklas. Toklas became so enranged that, according to Dydo, there are no "mays" in Stanzas in Meditation because Stein had been forced to remove them.

This afternoon while we were eating lunch on the deck, our two chooks came and fought over the crusts we threw them. Dirt, who's the more friendly, personable of the two, grabbed one first only to have it stolen by Cuba. "Go Alice!" I heard myself call out, as I had unthinkingly associated boisterous, likable Dirt with Gertrude and the quiet, fierce Cuba with Alice.

Explaining to PJ and Z what I meant and blogging about it now, I am reminded of the Stein quote: "Human beings are interested in two things. They are interested in the reality and interested in telling about it."


Anonymous said...

love your blog

The Garden of Self Defence said...

on the plane last night i read a quarter of this book, only marginally aware of the other passengers and the surrounding commercialism and safety advice from the hostesses. i went into a deep-read trance and came out of it after everyone else had left the plane. i arrived at Dydo's 'cans' swap 'mays' anecdote and collected my up own baggage and met my sister. we sat in a car across the city and we had funny feelings.

astrid said...

your post has made me like that book a lot more than initially, i must say. i was a bit perturbed by the interrogative suspicion malcolm has for g & a surviving world war 2 -- as tho they were committing some sort of auto-erasure of their identity. y'know what i mean?

and yes, the 'no may' story is wonderful. michael f and kate and i are working on a year-long festival for next year, stein 09, in which there will be no month of may!


Meg said...

I thought about you on every page of this book, Astrid, wondering what you would have made of Malcolm and her ideas.

I know what you mean about her suspicions of G & A's survival. I didn't mind her suspicions though. I think it's OK as long as a writer is up front about their motives. And sometimes if they aren't, it makes for interesting reading if you catch them out.

I love the idea of Stein 09! Perhaps a banquet or a bake-off using A's recipe book??

astrid said...

yes, i know what you mean. tho in the case of malcolm i felt a distinct lack of compassion or empathy in her motives, as if she had little affection -- even if not uncritical -- for stein's practice. it's certainly a fascinating story, in terms of the seductive charms of biography, but malcolm's chilliness put me off.

yes, yes, a bake-off for stein 09! we're gonna make some workmanjones' style add-ins and reverse thefts for libraries and book shops. imagine finding a page of stanzas in meditation in your di morrissey! x

Meg said...

It's funny, I'm usually so attuned to things like that, but I honestly didn't notice Malcolm's lack of compassion. The journalist within her vs the biographer. Perhaps her journalistic objectivity won?

PJ is reading it now. I look fwd to hearing what he thinks and how your dinner went tonight.

I hope well!

Love from me (who had to google Di Morrissey to find out who she is.)

astrid said...

it could totally be my oversensitivity re stein, perhaps a personal prejudice i couldn't shake. i must also say that i found the book very compelling and read it quickly and attentively.

dinner with pj was lovely -- nick cooked and we sat in the backyard with longnecks and listened to frogs and planes. wish you could have been there! hope to see you soon. x

Meg said...

We will have our writer's retreat ready for visitors soon. Really hope you guys come stay some time next year. xx