Fiction: Stepsisters, Lovers and Gender-Bending Artists, Now Celebrated in a Novel

NEVER ANYONE BUT YOU
By Rupert Thomson
350 pp. Other Press. $25.95

The basic facts of the lives of Claude Cahun (nee Lucie Schwob) and Marcel Moore (nee Suzanne Malherbe) offer enough material for any number of novels. They met as teenagers in France in 1909 and fell in love. They hid the affair, of course, but fortunately for them Schwob’s divorced father married Suzanne’s widowed mother in 1917, making them stepsisters. After moving to Paris, the pair began their lives together deep in the Surrealist milieu. Separately and together, they produced a great deal of art — collages, theater pieces, poetry, prose, photographs and sculpture. Perhaps Cahun’s most famous work is an extensive series of photographed self-portraits as various identities, morphing from androgyne to Pierrot to angel with wings to bodybuilder. They are still astonishing. In some, Cahun looks like a marine; in others, a strange doll; in still others, a two-headed being, with both heads bald. It isn’t hard to understand why David Bowie curated an exhibit of Cahun’s work in 2007, Cahun being one who fell to earth long before Ziggy Stardust was even imagined. During World War II, Cahun and Moore lived in Jersey, which was under German occupation. They created and distributed a series of anti-Nazi fliers, for which they were arrested, jailed and condemned to death. Liberated before the sentence could be carried out, they remained together until Cahun died in 1954. Moore committed suicide in 1972.

One can hardly glance at these facts without wondering so many things. Not least is how they had the courage to do what they did, all their lives, and what it was like to be them, together, over all those decades, in all those rooms, jail cells, salons and studios. Plus being, legally, sisters. And did I mention that Cahun was Jewish? There’s so much sheer moxie, prismatic identity, pleasure and danger in these lives that a novelist might have trouble deciding what angle to choose. The fact that Rupert Thomson has centered “Never Anyone But You,” his novel about the pair, on that 40-plus-year relationship suggests that his imagination was fired by a queer intimacy that spanned two world wars and was intertwined with a highly original, often collaborative Surrealist artistic practice in which identities were fluid and ever-changing.

This turns out to be a false assumption. Thomson, the author of 10 previous novels, many of them either thrillers or incorporating the elements of thrillers, doesn’t appear to be much interested in those aspects of Cahun and Moore. He isn’t obliged to be, of course, although one might well wonder why so much rich raw material has been left on the table — or signal that Cahun and Moore’s relationship is at the heart of this novelistic transformation of history when it isn’t. Thomson offers, instead, two well brought-up young ladies who say things like “What’s gender, anyway?” and deliver explanations of the Dreyfus affair, Surrealism (“the Surrealists used automatic writing and trancelike states to unearth truths hidden in language and in themselves”), sexist attitudes toward women and madness, André Breton’s many feuds with his fellow Surrealists and other encyclopedic facts. Famous artists are always attending the novel’s parties and gatherings, and are duly described. There is an episode of Claude’s with a man named Bob — perhaps an affair, perhaps not — and much is made of Bob, who reappears either in the flesh or as a topic of discussion. Claude attempts suicide on a fairly regular basis, but this is never explored, nor does Marcel dwell on it overmuch.

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The novel is narrated from Marcel’s point of view, but Marcel is at best a lens, an eyewitness to history, a stoic nursemaid and a reliable guide. Of Claude, her partner in life and art, she says, “like the Surrealists,” she “believed dreams had a way of throwing light on the fundamental questions of our daily lives.” To whom would she be addressing this observation? Late in her relationship with Claude, she observes that “sometimes the person you’re closest to is the one you understand the least.” True enough. Thomson’s engagement with Cahun’s work is slight, and his engagement with Moore’s nearly nonexistent. Cahun is gifted and troubled, in a very distant way, and Moore pretty much abides by the conventions attached to the wife of a powerful artist: helpmeet, reasonable intermediary, survivor, emotional caretaker.

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