Crafting a fictional narrative out of the life of a historical figure is always a difficult undertaking. No matter how much research one does, there is that ineffable quality which animates an individual, quite distinct from their art, their writing, or the way their actions are chronicled in written sources. That vital dynamism is what truly distinguishes individuals, and often renders them quite different to those who knew them from the way they are remembered to subsequent generations.
It can be hard, sometimes, to reconcile the actual personality of a character with what we know of them. We can never know exactly the sound of their laughter; the way their eyes glinted mischievously; the tenor in their voice as they expressed sarcasm, sorrow, passion or humour. The author who attempts to re-animate actual people always risks losing something of that essential quality in the process of reanimation.
This does not mean they shouldn’t try. Sometimes real life offers the best canvas for imaginative storytelling, and while the portrayal of actual historical figures in fiction ought to be taken with a grain of salt, one can still appreciate and enjoy that depiction. It is important to keep in mind that this is but one set of possibilities as to how that person acted and thought. If there are indeed manifold parallel universes, as many physicists now think, this is but a representation of one of them containing these people.
With that in mind, Never Anyone But You is a beautiful, compelling fictional recreation of the lives of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. Cahun was a writer, poet and photographer; Moore was an illustrator and photographer. Both were active in the surrealist movement in early 20th century France. They became friends and artistic collaborators as teens, and then lovers who eventually lived together in a vaguely veiled lesbian relationship (their widowed and divorced parents eventually married, allowing them to present themselves with some degree of veracity as step-sisters).
They also actively challenged gender norms – Cahun in particular – adopting gender-neutral names (Cahun was born Lucy Schwob; her partner Suzanne Malherbe), and in Cahun’s case often dressing and presenting as a man. “Shuffle the cards. Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me,” Cahun wrote in their memoir, Disavowals. (Note: I’m using gender-neutral language in today’s parlance throughout this article.)
Neither achieved the levels of fame and notoriety of their surrealist colleagues during their lifetimes. This was no doubt a reflection of the innate sexism and homo/trans-phobia still permeating the otherwise lax borders of the cultural sector. Most of their photographic work was not even exhibited until decades after Cahun’s death.
In recent years, as modern artistic doyens reclaim the non-gender-normative pioneers that frightened their predecessors, and develop a new appreciation for work that was ahead of its time, the artistic couple have enjoyed a well-deserved, and long-awaited renascence in the popular eye. They have in recent years been featured everywhere from the BBC to Vogue Magazine. In 2019 The New York Times published a belated obituary for Cahun in its “Overlooked” section (featuring obituaries of people it failed to cover when they actually died). Their story now comes in for a fictionalized retelling in Rupert Thomson’s exquisitely beautiful novel Never Anyone But You (originally published in 2018, the paperback release came out this month).
Cahun and Moore are best known for their art, as well as their subversive anti-Nazi activism in occupied France during World War II. They were caught and sentenced to death by the Nazis in 1944, but liberated the following year before the sentence was carried out. But it is their relationship with each other that emerges most clearly in Never Anyone But You.
The book is in essence a complex romance, depicting the relationship between these two artistic and innovative souls across the decades. Thomson portrays the evolving nature of this relationship and the way they navigated the many challenges they encountered; from institutionalized state homophobia and legal repression, to Moore’s efforts to cope with Cahun’s polyamorous leanings. As non-male identified artists working in the surrealist movement, they grapple with the intense sexism that lay thinly veiled beneath a movement that purported to be free-spirited and progressive. The male artists’ sexual promiscuity and excessive intellectualism deflected attention from those same men’s often misogynistic and narcissistic ways.
While about half of Never Anyone But You deals with Cahun and Moore’s experiences during the war and its aftermath, it is not so much their Resistance work but rather their attempts to grapple with the trauma induced by imprisonment and torture that proves the defining challenge. Cahun, who was beset by suicidal thoughts from youth and tried taking their life on multiple occasions, was animated by the danger and risk of Resistance activism. Thomson portrays the couple as thriving in this daring and dangerous atmosphere, assuming greater and greater risks until they are finally caught. Even surviving the months of prison and torture (the two unsuccessfully tried to kill themselves when captured) became a challenge that paradoxically kept them alive.
It was, in the end, freedom that proved difficult to adapt to. The post-traumatic stress of their imprisonment finally overwhelms them; lingering health ailments resulting from those months would lead to Cahun’s early death in 1954. Thomson does an admirable job of exploring Cahun and Moore’s efforts to deal with the trauma and stress of the ordeal in subsequent years, and this part of the novel is in a sense more engaging than their wartime adventures.
After the war they also had to contend with the passing of what remained of their creative generation. Many of the fellow artists and creators depicted so vibrantly in the first half of the novel did not survive the war; Cahun and Moore undertake with trepidation to find out what happened to their friends, several of whom wound up in concentration camps. Those who survived were forever affected by the experience, and Thomson does an impressive job of portraying the ageing of this once-daring movement. Some artists sell out to pursue commercial fame and success; others wither away, locked in dark apartments reliving the magic delirium of those frenzied inter-war years.
Thomson’s novel is not just the story of two artists, but in a roundabout way the story of the movement of which they were part. The movement is, in a sense, a third character in the novel, and he does a tremendously successful job portraying it as it grew and aged over the years along with the two key protagonists. In the early chapters, its fiery, daring, carefree and audacious – generating remarkable creative genius, capturing its followers in all the intensity of life and action that characterized their deranged days and their debaucherous nights. In its later years, it turns morose and nostalgic, festering in the lost potential of visions stilted and scattered during the war.
The characters inhabiting the movement – artists André Breton, Robert and Youki Desnos, Henri Michaux, Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier – are all well-depicted secondary characters in the story. There are cameo appearances by the likes of Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, Kiki de Montparnasse, and more. At times these early chapters risk becoming catalogues of artists, introducing characters solely for the sake of introducing them, but once Cahun and Moore leave Paris for the island of Jersey, where they spent the remainder of their lives, the narrative assumes a more interesting and advanced exploration of the two protagonists’ inner and outer worlds.
Never Anyone But You is a superb accomplishment, bringing to life not only two remarkable artists who deserve to be remembered, but animating in beautiful and vibrant detail the period in which they lived. Most of all, it is a beautiful story of a love that withstood myriad challenges, and grew and adapted in spite of all the barriers thrown in the couple’s way. The novel is absorbing, poignant, and a stirring depiction of two remarkable people and the love they had for each other.
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