Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, January 18, 2018

Thursday, January 18, 2018: Maximum Shelf: Never Anyone but You

Other Press: Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson

Other Press: Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson

Other Press: Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson

Other Press: Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson

Never Anyone but You

by Rupert Thomson

In Never Anyone but You, Rupert Thomson (The Insult; Katherine Carlyle) re-creates with intimate and emotional detail the lives--and love--of two extraordinary women who lived in the early half of the 20th century: Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore.

Claude and Marcel met as teenagers (then named Lucie and Suzanne, respectively). Despite the possible censure they faced at the time, the two fell in love and embarked on a decades-long relationship with one another. In a stranger-than-fiction twist, their clandestine relationship was further covered by the fact that the divorced father of one married the widowed mother of the other, allowing the two women to live together as stepsisters without raising suspicion.

While history has better remembered Claude--her self-portraits and writing, in particular, have preserved many of her ideas on femininity and gender norms that are as relevant (indeed, downright revolutionary) today as they were during her lifetime--Thomson brings the love between Claude and Marcel to life by writing from Marcel's perspective. This narrative decision serves two purposes: first, by writing in the first person, Thomson conveys an emotional depth to the relationship that would be lacking if told from without. And second, by maintaining Claude as the subject of another's perspective, the art she's left behind is given further context for those who may seek it out.

That being said, the experiences of these two women were so intertwined and interrelated that Never Anyone but You is not so much an accounting of their individual lives and actions, but rather an exploration of their shared life.

"Sometimes, though, just sometimes, Claude would become me and I would become her--while making love, for instance, or dancing--and it was unforced and seamless, it was comfortable, this reversing of our roles, this intermingling of our attributes and our desires. I had seen acquaintances of ours notice this capacity in us, and I had watched it arouse their jealousy... they realized that they didn't have anything we wanted, and they took our self-sufficiency as a kind of rejection, or even as an expression of contempt."

This intimacy between the two women is born in part from the secrecy of their relationship and their continued dependence on one another for love and support. More importantly, though, it is what gave both a place of inclusivity in a world that wanted to exclude them--because of their gender, their sexuality, their politics, or some combination thereof.

Thomson's novels have varied in subject, but his skill as a novelist is on full display in Never Anyone but You. Drawing on historical facts and what is known of Claude and Marcel's personal lives, he has built a richly imagined work of historical fiction that succeeds in capturing the essence of each distinct period of Claude and Marcel's life together: their teenage years in the provincial town of Nantes; the energy and passion of the Surrealist movement in 1920s Paris; the reclusive nature of the women's retreat in Jersey; the fear and apprehension that lay over Jersey during the German occupation of the Channel Islands. Each of these distinct periods serves to provide further context to the complex story of two individual women who defied expectations to live a life of their own creation.

This idea of self-determination and creation was central to Claude's art, and so it's perhaps not surprising that it features so prominently in Thomson's novel. But what Thomson succeeds in imagining, with layers of sentiment that make the story resonate across the decades, is the importance of that determination to the very identity of both women. It is the driving force behind Suzanne's decision to stay with Lucie; it is behind their decision to rename themselves upon arriving in Paris in the 1920s; it is what leads them to set up an exceptionally dangerous anti-Nazi propaganda project in Jersey during the German occupation of their home.

Perhaps most importantly, it is also central to their love for one another. Marcel recognizes the work Claude has put into making the "constantly shifting construct that was herself," and does everything in her power to preserve that construct, no matter the cost to herself or the forces working against her.

Steeped in historical detail, surprisingly timely statements on gender norms and mental health, and suspenseful moments of choice and deliberation, Never Anyone but You is a captivating and heartfelt tale of love and the many shapes it can take. --Kerry McHugh

Other Press, $25.95, hardcover, 320p., 9781590519134, June 5, 2018

Other Press: Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson

Rupert Thomson: Between the Real and the Imagined

photo: Sveta Mishima

Rupert Thomson is the author of several novels, including The Insult, selected by David Bowie as one of 100 Must-Read Books of All Time; Death of a Murderer, shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel; and Katherine Carlyle. His latest novel, Never Anyone but You, tells the story of the real-life love affair between Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Thomson lives in London.

Never Anyone but You is based on a true story. How did you first come across Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore?

I found a photo of Claude Cahun in a magazine. She had shaved eyebrows, a shaved head, and she was wearing a black dress. Her head was kind of turned away. She just looked really bizarre. And I thought, "Who is that?"

There were a few biographical details in the article, and they were so intriguing. It was such an extraordinary story, and one I hadn't heard before. Never Anyone but You didn't start as a book quite then, but it lodged in my head, as these ideas often do.

The book is rich with historical detail across both women's lives and spanning several decades of the 20th century. How did you conduct your research?

I take a kind of peculiar attitude to research. I usually just start with my intuition. I wrote one or two drafts of the novel without knowing much at all. I do that to understand the psychological underpinnings of the characters. Background, structure, pace--all those things can come later, as far as I'm concerned. What I was really trying to get at is the relationship between Marcel and Claude.

This is a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because I nearly always discover valuable things that I wouldn't have discovered if I did all the research and at the end painstakingly constructed a book out of all the facts. It's bad because I make all kinds of mistakes. I write things that couldn't possibly have happened. So later on, I have a fair amount of problems.

I did go to Jersey twice, interviewed a bunch of people, and must have read over 100 books. I read and read and read, everything I could lay my hands on. But there does come a point when you realize you know what you need to know, and you have to go ahead with the writing.

I also tell this story from Marcel's voice. There are things she wouldn't have known in her life, or things she wouldn't have found important. The novel is her looking back on 40 years with an extraordinary and complicated woman. So all the research had to be run through the lens of Marcel's mentality. And that became a way of filtering what I was reading. That made it much easier to know what I was going to use and what I wasn't going to use. 

You mentioned this approach caused some problems, though?

After I'd been working on the book for over a year, I tracked down François Leperlier, who wrote the main biography of Claude.

There was a point in August 2015 when we met in person and had drinks together and dinner, and I asked to be in touch with him via e-mail. He was so unbelievably patient and useful. I would have tiny questions like, "When the two women lived on Jersey, did they have a car?" and then I'd have huge questions like, "What kind of Marxist was Calhoun? What kind of Marxism did they believe in?"

We went back and forth on lots of questions, and then, a year later, I went and spent three days with him. That actually almost undermined the book completely. I have this opening scene, for example, that takes place when the Germans are about to occupy Jersey, and Marcel is swimming in the sea, and feels the bombs falling miles away. François stopped me and said, "That's impossible. There's no evidence that Marcel was in the sea when that happened. Claude wrote about that moment and never mentioned anything about it." But as far as I was concerned, there was nothing Claude wrote that says Marcel wasn't in the sea, either.

We had a kind of clash between the academic nonfiction writer and the fiction writer, who works with the imagination. It was a really interesting few days, because he'd keep finding things with no evidence to prove it did happen, while I felt there was no evidence to say it didn't.

I have a theory about real facts and imagined facts. And the imagined facts take precedence even though I'm writing about real people. What fascinated me most about their story is what happened behind closed doors. Those moments that no historian could write, because they can only write things based on evidence. But the whole point of fiction is to go beyond that. So, for me, if something felt psychologically appropriate, I'd go ahead with it. 

Early in her relationship with Claude, Marcel says, "It was the life I was living that unnerved me. The path I had chosen was the one that I could not imagine."

That line looks so simple when you first read it, but it's actually quite a complicated idea. I believe mystery comes from clarity, rather than the other way around.

Marcel had, at one point, imagined a fairly conventional life for herself. Claude throws all of that completely up into the air. The idea of having a lover who is a woman at that time and that place was really unthinkable. I believe Claude's effect on Marcel was rather seismic. She changed Marcel completely. 

Really, the book is a love story. It's one woman talking about the life she spent with another woman who is just extraordinarily complicated and complex and vulnerable. It is an exploration of what is it like to love someone so impossible. --Kerry McHugh

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