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In The New Yorker

For me, this week's standout articles are Rachel Cohen's essay on Leonard Woolf and the latest installment of Janet Malcolm's assessment of Gertrude Stein/Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas. Sometimes Ms Malcolm writes about the famous writer, and sometimes she writes about the famous couple. This week, she writes about the women as Jews. Stein was quietly but firmly committed to her identity as a Jew; Toklas went so far in the other direction as to be received into the Catholic Church. She did not share her partner's acceptance of the old maxim, "When a Jew dies, he's dead," but fervently believed in a paradisiacal afterlife, in which she and Stein would be reunited - if she prayed hard enough to get the unbaptized Stein out of limbo.

The essay also touches on the inevitable incompleteness of knowledge. Stein and Toklas were both unusual women, and it is difficult if not impossible to extrapolate what we don't know about them from what we do. Stein was womanly, in a strong sort of way; Toklas was ladylike in a guarded sort of way. And yet in their indifference to what people thought about them they were almost feral, and it is this quality, I expect, that will keep them alive for many years to come. Notwithstanding a startling want of appealing looks, they seemed never to doubt that they would attract admirers - even if everybody preferred Stein.

Leonard Woolf toiled dutifully in the shade of a grove of geniuses; it was only when the grove was cut down by death that he showed his stuff, in a serial autobiography that he began in his eighties. Rachel Cohen gracefully sketches the reception of his earlier works, novels and political histories, in "Village Scribe," noting that his wife and friends always got better, longer reviews. Praising Victoria Glendinning's new biography, Leonard Woolf, Ms Cohen writes,

through the ages of Woolf's life - the childhood among impoverished middle-class Jews (the family fortunes diminished when Woolf was eleven and his barrister father died); an adolescence reading classics at St Paul's on scholarship; intellectual emergence at Cambridge; seven difficult and transformative years in Ceylon as a colonial administrator; and nearly six decades of editing, marriage, war, and labor politics - one sees the flickering aspirations of Leonard Woolf the writer, which, though often invisible to others, remained, to him, a central fact of his existence.


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Argh, I am weeks behind in my New Yorkers. I was pretty disgusted by the wartime activities of the Stein/Toklas nexus, and am naturally repulsed by Stein's reactionary politics. After the war, Stein and Toklas protected their Gestapo-linked wartime protector Bernard Faÿ, even financing his escape from a French prison (Callil, Bad Faith, p.522)

Stein is also my mother's family name, but there is no reason to believe we are related -- theirs was truncated from Rubinstein at the turn of the century; Jews with similar last names tend not to be related, as last names among Jews became common only in the 19th century.

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