We’ve been reading Rupert Thomson’s books since 1986 when his fourth novel, The Insult (the story of a man who is shot and becomes blind only to be able to ‘see’ at night) piqued our interest. Since then there have been seven novels and one book of nonfiction, all of which we have read in hardback – until now. The thing we have always liked about Thomson’s books, perhaps more than any other element (even above the actual writing itself, which is always mesmerising) is the difference between individual titles. Like TC Boyle (a writer he otherwise has very little in common with), Thomson’s books could not be more different from each other. One minute you’re in 19th century Baha, California, the next you’re in Amsterdam, the next you’re in 17th century Florence. You’re in the future, you’re in the past, you’re reading history, you’re reading sci-fi. He does it all, with consummate artistry. He’s the very definition of a writer’s writer (which probably explains why he doesn’t sell as well as he should and why he isn’t as well known as he should be). And yet – for the first time since we’ve started reading him – we were reluctant to dive into Never Anyone But You.
Part of it was what all the reviews put front and centre: this is a fictionalised account of the lives of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, two real-life artistic pioneers who challenged gender boundaries. I knew nothing about Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, which in itself is not a problem; but the novel fell at a time when the media seemed to be full of insatiable guestioning, when very little seemed to be sure, when accepted norms of all kinds were being interrogated relentlessly in a way that often made me feel tired. In a world in which it can sometimes feel all boundaries are being pushed all the time, you sometimes want a break from all the noise. And superficially Never Anyone But You seemed to be positioning itself (or seemed to be positioned by reviews, rather) as the story of the spiritual godpeople of the age. This world we live in, I gathered, was bequeathed us by Cahun and Moore. And having now read Never Anyone But You, there is some truth in that first impression. If you’re the opposite of me, if you’re thrilled by the world in which you find yourself, if you think all of the chaos and the anarchy is a blessed relief from all of that slightly dissatisfactory business as usual, you’ll want to learn more about Cahun and Moore, they are definitely historical figures who warrant greater notice.
But, it should also be said, within pages of beginning Never Anyone But You, the world went away. Within pages, all there was was the book. It didn’t matter over much what it was seeking to do, what ancient grievances needed to be redressed, because here was Rupert Thomson doing what he does so well.
“…I was adrift on a dark sea. The water was thick, and the waves were luxurious, hypnotic. Not waves at all, really, but undulations, like a sheet taken out of a bed, or a curtain billowing, and there were waves inside me too, a welling of contentment, all my troubles gone…”
What we have here is the story of Suzanne who becomes Marcel Moore and Lucie Schwob who becomes Claude Cahun. We are voyeurs of their early romance (which is not wildly dissimilar to the early portions of Peter Jackson’s under-rated Beautiful Creatures), Suzanne trusted by parents to look after the more fragile (but also the more daring) Lucie. We see them forge their bond and grow into artists in Paris – Lucie writing and living as Claude, Suzanne a photographer whose pictures and illustrations enlivened Claude’s books. Just as in Ken Krimstein’s recent The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, we see how these talents were encouraged and possibly overshadowed by the frantic creative diaspora of 20s and 30s Paris in which they found themselves. Crucially, we learn, “Since we were excluded, we became exclusive.”
As you’d expect, Never Anyone But You furiously engages with gender politics (and for those of you who are interested in gender politics, Never Anyone But You is an essential read, but it’s also interesting for those of you not interested in gender politics too – there is heart here):
“In the world in which we lived, though, women didn’t exist except in relation to men. If a woman stepped outside the confines of the behaviour assigned to her gender, it could be seen as a symptom of madness.”
Lucie tells Suzanne, relatively early on in the book,
“Your identity should not be imposed on you… You have to create it yourself. Her cheeks had flushed, and her hands made star shapes in the darkening air. You have to make yourself, she said. You can’t let anyone else make you, least of all your family.”
This is the beginning of an almost life-long interrogation of what it is to be:
“‘What’s gender anyway?’ she went on after a moment. ‘It’s just a matter of organs and cycles and – what do you call 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.'”
The middle portion of the book centres on their time when “After having spent most of the twenties on the sidelines, we had been admitted into [Andre] Breton’s inner circle”, which meant they were, “signatories to a number of high-profile protests and petitions, specifically against French imperialist policies and the rise of fascism.” Without getting too Bandersnatch-y, two things happen as a result of their admission to that inner circle: (i) Never Anyone But You becomes a little name-droppy for a bit, but name-droppy in a way that might be a little too rarefied for your common or garden reader (ooh it’s Jacques Viot etc); and (ii) it lays the groundwork for what is the most compelling section of the book, when Suzanne and Claude live on Jersey during the Nazi occupation and become artistic terrorists leaving pamphlets and the like all over the island with the aim of subverting the German war effort.
“We liked to think that beneath every Nazi there was an ordinary decent human being, and if we could appeal to that human being, if we could present him with arguments that were sufficiently convincing, we might be able to change his mind.”
Arching over the day to day, however, Never Anyone But You is a love story:
“‘You were everything to me,’ I say out loud, ‘whether you liked it or not. There was never anyone but you.'”
And like all great historical stories, it has a profound resonance for us right now:
“We were living in an era when women’s voices were only beginning to be heard, I said. It was a profound shift, and society was still struggling to adapt.”
It’s a solid book, then, substantive and serious. We came away feeling like there was a mild unevenness to the middle section but, more importantly, after having read Rupert Thomson’s books for twenty odd years, we should have trust him more and trust where it was he wanted to take us – because Rupert Thomson always takes you to interesting places, and he hasn’t let us down yet.
Any Cop?: Irrespective of whether you know anything of the story of Marcel Moore and Claude Cahul, Never Anyone But You is a terrific read.