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 (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.