Saturday, December 17, 2011

No Stein Unturned

 Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein, Culoz, France (1944)

"[Gertude] Stein and her long-time partner Alice Toklas held out in the French countryside while France was occupied by the Nazis. So why weren’t they deported like other American enemies, Jews, and lesbians? Stein was apparently protected by a close friend of hers, Bernard Faÿ, an official in the Vichy Government who turned out to be a fascist and Nazi collaborator. Her collection of 'degenerate' art, all of those pieces by Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne left behind in Paris, were saved as well.
     Questions about Stein’s wartime survival have been addressed in many books. A few years ago they were raised again, more aggressively, by Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (2007). When Malcolm’s book came out nobody seemed to care, but now that Stein has had a comeback, the controversy has gained urgency. It was triggered by an article in the Bay Area Jewish Weekly that accused the Contemporary Jewish Museum of using Stalinist methods to preserve an idealized image of Stein. At the same time, Barbara Will’s new book, Unlikely Collaboration: Gertrude Stein, Bernard Faÿ and the Vichy Dilemma (2011) tries to show the 'real' Stein in just one color: black. Visitors and bloggers who had never before read or studied Stein became enraged by certain details snapped up from the agitation: What? Stein had a Nazi friend? Stein said Hitler ought to get the Nobel Peace Prize? Stein a collaborator! Worse, Stein a Nazi! The scandal recently got to the Washington Post, prompting critic Phil Kennicott to review Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories and openly declare his 'hatred' for her."
— Renate Stendhal, Los Angeles Review of Books

"If being a genius is hard work, so is creating one’s biography. In September 1944, journalist and newscaster Eric Sevareid reached the French village of Culoz and met with its most famous resident, and in his 1946 book, Not So Wild a Dream, he reports that 'with all the difficulties, the isolation from lifelong friends, these had been the happiest years of her life.' In her new Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, a collection of essays and reportage on Stein, Toklas, their lives together and apart, and the autobiographical fictions they jointly created (as all of us must) for themselves and for the reader, Janet Malcolm quotes the Sevareid passage and remarks, 'It was a point of pride with Stein never to appear unhappy.' What Malcolm calls Stein’s 'preternatural cheerfulness' is perhaps the most accomplished of all the self-fashioning she attempted."
— Eric Banks, BOOKFORUM

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