Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Few authors could make the lives of two 20th century French women lovers as spellbinding as has Rupert Thomson in Never Anyone but You.
He did have fascinating material on which to base historical fiction: gender-bending Lucie Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, members of the interwar Paris avant-garde, who produced literature, art, photography and anti-Nazi propaganda.
“Our first meeting of any consequence was in the spring of 1909,” when Lucie was 14, says Thomson’s Suzanne, the book’s narrator. Then nearly 17, Suzanne was smitten instantly. “I couldn’t take my eyes off her. My mouth was dry and my heart was jumping. Later, Lucie would claim that she had felt the same.”
Their forbidden romance required subterfuge until, by fortuitous coincidence, Lucie’s divorced father married Suzanne’s widowed mother, making the girls sisters and allaying suspicion of their togetherness.
Half-Jewish Lucie, unstable and impulsive, aspired to write, despised convention and wanted to be free of all labels including gender. In 1920, they moved to Paris. Lucie had reinvented herself as Claude Cahun — wearing men’s clothes, hair cut to pig-bristle length.
Artist Suzanne, the level-headed, practical one, called herself Marcel Moore and also wore men’s clothes.
Lucie/Claude’s dark side led to several suicide attempts. “There was a part of Claude that didn’t believe she deserved to live,” says Suzanne/Marcel. Being published — Claude’s first book was Disavowals — and Marcel’s love didn’t eliminate some deep gloom. Of her, Thomson writes: “Shadows don’t fade, even when the sun goes in.”
In Paris, Marcel was an illustrator, Claude a writer, the two falling in with intellectuals, performers and artists, some of them Dadaists, at the beginning of the Surrealist movement. In Thomson’s telling, their social whirl included big names such as Hemingway and Dali.
In the 1920s, the two began vacationing in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off France belonging to Britain. In 1937, Claude demanded to escape France’s growing anti-Semitism. Financially independent, they moved to Jersey in spring 1938.
Claude and Marcel swam, hiked, sunbathed nude and photographed nature and each other — especially Claude in both normal and unusual poses and outfits. Most of their photos, and Marcel’s art, were looted after their arrest by the German occupiers.
The propaganda began almost casually, Claude finding a German cigarette pack and writing a couple of lines on it. Their freelance efforts increased to rhymes, drawings and BBC news bits intended to demoralize — daringly distributed in places German soldiers frequented, in Germans’ vehicles and even slipped into soldiers’ coat pockets.
In 1944, they were caught and sentenced to death plus six years, nine months hard labor. In Thomson’s telling, sarcastic Claude asked the judges: “Do we have to do the six years and nine months before we’re shot?”
They lingered in separate cells, nearly starved and in daily fear of execution, but as war’s end drew closer their sentences were commuted to life in prison.
The fundamental facts are true, but historical fiction leaves unknown the extent of author invention beyond. Never Anyone but You is the eleventh novel by Thomson, much acclaimed in Britain for Katherine Carlyle, The Insult and The Book of Revelation, and it’s so well done that, as a friend sometimes says, “if it’s not true, it should be.”
Thomson engages readers quickly, by opening in 1940 with Marcel’s ocean swim interrupted by German aircraft bombing Jersey.
But thinking back over the story, it seems that beyond their propaganda and its consequences, little that is external happens to Claude and Marcel. Yet Thomson’s simple yet elegant writing, descriptions of surroundings and exposition of the internal — what happens between the two — combine to make Never Anyoneunexpectedly fascinating.
Claude’s increasingly frail physical and mental health was worsened severely by imprisonment, and she died in 1954. Marcel lived until 1972. A single stone marks their graves in a church cemetery on Jersey. It gives their birth names, Claude’s spelled Lucy. Above each name is a Jewish star.
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, 6.15.18)