In Rupert Thomson’s 2018 novel, Never Anyone But You, Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, a lesbian couple living in Paris and then Jersey in the 1930s, come of age together, reinvent their identities, and develop original ideas regarding sexual expression in art. The intellectual crowd whom they associate with leads them to campaign against rising fascism and antisemitism. Based on the historical figures by the same names, this novel creatively captures a lesser-known tale regarding Nazi resistance within the avant-garde Surrealist community during World War II. Upon the release of the paperback edition of Never Anyone But You, Thomson discusses the characters and inspiration behind the novel.
Jamie Wendt: Rupert, what initially inspired you to write a historical fiction novel about Claude and Marcel? What attracted you to these little-known heroes? And why did you settle with historical fiction, as opposed to biography or another genre?
Rupert Thomson: When I start working on a book, genre is never part of my thinking. All I have is an idea that I feel driven to explore. My books are like jackdaws: they might steal from a genre, but they don’t obey its rules.
What attracted me to Claude and Marcel? I was flicking through a copy of the London Review of Books in 2006 when I came across an eerie black-and-white image of a woman named Claude Cahun. With her shaved head and black lips, she looked like a vampire. My first thought was: “Who’s that?” When I started reading, I discovered an extraordinary life. Two extraordinary lives, in fact, because Claude had loved and lived with another woman for more than forty years.
The thought of writing a biography never crossed my mind. If I’m drawn to something, it’s because it has fictional possibilities. About two years in, I considered turning the book into a hybrid that would include first-person nonfiction accounts of what happened during my research — there were so many stories! Also, perhaps, essays on related topics like women and Surrealism, but in the end, the desire to write from Marcel Moore’s point of view was just too strong. From the outset, I saw Never Anyone But You as a love story, one woman’s account of the forty years she spent with someone she couldn’t live without.
JW: It is clear that even though this book is a work of fiction, you heavily researched Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore’s lives, including their artwork and propaganda, as well as their experience hiding a Jewish refugee and eventually being arrested for their campaign. Describe what your research for this book entailed. What surprised you during your research? And what challenges did you face?
RT: I was dealing with enormous subjects that I knew very little about — the Surrealist movement, Paris in the 20s and 30s, and the Second World War, to name just three. I could have spent the rest of my life just reading about Paris! During the two and a half years it took to write Never Anyone But You, I probably read more than a hundred books, many of them in French. I travelled to Jersey twice, spent time in Paris, and went to see Claude’s biographer in Normandy. Francois Leperlier singlehandedly rediscovered Claude Cahun in the early 80s, and he spent three days answering my questions. He gave me access to his archive. Over the years, he must have answered dozens of my emails. I couldn’t have written the book without him.
The most surprising moment came when I managed to track down Lucille Renouf, who had been Claude and Marcel’s housekeeper in the last years of Claude’s life. Ninety-three years old, she was living in a care home in St. Helier and suffering from severe dementia, but she was able to give me one or two fragments or impressions that were like gold to me. It took me eighteen months to find her. Sometimes researching a novel can turn you into a detective.
It took me eighteen months to find her. Sometimes researching a novel can turn you into a detective.
JW: How much of the novel follows factual accounts of Claude and Marcel’s lives, and at what points in the novel did you take more creative liberties? Can you discuss your process of creative invention while still staying true to the heroes’ real-life story and timeline of events?
RT: If I had known everything before I started, I would have felt hamstrung or overwhelmed. There wouldn’t have been any room for the imagination. In the first draft, I wrote fast, almost recklessly, trying to pin down some kind of psychological or emotional truth. What was it like behind closed doors when the two women were alone? How would they talk to each other? I would make up scenes that seemed in character, not knowing whether they could have happened. It didn’t matter. They could be reworked later, or discarded. What excited me was to write between and behind the few facts that I had.
That approach had a further advantage, which I only appreciated afterwards. I was writing to find out what I needed to find out. When you research a subject, you constantly come across vivid stories. There was a night in Paris when Josephine Baker didn’t appear onstage. The manager went looking for her and found her sitting on the floor of her dressing-room. She was stark naked, eating a lobster. How I longed to include that! But I had to be true to the story I was telling. Imagined facts have to take priority over real facts. Real facts are servants of the narrative. They need to earn their place.
I am always careful not to take liberties with the truth. I read everything I could lay my hands on, and that included Claude and Marcel’s personal letters and papers. I read about the people they had known as well. I gazed at photographs of the two women for hours. I travelled to the places where they had lived. I walked those streets. I got into the houses if I could. Even at a late stage, though, I would discover inconvenient facts, and once you know something you can’t pretend you don’t. While working on the final draft — the tenth — I found out that Marcel had a mastectomy. It seemed unlikely that she wouldn’t mention something so distressing. But I had to find ways of including it that felt natural.
JW: As I was reading your book, I was struck by your protagonists’ struggles with hiding their homosexuality and the ways in which their sexual identities impacted most of their major decisions. Claude and Marcel are able to hide behind the guise of sisters due to Marcel’s mother marrying Claude’s father, which allows them to live together in a home on the island of Jersey during the worst times of the war. How did you uncover the difficulties of same-sex love in the World War II era, and did you have any challenges in writing their intimate relationship?
What excited me was to write between and behind the few facts that I had.
RT: Same-sex love is something I experienced as a teenager, so I’m not unfamiliar with the anxiety and persecution that goes with it. Also, I read Oscar Wilde, Andre Gide, and various other homosexual writers of the period. And, of course, I read and reread everything Claude wrote. Not that she ever gives too much away. She was essentially a Symbolist, in the tradition of Baudelaire, and her writing was almost always elusive, playful, and obscure. It was a matter of reading between the lines.
When it came to describing Claude and Marcel’s relationship, I was clear about one thing from the start. I would not be describing any sexual acts. I didn’t feel I had the right, or the authority. If I take the reader into the bedroom, it is always either before or after sex. In the end, Claude and Marcel are real people. I’m trying to be truthful and capture them, but it’s important to show respect.
JW: For Claude and Marcel, French Surrealist art seems to be about gender expression, sexual ambiguity, mental illness, and understanding increased tensions between politics and creativity. Rupert, how did the Surrealist movement seem to both influence them as a couple and individually? And how did their work as artists pave the way for their anti-Nazi propaganda, which results in their arrest from their home in Jersey?
RT: Claude and Marcel shared many of the beliefs and aims of the Surrealists, but they never joined the movement. Some have hypothesized that they lacked the self-confidence, but my feeling is that they saw Surrealism as a movement that was dominated by men who seemed unwilling or unable to take women seriously, men who regarded women’s role as that of a muse, as if that was all they were good for. Furthermore, many of these men regarded homosexuality with wariness, if not disgust. Such an attitude would clearly have alienated Claude and Marcel. Also, I suspect they had no real interest in affiliation. In the end, they were just too private, too particular.
Claude had written since she was in her teens — provocative journalism at first, then experimental prose. Marcel was known for her exquisite drawings. During the 20s, the two women collaborated on a series of ground-breaking black-and-white images, which feature Claude pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a woman. When war broke out, it was almost as if Claude and Marcel had been preparing for it. Everything they were passionate about — their left-wing politics, their shape-shifting, their creativity, their spirit of defiance, even their command of languages (Claude spoke English, Marcel knew German) — was put to use in a highly daring and idiosyncratic propaganda campaign against the Nazis. Claude later referred to their campaign as “militant surrealist activity.” In a curious, almost perverse way, World War II was the opportunity they had been waiting for.
During the 20s, the two women collaborated on a series of ground-breaking black-and-white images, which feature Claude pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a woman.
JW: In what ways do you think art responds to war, and what is the value of art in a time of war? How might Claude and Marcel answer this question?
RT: Art is the voice of reason, and the upholder of the truth. It is also a weapon against what Robert Jay Lifton called the “psychic numbing” that happens in the face of the carnage and horror brought about by war.
Claude and Marcel would probably say that it is the duty of an artist to resist injustice and that art can often prove more effective than violence. When the two women were tried by the Nazis in November 1944, the German prosecutor, Sarmsen, accused them of having employed what he called “spiritual weapons.” This meant that their crime was greater, and that their sentence would be more severe. With real weapons, Sarmsen argued, you can see the damage. With spiritual weapons, there is no telling what damage might have been done. We don’t know how Claude reacted, but I imagine she would have agreed with him.
JW: With the continued publication of new novels revolving around various aspects of World War II, what continues to make World War II historical fiction an intriguing genre from the writer’s point of view? And why do you think World War II literature continues to appeal to today’s readers?
RT: I have never understood why World War II fiction is so popular, either with writers or readers. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it reveals the entire spectrum of human experience and capability. Courage and heroism at one end, depravity at the other. There is also something hallucinogenic and surreal about war. The limits of behavior are consistently explored. Anything goes.
JW: Your protagonists show concerns about the treatment of people who are considered “other,” including minorities, immigrants, and refugees, and how a government chose to treat those people. Are any of your characters’ worries and concerns still relevant today? What do you hope today’s readers will continue to think about after finishing your book?
RT: Claude and Marcel’s worries and concerns are more relevant than ever. (If they were marginal figures while they were alive, it was simply because they were so far ahead of their time.) As a couple, they produced literary and photographic work that challenged gender boundaries and flouted traditional concepts of what it meant to be a woman. They fought against patriarchy, homophobia, and fascism, sometimes risking their very lives in the process. We’re still fighting against those injustices today. If Claude and Marcel are iconic, it is because they consistently and repeatedly dared to speak the truth to power at a time when such a thing was unheard of.
I would like readers to see gender as a spectrum, not as something binary or black-and-white. As Claude herself said, “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the circumstances. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.” Claude reclaimed a word that is often seen as indeterminate or weak and turned it into a position of strength. Her aim was to cross — or even overcome — all gender boundaries, and to arrive, ideally, at a gender that couldn’t be compared to anyone else’s. She believed that gender is not given to you. It is something you make yourself and is unique to you. To take this wider, I hope readers will be inspired to stand up for what they believe in, no matter how daunting the odds. Claude and Marcel certainly did.
Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018) and winner of the 2019 National Federation of Press Women Book Award. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals and anthologies, including Feminine Rising: Voices of Power and Invisibility, Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, the Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.