In ‘Written on the Body’, Jeanette Winterson posed the question: ‘Why is the measure of love loss?’. ‘Never Anyone But You’ may not provide an answer but this true tale of passion, art and defiance perfectly – and with heartbreaking tenderness – shows us not why, but just how accurate it can be.
‘Never Anyone But You’ is a biographical novel about the life long love affair between Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore from their first meeting in northern France to their final days on Jersey.
Lucie Renee Mathilde Schwob (b.1894) met Suzanne Alberte Malherbe (b.1892) in their hometown of Nantes in Northern France. At their time of meeting Schwob was 15 and Malherbe 17. Malherbe was awstruck by this precocious youth:
‘Shorter than me, and slighter, Lucie seemed removed and ethereal, as if she existed in a different dimension fomr the rest of us, and yet I felt a jolt as our eyes met, the strong but subtle click of recognition. Words came with it, words that whispered inside my head. Ah yes. Of course.’
Quickly inseparable, the pair created their own world wherein art – primarily photography – bound them together and took them to Paris, where they quickly established themselves amongst the emerging Surrealists – George Bataille, Andre Breton, Salvador Dali, Robert Desnos and Philippe Soupault amongst others. Eventually the pair adopted new names – Claude Cahun (Schwob) and Marcel Moore (Malherbe) as a way of reflecting Cahun’s refusal to be defined:
”What’s gender anyway?’ she went on after a moment. It’s just a matter of organs and cycles and – what do you can them? – hormones. I refuse to allow myself to be defined by a few biological characteristics. When I stand in a room by myself, I’m not standing there as a woman. I’m a consciousness. An intelligence. Everything else is secondary.’
With Claude’s startling looks (‘Claude shaved off all her hair and removed her eyebrows…She looked alien’) they began to make a name for themselves with their photography and stage work…but shadows were at play.
Claude suffered from what we would now probably call anorexia: she hated her body and had, from an early age, starved herself which lead to complications with her general health in later life, a later life which saw the surge of the Nazis across Europe forcing the pair (a queer couple with Jewish heritage) to move to Jersey…but the fascist terror soon caught up with them and the second act of their lives began
I suppose the Nazi occupation of Jersey could be seen as a ‘friendly’ invasion, in that the Bailiff of the island issued guidelines which were supposed to ensure ‘correct relations’ between the two groups. But our pair refused to co-operate and began a campaign of disobedience, from simple refusals (‘Why won’t you talk to me? a soldier asked…‘Because you shouldn’t be here,’ Claude said in a clear voice. ‘Because we despise you.’) to a campaign of misinformation and insubordination. And the novel makes clear why these were acts of heroism and necessity: One morning Marcel discovers the bloated body of a young woman in the sea, one of the prostitutes brought to the island to ‘service’ the German soldiers; eventually prison camps are set up on the island with inmates, used as slaves, suffering the most hideous of conditions; and, of course, the complicity of some the islanders who rage against the ‘filthy foreigners’ – not the occupying Germans, rather the desperate prisoners who are accused of spreading disease, being criminals or even(!) homosexuals. For our brave pair it becomes a war on all fronts – a war they are destined to lose when a collaborator reports their activities to the German occupiers. ‘You and me against the world’
I had always been aware of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore but prior to this novel was completely unware of their role as resistance fighters against the Nazis – a story which needs to be told. I see the ongoing LGBT history project as performing too important functions: firstly to highlight the lives and experiences of LGBT people throughout history and secondly to highlight the important role LGBT people have played in the history of our world. While we have seen big strides in broadcasting both aspects in recent years, an area still relatively unexplored is the LGBT wartime experience and those who displayed a heroism uncommon regardless of sexuality. This story sees Claude and Marcel elevated to that small pantheon of LGBT wartime heroes – Alan Turin; for example, or Willem Arondeus who, in the Netherlands, was shot for producing false identity cards to help Jews and other persecuted minorities escape the Nazis. As his last wish, Arondeus requested a pink short and instructed his lawyer to make public after the war that he was homosexual, ‘to tell the people that gays are no cowards.‘?
This third act of the novel moves us to a different place as Claude and Marcel are imprisoned and temporarily separated, their distance magnifying and measuring the strength of their love, a love which is truly assessed when the end of the novel finds Marcel finds alone after so many beautiful, intense, brave years together.
‘Never Anyone But You’ is a beautiful novel, simply written. Written from the perspective of Marcel, it allows us to see into the personality of Claude, a precocious, fierce personality not with out fault and certainly not without demons and yet manages to persuade us – through the voice of Marcel – just how the cost was worth it.
I have to admit that I do love a good ‘resistance’ story: ordinary folk taking direct actions against a mighty power: here I’m thinking of the BBC’s masterful drama series ‘Secret Army’ about the French resistance or the film ‘Went the Day Well?’ in which the inhabitants of a small English village fight against a Nazi occupation. ‘Never Anyone But You’ presents this aspect of the story as a nail biting thriller of two people whose difference (Jewish, queer, transgender, left wing, ‘arty’) goes against all the tenets of the invading power, a situation which might crush some but seems to fill our heroes with a passion and fight which is truly inspirational to behold.
But in the end what elevates this novel to a thing of beauty is the goose pimpling determination to be ‘different’ (so refreshing when the surge to conform is more depressingly overbearing than any other time in my life) and the glorious love story at its heart. I can think of no better tribute than to say that towards the end I shed more than a few tears: slightly awkward on a beach in Mallorca.