- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2008

“For better or worse,” writes English biographer Jonathan Carr in The Wagner Clan, the descendants of composer Richard Wagner “are Germany’s most famous family.” In graceful, sometimes elegant prose, Mr. Carr — whose earlier works include a biography of Gustav Mahler — tells of Wagner, the famed opera festival that he founded, his musical family and his coterie of notorious admirers, headed by Adolf Hitler (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27.50, 409 pages, illus.).

The Master, as he was universally called among his circle of sycophants, was a rough diamond. In the words of American composer Virgil Thomson, he was “Perfidious in friendship, ungrateful in love, irresponsible in politics, [and] utterly without principle in his professional life.” That was on his good days. On other occasions, Mr. Carr writes, “Wagner could never bear to be away from the center of attention, sometimes emitting a piercing scream simply to shut up guests who had the effrontery to chat among themselves.”

If Wagner was not Mr. Charm, he was still a musical genius who changed the face of opera. Alas, he was also a political polemicist whose writings included blatantly anti-Semitic essays. In private, Mr. Carr writes, the Master “found good things as well as bad to say about Jews,” particularly those he found properly obsequious. But polemical essays such as “Jewishness In Music” were in print and therefore impossible to deny.

Mr. Wagner comes through as a genial sage in comparison with his adoring second wife, Cosima, the daughter of composer Franz Liszt. It was Cosima who ran the Bayreuth festival with an iron hand following Wagner’s death in 1883, and her abhorrence of Jews was, in Mr. Carr’s words, “complete and obsessive.” The implicit anti-Semitism in some of the Master’s works became an essential part of his art.

Cosima lived well into the 20th century, but management of the festival fell into the hands of Winifred Wagner, the English-born wife of the Master’s bisexual son, Siegfried. In 1923 an aspiring politician named Adolf Hitler made a pilgrimage to Bayreuth, where he met Winnie. It was love at first sight — on Hitler’s part, love of the Wagner family as a symbol of German nationalism, on Winnie’s part, love for the charismatic fuhrer she called “Wolf.” Winnie eagerly awaited his surprise visits to Bayreuth.

The festival fell on hard times in the 1930s, but Hitler saw to it that Winnie received grants that put Bayreuth on a sound financial basis.

After World War II, Allied authorities initially occupied the festival grounds and banned Winnie from the premises. She underwent a series of de-Nazification trials in which she was ultimately judged a “follower” of Hitler rather than a major offender, a distinction that allowed her to resume her festival activities.

Several of her children sought to depose Winnie, but she fought them off until 1949, when she became convinced that her past was a liability to the festival and resigned. She lived on until 1980, dropping in on Hitler Youth reunions from time to time.

One need not be a devotee of Wagner’s music to appreciate Mr. Carr’s riveting account of the long-running soap opera that is the Bayreuth festival as run by the Wagner clan.

•••

Janet Malcolm’s wry, rambling meditation on the 40-year relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, first published by The New Yorker in 2003, has now been expanded into a small book, Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice (Yale University Press, $25, 229 pages, illus.), and if you like this sort of thing, it’s an amusing read. The book sheds a good deal of light on the two women’s turbulent life together, and it picks pertinent examples from Stein’s work to illustrate why her writings are seldom read: Consider the poem titled “Box,” inspired by Cubist still-lifes: “Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin.”

Barring the publication of a racy Ph.D. dissertation written decades ago by Leon Katz, who spent the winter of 1952-53 listening to Toklas spill the couple’s secrets (Stein had died in 1946), interest in the pair seems likely to continue to languish. Ms. Malcolm, who was unable to get Mr. Katz to meet her, shrugs, “Biography and autobiography are the aggregate of what, in the former, the author happens to learn, and, in the latter, he chooses to tell.”

One of the things Stein and Toklas did not speak of was their Jewish heritage, and Ms. Malcolm makes much of their having survived World War II in Vichy France while others did not. Their neighbors in the countryside liked them, and, Ms. Malcolm shows, a friend in the Petain government, Bernard Fay, protected them. After the war, Fay was sent to prison for his participation in the Nazis’ persecution of Freemasons, but Toklas eventually helped secure his escape to Switzerland.

Ms. Malcolm uses a lot of space analyzing Stein’s mammoth so-called anti-novel, “The Making of Americans,” notable for passages such as this: “Every word I am ever using in writing has for me very existing being. Using a word I have not yet been using in my writing is to me very difficult and a peculiar feeling … There are only a few words and with these mostly always I am writing that have for me completely entirely existing being, in talking I use many more of them of words I am not living but talking is another thing.”

According to Ms. Malcolm, “Stein seems to be … making a kind of literal translation of what is going on in her mind. The alacrity with which she catches her thoughts before they turn into stale standard expressions may be the most singular of her accomplishments.”

And what is Toklas’s role in this? She took the pages Stein wrote as they flowed from her pen and typed them. She cooked (and wrote a cook book). She encouraged Stein to write something in regular English rather than experimental prose so that she could get the recognition both believed she deserved. Toklas’ persona comes through as unappealing. Ms. Malcolm quotes one source who describes the conflict between Stein’s “creative spirit” and Toklas’ “practical” one during a fractious car trip in France: “Stein was the naughty child who wants to have fun no matter what, and Toklas was the grownup with tightly compressed lips.”

Ms. Malcolm labels Stein’s influence on literature as nebulous, but adds that “every writer who lingers over Stein’s sentences is apt to feel a little stab of shame over the heedless predictability of his own.”

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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