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Exactly who was Alice B. Toklas?

Janet Malcolm takes another look at the contradictions and quirks in the lives of Gertrude Stein and her partner.

Gertrude Stein is an anomaly as a writer: Just about everyone knows who she is (and can recite "A rose is a rose is a rose..." at the mere mention of her name) but almost no one can fathom – or even read – her work.

Her 900-some-page novel "The Making of Americans" "gives the impression of someone learning how to drive," writes Richard Bridgman, one of what must be a miniscule number of critics who have made it all the way through the book. "Periodically there are smooth stretches, but these are interrupted by bumps, lurches, wild wrenchings of the wheel and sudden brakings. All the while the driver can be heard muttering reminders and encouragements to herself, imprecations, and cries of alarm."

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Janet Malcolm puts it more concisely. Reading the novel, she says, is akin to being "an uninvited guest arriving on the wrong night at a dark house."

But if Malcolm is as baffled by Stein's writing as most of the rest of us (and she's utterly candid about admitting the degree to which she is), that hasn't prevented her from writing a sharp and entertaining look at Stein's life – or, more specifically, the part of her life that she shared with the equally unusual Alice B. Toklas.

And what a life it was. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice covers the years during which Stein and Toklas installed themselves in Stein's brother's Paris apartment, became intimate with Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other major luminaries of their era, and somehow lived openly through the Nazi occupation of France – despite their doubly endangered status as Jews and lesbians. Stein died shortly after the war, but Toklas lived till 1967 and Malcolm follows her through those late, lonely years in which she grieved for Stein and confronted poverty and eviction from her home.

There is much that is unusual, entertaining, and/or noteworthy in Stein's life. For starters, there's her remarkable charisma, the sunny pleasure of her company that seems to have prompted everyone she met to want to do things for her. Life itself, Malcolm tells us, had "an evident inability to ever say no to Gertrude Stein."

Or did it? Malcolm, a New Yorker writer and biographer of note, digs deeper into some of the murky, less attractive corners of Stein's life story.

The house of her dreams in the French countryside seems to fall into her hands – although not, it turns out, without some pushing on Stein's part. And when the Nazis march into France, despite dire warnings, Stein and Toklas dig in and stay put. (They thought about leaving, Stein later wrote, but then, "I said to Alice Toklas, 'Well, I don't know – it would be awfully uncomfortable and I am fussy about my food. Let's not leave.' ") Did the paysans simply love Stein too much to betray her – or is there an uglier secret in Stein's friendship with a Nazi collaborator?

Toklas, in her dark, scuttling charmlessness, is as unique a character as is Stein. She seemed to live only to wait on Stein, "a poor relation, someone invited to the wedding but not to the feast." Stein wrote only about a half hour a day ("It takes a lot of time to be a genius, you have to sit around so much doing nothing, really doing nothing," she said) and then Toklas would scurry to organize the pages Stein had dropped. And yet some evidence suggests that at least at times it was Toklas who bullied Stein – one of the many contradictions that challenge a biographer.

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Malcolm makes no secret of the imperfect nature of her own craft. She makes herself a character in her book (occasionally exclaiming things like, "Look at how I have used poor Roubina!"). And speaking of people she uses, her sources – the Stein "experts" – became characters of their own in Malcolm's book.

Don't read "Two Lives" for a definitive portrait of Stein. Malcolm knows both her subject and her métier too well to pretend that such a thing exists. But if the idea of a quirky, zesty dive into early 20th-century European celebrity culture and an odd but bracing literary backwater appeals, this is your book.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.