NEVER ANYONE BUT YOU
by Rupert Thomson
Other Press, 345 pages
reviewed by Melanie Erspamer
With quiet skill and rich description, Rupert Thomson strings the lives of two eclectic lovers through the tumultuous history of Paris and the Channel Islands during and between the two World Wars.
In the early 20th century in Nantes, Suzanne Malherbe met Lucie Schwob, a precocious but disturbed girl from a family of wealthy Jewish intellectuals. Immediately, Suzanne felt both mental and physical attraction to her, as Thomson writes, in this novel based on their lives: “some moments are so dazzling that they obliterate everything that came before.” They swiftly became friends. Never Anyone But You is the story of the life-long relationship this early friendship spawned, a relationship that, in the novel, seems never to lose its sharpness, its occasionally doubt-inducing sincerity, its ultimately life-affirming completeness. The book reveals as it lyrically tumbles through almost eighty years the way Suzanne and Lucie’s relationship was almost self-sufficient, able to shine by itself in a large house in Jersey without the need of much outside sustenance. “Never anyone but you” morphs almost into an idealized never anything but you.
Suzanne and Lucie eventually moved to Paris and joined the Surrealist movement gathering there after World War I, adopting the pseudonyms of Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun respectively and associating with the likes of André Breton and Robert Desnos. Now, they are most well-known for the slightly eerie photographs and self-portraits of Claude, who stares hauntingly at the camera often with hair and eyebrows shaved, her thin face and prominent nose and jawline giving her a gaunt, unpleasant look. A provocation that remains provocative, unlike some of the more well-known Surrealist works, by now absorbed into the canon.
The novel’s Claude is the tormented, ambitious, eccentric one of the two, who can’t help at times revealing her desire for distractions, other people, external affirmation: through publication, important friends, or occasionally ether and starvation. Marcel—who Thomson, perhaps to stress the difference in their characters, continues to call Suzanne throughout the novel, while referring to Lucie as Claude—is a bit older, steadier, a quiet, strong-willed anchor for the wild boat that is Claude to toss about around. It is Suzanne who one would imagine saying the titular words—for from that first encounter with fourteen-year-old Claude, she truly has no eyes for anyone else, unlike the flirtatious Claude. Yet they seem mutually dependent on each other—as Claude admits to Suzanne when they are still girls, before their relationship begins: “I don’t feel that I exist unless you look at me.” The most romantic of loves: one that creates a kind of two-person solipsism.
This might seem like a beautiful knot of a relationship, but a hard one to construct a novel around. We have a love story that begins where most end, with a successful and sincere partnership that is set to last. One might think a lesbian relationship at that time, having necessarily to be kept secret, would entail its own host of travails and difficulties, but an extraordinary stroke of luck visits the two girls: Suzanne’s widowed mother and Claude’s father, separated from his insane wife, decide to remarry each other, allowing the two lovers to live together with impunity as “sisters.” At the wedding, Claude tells Suzanne: “I think we made this happen…We’re powerful, you and I, and the world has woken up and taken notice. It has molded itself to our desires.”
Neither is the plot of the novel supplied by the development of the Surrealist movement: Claude and Suzanne are involved with it, but they keep to themselves, and right before World War II, they move to a favorite vacation spot, Jersey—part of the Channel Islands, dependencies of the UK just off the coast of France—for good. There, they continue keeping to themselves, and though for some years they run an underground propaganda campaign against the Nazi occupation, they do so on their own. Yet there is a simple and evocative grace to their story, speaking to one of our main reasons for reading: an interest in the lives of others, along with pleasure in seeing language spun so elegantly. I applaud Thomson for not adding unnecessary drama to the story of these two women, stuck somewhere between the thrill of fame and the repetitive but poetic humdrum of insignificance, while saying it well enough to make it a very worthwhile read. “We swam before breakfast and then again the in the afternoon, Thomson writes.
We sunbathed naked in the bracken above Beauport beach, and in among the split, clay-colored rocks near Gross Tête. At Claude’s insistence, I took roll after roll of film—Claude striking poses on the wall outside the hotel, Claude reclining in the shallows at low tide, Claude pressed against a lightning-blasted tree.
In many aspects, the two protagonists seem almost contemporary—fighting fascism, patriarchy, and homophobia. Most ahead-of-their-times of all, perhaps, is their habit of questioning and challenging traditional categories of gender.
In many aspects, the two protagonists seem almost contemporary—fighting fascism, patriarchy, and homophobia. Most ahead-of-their-times of all, perhaps, is their habit of questioning and challenging traditional categories of gender. Not only did they take up “male” pseudonyms but Claude especially often shaved or cropped her hair and wore men’s clothing. When she is mistaken for a man, she takes “it as a compliment. A seal of approval. She [is] delighted to have escaped the prison of her gender, the tight cage of her sex.” This fluid attitude towards gender is surprisingly avant-garde even for the Surrealist movement—Breton, the leader, apparently, finds “homosexuality repulsive, but [is] titillated by the idea of a lesbian” in what seems a poorly disguised fetish. The young Claude, or Lucie at the time, is a girl troubled by the straitjacket of identity: “Your identity should not be imposed on you,” Thomson has her think, “you have to create it for yourself.” She certainly does. Although Thomson writes from the perspective of the slightly less rebellious Suzanne, the view of (gender) identity as constraint problematizes the supposed gulf between a male author and his female narrator. As readers we might ask, what exactly are the affinities that need to be taken into account in the author-narrator relationship?
Perhaps asking that question, too, Thomson makes the safer choice of Suzanne over Claude as narrator. Claude’s eccentricity and struggles with mental illness come across as semi-biographical character description from Suzanne’s steady, calm perspective, while from Claude’s they would require a psychological realism that would change the nature of the book. From when they are girls, Suzanne and Claude have a kind of death pact—“I have to go first,” Claude tells Suzanne—giving Claude something of the transitory and whimsical nature of characters, and Suzanne more of the stability and permanence of an author. Also, Claude was a writer in real life, and so it would be awkward to presume a different style for her. The style Thomson adopts for Suzanne is very adept for her character: it is eloquent, but sparser, measured, based on sensory details—their concrete richness—as opposed to lengthy snippets of interiority. This makes sense, given that Suzanne is an artist. Thomson’s descriptions of bicycle rides through Nantes, lazy days at the house in Jersey, and even the harshness of months in a jail cell have a kind of fullness of detail that make them seem almost more sensory than my immediate surroundings:
We cycled south, over the bridges and out of the city. Fog had rolled in from the coast, and a stealthy silence enveloped us. The creak of Lucie’s back wheel, the crunch of our tires in the dust and grit. My breathing. Sometimes a house loomed out of the murk—the sharp angle of a roof, the low, mournful barking of a dog. We passed a row of poplars—elegant gray shapes, barely suggested. The landscape was subtle and elusive as a Japanese watercolor.
I always find it a bit jarring to read a novel that contains the entirety of a life. I experienced this recently with How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. You are invited into a character’s existence, near the very beginning of their life, and then you are led page after page through their lifetime until their death. You close the book and no potential character follows you out of the pages. What is left to the imagination is not the After, but the In-between. This kind of novel is in stark opposition, temporally, to modernism’s day-long works, where the depth of interior life at every passing moment supplies enough content to last hundreds of pages. Here, instead, life is compressed. We see Suzanne and Lucie as young, artistically-inclined girls in Nantes; we see them move to Paris and join, with a slight distance, the core of Surrealism; we see them retreat to Jersey and live in peace before beginning to print and spread their anti-Nazi flyers, hidden behind the seeming demureness of middle-age; we seem them in jail for their campaign and then freed once more, after the war, suddenly growing old; we see eighteen empty years drag by for Suzanne, now a recluse, after the death of Claude. In Jersey, living off meagre Nazi rations, curling up together in their cold bedroom (hardly any electricity being available) for twelve hours a day, the two women recall seeing Joyce reading at Shakespeare & Company, or the pink feathers of a Burlesque dancer, and wonder at their being part of the glamorous Surrealist movement not many years before: “it was hard to believe that any of it had happened.” After the war, they have similar wonder about it, Suzanne reflecting that sometimes it is “hard to believe that it had ever happened.” These musings push time into what is, for the reader, the space of not many pages. They also reflect the cruel, or simply surreal, speed of life, the present moment’s tyranny over the entirety of one’s past.
Fictionalized biographies tread a difficult line between the freedom of an author’s narrative penchant and the constraining bulk of reality. Thomson chose well with Claude and Suzanne, for though they dipped their toes in some of the most famous movements and events of recent history, they were still rather marginalized, and thus their lives can be read with the same surprise and interest of a regular novel.
Fictionalized biographies tread a difficult line between the freedom of an author’s narrative penchant and the constraining bulk of reality. Thomson chose well with Claude and Suzanne, for though they dipped their toes in some of the most famous movements and events of recent history, they were still rather marginalized, and thus their lives can be read with the same surprise and interest of a regular novel. Much about them is also unknown, allowing Thomson to even invent a couple of characters. Dalí and Breton stray in, predictably arrogant, but they are too familiar to history to tarry long in a novel. One might wonder how Thomson feels he can take on Suzanne’s perspective—this might well be the only perspective many readers have on these women, and it is filtered through the voice of a present-day male, writing a lesbian woman from a more homophobic, sexist time. It is the perpetual question of writing through the eyes of Another, which was probed most recently in the novel Asymmetry, where Lisa Halliday explores the limits of empathy by having her white female character (and obviously Halliday herself) decide to write from the perspective of an Iraqi-American man detained at Heathrow airport. This question, possibly unanswerable, begs perhaps above all for care when engaging in this task. Thomson displays both care and grace, in a not overly ambitious but apparently well-researched work.
Never Anyone But You is Thomson’s eleventh novel. His books range in subject matter, displaying a writerly curiosity mirrored in his own ranging life: Thomson has lived in Rome, New York, Sydney, Barcelona, and now London. Divided Kingdom, for instance, is a picaresque set in a United Kingdom where people live in different regions depending on their “humor,” which corresponds to their personality type; while This Party’s Got to Stop, his well-regarded memoir, chronicles a period after the death of his father when he was briefly reunited with his brothers for seven months in their childhood home. Unlike other writers, who remain inside the niche they’ve found for themselves, Thomson has no specific genre for his writing. Throughout his career, like Claude perhaps, he has remained somewhat on the margins, a writer’s writer who is praised by the likes of The Guardian and even David Bowie, but does not sell many books.
The picture Thomson presents to us in his latest work is melancholy and inspiring and lovely all at once. This isn’t a page-turner, but rather a pleasant, slow amble of a read that leaves a certain taste in your mouth. The idea of a soulmate has been fairly debunked, but here it emerges without drama or the high stakes and thrills of traditional love stories: a simple, self-sufficient friendship that has something of sisterhood and something of romance—“l’autre moi,” the other me, Claude Cahun would say, referring to Marcel Moore.
Melanie Erspamer studies English Literature and Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. She is half-Italian and half-American and has lived most of her life near Boston. Her work has been published in The Purple Breakfast Review, Nomad Magazine and Unknown Magazine, and her one-act play was performed at the University of Edinburgh. With her sister, she also has been running an anonymous literary magazine based in bathroom stalls, called Bathruminations.