Nev­er Any­one But You: A Novel

Rupert Thom­son

  • Review
By – October 1, 2018

In Nev­er Any­one But You, Rupert Thom­son recre­ates the lives of Claude Cahun (born Lucie Schwob) and Mar­cel Moore (born Suzanne Mal­herbe), two French artists who rein­vent­ed them­selves in the 1930s by tak­ing on gen­der-ambigu­ous names, defy­ing gen­der norms, and test­ing the bound­aries of sex­u­al expres­sion dur­ing their time.

After meet­ing as teenagers, Mar­cel and Claude real­ize their roman­tic attrac­tion to each oth­er, which they aim to keep to them­selves. Odd­ly, Marcel’s moth­er ends up mar­ry­ing Claude’s father, which allows the girls to hide behind the label of sis­ters” in their affec­tion toward one another.

The book is nar­rat­ed by Mar­cel, the lev­el-head­ed care­tak­er whose astute obser­va­tions help the read­er under­stand the envi­ron­ment of the couple’s social and artis­tic milieux. Claude is the more well-known and emo­tion­al­ly dri­ven of the pair — a free spir­it with a pro­gres­sive atti­tude toward sex­u­al expres­sion. She is out­spo­ken and uncon­cerned about cre­at­ing ene­mies at a time of war, but Mar­cel keeps the rela­tion­ship ground­ed and seem­ing­ly con­ven­tion­al in the eyes of soci­ety in order to pre­vent sus­pi­cion. Com­mit­ted to a future with Claude, Mar­cel staunch­ly helps her through ill­ness as well as sui­ci­dal ideations. (These become some­what of an obses­sion for Claude, in part due to her own mother’s men­tal disturbances.)

As young women in Paris, Claude and Mar­cel min­gle with famous artists and intel­lec­tu­als in the sur­re­al­ist move­ment. Through their own writ­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy, they aim to cap­ture diverse por­tray­als of gen­der and fem­i­nin­i­ty. They dis­cuss the beau­ty of life as well as the increased ten­sions between pol­i­tics and art caused by the rise of fas­cism and anti-Semit­ic atti­tudes. To them, art has become even more nec­es­sary as a means of cre­at­ing a dis­tinct, poet­ic self among increas­ing­ly hor­ri­fy­ing pol­i­tics, and immi­nent war.

As he fol­lows the course of the two artists’ lives, Thom­son con­veys how time peri­od and loca­tion impact­ed their out­looks and rela­tion­ship. Once the war reach­es France, the cou­ple move to the island of Jer­sey in order to remain as anony­mous as pos­si­ble. There they help a Jew­ish man hide from the Nazis, and secret­ly cre­ate and dis­trib­ute anti-Nazi leaflets. Due to their antifas­cist activ­i­ties and the fact that Claude is part Jew­ish, they end up in prison for the last months of the war. This nat­u­ral­ly dis­rupts their abil­i­ty to express them­selves in the free way they were used to; Claude’s per­cep­tion of her­self changes as she deals with her lack of con­trol over her future. Indeed, the lim­i­ta­tions of wartime weigh on both of them, but also makes the two real­ize how well they have learned to under­stand each oth­er over the past forty years.

While Thomson’s nov­el is a work of fic­tion, he helps read­ers under­stand the com­plex­i­ties of Claude and Marcel’s lives in a way that his­tor­i­cal texts will not. Thom­son deft­ly punc­tu­ates his­tor­i­cal sto­ry­telling with imag­ined dia­logue and descrip­tion; he brings the read­er into their con­ver­sa­tions about love and loss in a time of war, and uses his char­ac­ters to dis­cuss the pos­si­bil­i­ties of defin­ing one­self against the grain. This is a book of excep­tion­al mer­it, and gives life to a less­er-known cou­ple whose sto­ry adds depth to our under­stand­ing of World War II resistance.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

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