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Jersey Festival of Words: Never Anyone But You

Features | Published:

Rod McLoughlin reviews Never Anyone But You at the Jersey Festival of Words

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Fascinated by a chance encounter with one of Claude Cahun’s gender-bending photographs, Rupert Thomson found the perfect subject for his new novel, much of which takes place in her adopted island.

The story of the surrealist photographer and her partner Marcel Moore is so extraordinary, and the novel Never Anyone But You so vivid, that you might think a conversation at the literary festival would inevitably be less engrossing by comparison. Not a bit of it – rarely has a more stimulating hour in the company of an author passed so quickly.

Here in Jersey we’re still waking up to the significance of Claude Cahun, partly because of interest now shown in her work by museums and galleries across the world – she is probably Jersey’s most significant cultural export. Yet it’s still hard to get your head around the thought of an internationally important female surrealist photographer living in a clandestine lesbian relationship in St Brelade in the late 1930s, 40s and early 50s.

Rupert Thomson’s challenge was to take a story that sounds for all the world like ‘an improbable fiction’ and make of it a credible narrative. He described how, researching as he went along and directly inspired by many of the images, he succeeded in finding a voice for Marcel Moore who relates the story of her life with Cahun in the form of a memoir, avoiding the danger of parodying Cahun directly.

Moore’s often sardonic voice allows her to evoke with equal sureness the pre-war years in Paris - where they casually converse with figures like Andre Breton and Salvador Dali – the turbulent wartime period in Jersey, and the years after Cahun’s death in 1954 when Moore led an increasingly isolated life in Beaumont leading to her suicide in 1972.

One of the novel’s most impressive features is its sense of authenticity, not just in incidental detail but in the way that the characters speak and relate to each other. The author was fascinating on how his research created the opportunity to fashion the ‘imagined fact’ from the real.

For example, researching in the public library – in Halkett Place, he added casually as though to reinforce his fastidious approach - he came across a post-war interview in the Evening Post, the text interrupted by an advertisement for a remedy for piles. It offered the perfect opportunity to write a scene in which Cahun remarks on the irony, as she surely would have done.

Discussing their wartime resistance, which led to Cahun and Moore being sentenced to death by a German court, Thomson amusingly observed that the reason they had managed to spread anti-Nazi propaganda without detection for nearly four years was that they ‘successfully disguised themselves as ordinary people’.

He was particularly interesting on the gender issue, pointing out that Cahun was concerned not just with images of male and female sexuality but in transcending gender which, in turn, gave Thomson the licence to tell the story through the eyes of his female narrator.

'I’ve never thought that imagination has a gender... ultimately it’s just imagination but if ever a book was to give me permission to write as a gay woman, this was it!'

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