I’m a Cahunian

Adam Mars-Jones

  • Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson
    Corsair, 340 pp, £18.99, June 2018, ISBN 978 1 4721 5350 0

Rupert Thomson’s new novel follows the contours of a remarkable life. Lucy Schwob, born in 1894 to a cultured and prosperous Nantes family, moved to Paris in 1920, where she developed strong links with the Surrealist movement and adopted the name Claude Cahun. Though she produced work in a number of media, and in her lifetime was known as a writer, she is now remembered for her photographic self-portraits, mainly taken in the 1920s, which stage her in various personae (aviator, buddha, doll, angel). She never had an exhibition of photographs in her lifetime, and they hardly circulated.

Thomson’s narrator is Schwob/Cahun’s life partner, Suzanne Malherbe, born in 1892, who also took a name with a masculine implication, Marcel Moore. ‘Life partner’ seems a defensible term despite the element of euphemism, since it acknowledges an element of the familial in what was presumably a sexual relationship. The two knew each other in childhood, and in 1917 became stepsisters when Moore’s widowed mother married Cahun’s father. In Thomson’s version they take advantage of the new formal connection, which provides camouflage for an intimacy already established. The theme of hiding in plain sight is a recurring one in these lives. Of the two women, Moore was the less confrontational: Cahun’s greater urge to transgress revealed more than a trace of self-destructiveness. Her mother had been largely absent from her childhood, suffering a mental collapse that led to her confinement in an institution. Cahun’s father divorced her in order to marry Moore’s mother, and there is a suggestion that their relationship had begun rather earlier. In these circumstances, the fondness and even inseparability of the new relations by marriage were likely to be reassuring rather than troubling. Cahun and Moore’s commitment to each other justifies the potentially overblown title of Never Anyone But You, even if Cahun showed a willingness to experiment, with men as well as women.

Self-Portrait by Claude Cahun from 1927.
Self-Portrait by Claude Cahun from 1927.

Cahun played with gender roles in her self-portraits, most obviously when she appeared in them shaven-headed. For a woman to cut off her long hair was still a transgressive act when Vivienne Westwood did it, at Malcolm McLaren’s urging, half a century later, and Westwood stopped short of shaving her eyebrows, as Cahun did, to remove cues of expressiveness we take for granted. The effect is in great contrast with an early self-portrait (from 1914), where her long hair is fanned out behind her on a pillow, making her a figure of conventional Fin de Siècle mystery, a standard-issue Mélisande. (It’s assumed that Moore pressed the button on the camera in the self-portraits – there’s no evidence of Cahun using or possessing either a timer or a long cable release.) Long hair had allowed Cahun to soften the starkness of her bone structure, which the voluntary baldness emphasised, giving her a power somewhere between the sacred and the baleful.

Self-Portrait by Claude Cahun from 1928.
Self-Portrait by Claude Cahun from 1928.

Thomson has not only profited from François Leperlier’s 2006 biography, Claude Cahun: L’Exotisme intérieure (expanding on his 1992 Claude Cahun: L’écart et la métamorphose), but from access to Leperlier’s archive – it’s an unusual privilege for a novelist to be able to incorporate research elements not yet translated into his language, particularly as Cahun has recently acquired something close to cult status in Britain, as well as France. In his 2006 book Leperlier refers to the extraordinary difficulty of finding information about Cahun in the 1980s, when there seemed to be no research being undertaken and scarcely an article that could be relied on. Scholarship was even more defective in the English-speaking world. Though Cahun was included in the L’Amour fou exhibition of 1985 devoted to ‘Photography and Surrealism’, the biographical sketch offered in the catalogue wasn’t just rudimentary but wrong, stating that her date and place of birth and death were unknown. According to the catalogue, the only certainty was that Cahun had been deported for her leftist political activities, as well as her Jewish origins, and had died in a concentration camp. In fact both women survived the war, with Cahun dying in 1954, Moore in 1972.

That Cahun expressed herself in a number of genres is one reason for this neglect but it’s also true that those who resist the prevailing categories can hardly be surprised to fall through the cracks when the official histories come to be written. Her reappearance is easier to understand, though it has been very sudden. The footnote has become a key part of the text. In recent years she has attracted not just advocacy but identification on the part of those who have written about her or entered into a dialogue with her practice. Gillian Wearing borrowed the formula ‘Behind the mask, another mask’ for a 2017 exhibition in which she responded to Cahun’s work. Jennifer Shaw starts her biography of the same year, Exist Otherwise, with the declaration: ‘Claude Cahun is my heroine. I have been thinking and writing about her work off and on for about twenty years. Her story is inspirational.’ Gavin James Bower, who describes Cahun as ‘the most singularly fascinating creative spirit of the 20th century’, begins his short biography by saying: ‘My name’s Gavin, and I’m a Cahunian.’ His obsession, or addiction, dates back only ten years or so but shows no signs of burning itself out.

Surrealism’s liberation of desire has long been tarnished by the knowledge that men in the movement were licensed to explore desire, while women were still expected to represent it, but here emerging from the margins was a woman undefined by relationships with men, nobody’s muse but her own or perhaps her lover’s. In art historical terms it would be logical to see her self-portraits as anticipating Cindy Sherman, though it makes more sense to say that Sherman paved the way for Cahun, despite the differences between the artists. Cahun’s self-portraits were domestic in size and circulation, Sherman’s designed to hold their own on a gallery wall.

In her adventures, and even in her miseries, Claude Cahun could hardly have racked up a more impressive CV, judged by the standards of the 21st century. Struggles with mental illness, a diagnosis of anorexia: these things can now stand as badges of honour. Cahun’s Wikipedia page currently grants her an ungendered pronoun, the singular ‘they’, all the more jarring applied to someone who spent almost all of her life as part of a properly plural ‘they’, a sustaining couple perhaps not far from the perfect love described by Cahun in ‘Les Jeux Uraniens’ as ‘a sphere in movement’. It is patronising to construct a trans identity on her behalf. If this experimental writer, who attended academic conferences at the Sorbonne and psychiatric teaching demonstrations at St Anne’s Hospital, translator of Havelock Ellis into French, found the pronouns of gender oppressive, she would certainly have been able to express her unease. Did she want to dissolve the categories? It seems more fair to say that she was fine with a binary system, as long as she wasn’t expected to occupy a fixed position within it.

It’s true that Cahun had aligned herself politically against fascism, and her Jewish ancestry made her vulnerable even if her mother was Catholic. She could indeed have been deported and sent to a concentration camp, except that she and Moore had moved to Jersey in 1937, where they faced a different set of problems. Thomson begins his novel in 1940, with the air raid on Jersey that announced the occupation. Moore is swimming. ‘A wave caught me, and I went under. The ocean seemed to shudder. When I came up again a column of smoke was rising, treacle-black, above the headland to the east.’ When she gets back to the house she finds Cahun less dismayed than she had expected.

Claude was standing on the grass bank that overlooked the beach. The hose lay on the lawn behind her, water rushing from the nozzle. Dressed in a white bathing suit, she had one hand on her hip. In the other she held a lighted cigarette. She had the air of a general surveying a battlefield. They might have been her planes, her bombs.

Later she explains the absence in her of the obvious emotions: ‘I have a strange feeling, something like elation … I think it’s because we’re going to be tested.’

After the description of that day the book flashes back to the early lives of Cahun and Moore in Nantes. The narrative slips past in smooth fragmentary episodes. There was a time when historical novels favoured a slow pace and a steady accretion of detail as guarantees of fidelity to the past in all its solidity, but the past wasn’t solid while it was happening. Another tradition, of which Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower is the assuming apotheosis, sees research not as a chore or an obsession but as a sap that can be made to flow through every capillary of the text. Thomson’s prose has a striking lightness of texture, even when he produces one of his characteristic flourishes, embellishing a sensation or an emotion with an image of controlled gorgeousness: ‘Something burst through me, then slowly dropped and faded, like fireworks falling into a dark sea.’ These touches don’t slow the movement of the book or raise its temperature but fix a mood in passing. As is shown by ‘My heart rocked like a small boat caught in the wake of a larger one,’ they sometimes attain the status of emblems, without seeming forced.

When Cahun and Moore move to Paris in 1920 and start to make eminent friends the book can hardly avoid some name-dropping. There’s a risk of repetitious first encounters with cultural eminences, neatly sidestepped from time to time by skipping to a later meeting: one day when Claude goes missing and hasn’t been found by evening, Moore ‘knocked on Gertrude Stein’s door, only to be told by her melancholy lover, the one with the drooping eyelids and the weighty metal earrings, that Gertrude was working, and couldn’t be disturbed’. The studied vagueness about Alice B. Toklas’s name could be seen as mild revenge on a higher-ranking female couple.

Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun (1920).
Marcel Moore and Claude Cahun (1920).

Thomson’s sharp sketches of the women’s intimates, such as Robert Desnos, Edouard de Max and Henri Michaux, are more successful than the cameo appearances or conversational allusions. Names like Hemingway or Lacan can’t be brought into play without making a thud or a clang. No doubt people at Paris parties in the 1920s did say things like

‘Isn’t Georgette sleeping with that Armenian mystic?’

‘Gurdjieff?’

‘That’s right – Gurdjieff …’

but it doesn’t exactly bring the period to life. There are expository passages that go rather in the other direction, summing up attitudes that were presumably developed over time:

we made no attempt to join [the Surrealists]. While we shared many of their sympathies and objectives – the rejection of traditional structures like religion and family, the opening of a dialogue between reality and dream, the determination to re-enchant a disenchanted world – and while we subscribed to a romantic version of Marxism, as Breton did, we saw the movement as one that was dominated by men who seemed unwilling or unable to take women seriously, and who regarded homosexuality with wariness, if not disgust.

This sounds a little too much like a press release explaining why you don’t issue press releases.

The convention of the book is that its English represents French, and it would be surprising if this worked entirely smoothly. At one point Cahun, reminiscing about Moore’s father, who had a very quirky sense of humour, remarks that he was ‘surreal before the word had even been invented’ – an observation drained of all flavour by the feebleness of the English word ‘surreal’, which now denotes the smallest departure from expectation. The French supposedly being represented is 20th-century French rather than modern usage, so English with too current a feel is likely to break the spell. There’s an analogy here with a film set in period, say Abel Gance’s Napoléon from 1927, where the principals shown on the screen are portrayed with great care, while female extras in crowd scenes have Clara Bow bobbed hair and rosebud mouths, styles that were contemporary and therefore invisible at the time of filming. A formula like ‘Shut up and kiss me’ sounds jarringly up-to-date in English, while the sardonic ‘You think?’ even takes on a taste of New York. The regular appearance of the fashionable ‘replicate’, presumably given its boost into the mainstream by the ‘replicants’ of Blade Runner, is another soft anachronism.

The effect of modernising pace and diction is a great gain in readability, but what is lost may be more important in this context. Here is Moore trying to reassure Cahun that her importance will sooner or later be recognised:

We were living in an era when women’s voices were only just beginning to be heard, I said. It was a profound shift, and society was still struggling to adapt. But she – Claude – had treated the concept of a woman who is powerful and independent as the norm, and she had pushed that concept one stage further. Maybe people weren’t ready for that. Maybe they weren’t prepared to see a powerful, independent woman take herself apart in public. It was too much. It was too soon.

The very fluency of the analysis becomes a problem. What gets lost is the extraordinariness of these women’s choices – the reason for the existence of the book. Cahun sought to take possession of the otherness she saw in the mirror, but the process of absorption was a feat. The sense of something unprecedented, vividly expressed by Thomson’s Moore when she writes, ‘The path I had chosen was the one that I could not imagine,’ is smoothed away. Live as lovers. Why not? Resist the Nazis? Of course.

To move from the programmatic irresponsibility of Surrealism, a domain of impulse where ‘should’ has no meaning, to a ramshackle campaign of black propaganda against an actual enemy was quite a transformation – inspirational narcissism yielding to a no less inspirational defiance. The women’s response to the crude planes and bombs of the invading forces was a campaign of subversion that continued throughout the occupation. Cahun and Moore devised messages of discouragement as if written by a nameless Nazi soldier, Der Soldat ohne Namen (The Soldier without a Name), later reformulated as Der Soldat ohne Namen und seine Kameraden. Moore had doubts about this change, partly because it gave the impression of a network rather than a symbolic individual – exactly what Cahun thought essential for the effectiveness of the campaign – but also because the German should more correctly be namenlos. Shrewdly Thomson delays the revelation of Moore’s fluency in German until it has a part to play in the action. In fact (a further revelation) she was committing an offence by withholding the fact of her familiarity with the language from the authorities. Cahun and Moore slipped these messages into pockets and between the pages of books in public places, hiding in plain sight by operating close to where they lived, relying on the principle of double bluff. Who would suspect two ageing French stepsisters anyway?

At one point in the novel, Cahun plans to intervene more directly. She will wear widow’s weeds and appear in the cemetery where the Germans have funerals, holding a bouquet as if to lay on a grave, and then shoot the commandant of the occupying forces. She even does some shooting practice with a pistol inherited from her father. This plan, with its Mata-Hari-meets-Margaret-Rutherford quality, seems like wild novelistic invention but is attested in its essentials. Thomson understands that this might be the resurfacing in theatricalised form of Cahun’s wish for death, but also that self-destructive characters can be stabilised to a remarkable extent by an actual enemy.

The women were finally informed on and arrested. They made a suicide attempt, swallowing pills before they were separated in custody, so that each imagined the other was dead. In fact they had been misinformed about the dose required, but the attempt to end life had the effect of extending it, since at this late stage of the war it caused them to miss the last shipment of prisoners off the island. Under interrogation they discovered just how successful their campaign had been, since the Germans refused to believe they had acted alone – a sweet irony that Thomson doesn’t overplay.

It’s startling to realise that the wartime phase of Cahun’s and Moore’s lives, unknown even to collectors of their work thirty years ago, is no longer available to be colonised by free fantasy. Their comings and goings to Jersey were tracked by way of alien registration cards from as far back as 1922, and Cahun described their experiences in detail in letters she wrote after the war. To a remarkable extent Thomson as a novelist must follow closely in the footsteps of Cahun herself, dramatising the past on paper. Here is his description of the objects on the evidence table when the women come to trial: ‘In front of the five men, on the green baize, was a seemingly random assortment of items. Among them I could make out several things that belonged to us – Claude’s gun, her typewriter, the Kodak camera, several piles of leaflets and the radio.’ Claude is just murmuring that it looks like a jumble sale when one of the judges brings down his gavel.

In her memoir, Confidences au miroir, Cahun made her own list of the objects on the green baize table, including: ‘papiers, dossiers, livres d’art, reliés, brochés, éditions originales, gros sous émailles, bouts d’étoffe, de bois peint en noir, enluminés d’inscriptions en caractères gothiques, feuillage et plumet végétal, radio, machine à écrire, revolvers, appareil photographique, jumelle, croix de fer en fer blanc au bout d’un fil avec tache rougeâtre, au revers: ce qu’il t’en coûtera …’ The comparison to a jumble sale (or at least ‘une sorte de foire à la ferraille’) is hers, but the exaggerated precision of her list and the pat menace of the quoted motto pushes it towards parody. Leperlier describes it as evoking an accidental art installation. It’s perhaps a Surrealist tableau, the sort of thing which elsewhere, when documented photographically, he calls ‘Mises en scène d’objets’. Cahun’s reaction to the evidence against her is essentially aesthetic and connoisseurial, or so she makes out – she marvels at the arrangement (‘Je l’admire’).

Not long ago these women’s lives were like a virgin snowfield, but now there’s hardly an inch untrodden. Normally a novelist making use of written material will expect to enrich and amplify, but here Thomson must pull it back, damping down the more extreme vibrations. The tone he settles on is a dry and perhaps rather English sense of the absurdity of the proceedings, in which the women were condemned to death plus six years and nine months of imprisonment. At that stage of the war, though, there was nothing to be gained by carrying out the death sentence.

It’s only in that passage about the evidence table, two-thirds of the way through Never Anyone But You, that Cahun’s camera is identified as a Kodak, long after manufacturers have been assigned to her preferred cigarettes (Craven A), her typewriter (an Underwood) and even the inherited gun (a Ruby). You might expect Cahun to have a special attachment to her camera, and this is true, but in a rather unexpected way.

In an essay on Cahun’s photography, James Stevenson, photographic manager at the V&A, examined material in the Jersey Heritage Trust’s collection, much of it originally bought at auction by a local man after Moore’s death in 1972.[*] He paid £21 for what was meant to be ten separate lots housed in tea chests and cartons, except that browsers had mixed up the contents. Apart from the photographs he found he had acquired signed drawings by Michaux, a hand-made Poupée book by Hans Bellmer and, in a separate lot, supposedly of the couple’s pots and pans, a bust of Cahun by Chana Orloff. The underbidder was John Berger, which suggests that there was some art-world knowledge of Cahun and Moore even then.

Perhaps rebelling against a subtitle giving Moore equal creative status, Stevenson disposes of the idea that she made a contribution to the photographs, basing his judgment on the pictures taken after Cahun’s death: ‘The most interesting characteristic of these negatives … is that they have absolutely no artistic merit whatsoever.’ His tone is less dismissive when he’s discussing Cahun herself but hardly more comfortable. He seems dismayed, mortified even, by her lack of interest in the technicalities. He concludes that she undertook photography in simple lighting conditions, following general guidance from manufacturers’ packaging or photographic guidebooks for amateurs which indicated only the correct average level of exposure. She didn’t use a professional exposure meter, though she wasn’t short of money and such devices had been available from early on in her lifetime. She used ‘exposure bracketing’, repeating a shot a number of times with a range of exposures to increase the chances of a satisfactory result – more of a bodge than a technical solution, though perhaps a step up from pressing the button and hoping for the best. Her photographs taken with snow on the ground were invariably underexposed, a common mistake for amateurs to make.

After examining the negatives and prints in the Jersey Heritage Trust collection (more than 400 of them), Stevenson was able to identify the camera Cahun used, thanks to a distinctive shape to the negative border that is absolutely constant across the archive. It was a folding pocket camera, most likely a Kodak Type 3 (though other manufacturers made something very similar), the lens panel released from the body of the camera and attached to the frame by a leather bellows. It had technical shortcomings, such as a ‘rising lens’, devised to make possible the photographing of tall subjects but resulting in a loss of crispness at the edge as compared to the performance at the centre of the optical path. The Type 3 was marketed between 1900 and 1915. Cahun used hers between about 1915 and 1939, but there is also a negative in the archive made by the same camera dated 1909, which suggests that the Kodak was given to her as a present in the year she turned 15 or that it was a family possession that was passed on to her.

Stevenson can’t hide from the fact that for a quarter of a century Cahun, working in a technical medium, used an apparatus that was already obsolescent when she picked it up: ‘Throughout photographic history there has been a continual development of photographic equipment, with improvements to optics and camera performance, which she seems to have ignored.’ It’s a bit of a kick in the teeth for someone with a specialist interest in photographic technique to discover that a major practitioner in the field couldn’t care less. For Cahun photography was a means to an end, possessing no intrinsic interest. It wasn’t that she didn’t have clear ideas about what she wanted from the photographic sessions. There are two almost identical images of her from roughly 1920, for instance, in which she is sitting on the floor in profile, wrapped in a corduroy blanket. Almost identical, except that as Stevenson points out she has emphasised the visual texture by renewing the shaving of her head between exposures, taking herself down – not that she will have thought in those terms – from a number one to a zero crop.

It was the same with the developing of the images. ‘Perhaps the saddest thing about Cahun’s work,’ Stevenson remarks, ‘is her reliance on others to produce her prints.’ She sent negatives off to commercial labs for all the world as if they were holiday snaps rather than art objects, though she was quite capable of giving explicit instructions such as ‘Trim to the border of the circular basin and print as big as the format will allow.’ Stevenson suggests that new prints be made of the surviving high-quality negatives, ‘which would give a whole new impression of her work’, and he may be right, but if this whole area was something to which Cahun attached no importance it can hardly be thought of as restoration work.

Thomson necessarily has a more romantic attitude to photography as a process, enlisting it as an image of the lovers’ relationship: ‘Daybreak gradually revealing us to each other, as if love brought light. We were like a photograph developing.’ There’s a danger of romanticising the relationship itself, but he avoids it. Louise Downie in the introduction to Don’t Kiss Me speculates about what Cahun and Moore would have made of their sudden posthumous eminence: ‘They would have hated the minute dissection of their art and lives, the logical cause and effect” interpretation, the pigeonholing of their characters and their art. At the same time, they (Cahun in particular) would have revelled in the attention and enjoyed their stardom.’ In themselves novels both thrive on and resist cause and effect interpretations, but Thomson knows how to finesse them. Late in the book Cahun shaves her eyebrows one more time, in the bathroom of the bailiff of Jersey’s house after the war. She explains to her host and hostess that this piece of grooming was part of the ritual with which the ancient Egyptians mourned their cats, and this is true as an ethnological fact – and the death of their cat Kid was in some strange way the women’s greatest loss of the war. But in the scene it is plausibly an expression of unbearable social tension, a piece of attention-getting that carries a hint of self-harm, since the bailiff both interceded personally on the women’s behalf and maintained civil relations with the Germans, as he had to do if his intercession was to carry any weight. She wasn’t able to tolerate compromise any better because she benefited from it.

*

Cahun and Moore claimed a freedom of action extraordinary for their time, and not all that common among their successors, yet in painting their portrait Thomson must abandon his own freedom, or seek it in unexpected corners. Having started his novel on the day of the air raid on Jersey, he must find Claude Cahun watering the garden, since that is what the record says she was doing at the time. Yet a novel that takes no liberties is as much of a contradiction as, well, a responsible Surrealism. Reading about a dance teacher in St Helier called Miss Lillicrap who has an affair with a Nazi high-up and has the front of her house painted with tar, it’s possible to feel a lurch of joy at the irresponsible invention, but then again, it’s likely to turn out to be one of those curious Jersey names.

As the book goes on, the heightened moments become even more gorgeous, though in their sensational beauty they risk becoming incompatible with Moore’s point of view. When for instance Cahun and Moore run into the woman who informed on them to the Germans, she hurries away from them: ‘In the bright sunlight, her crumpled shadow slid along the white brick wall beside her, like a crude evocation of her shock, her shame.’ After Cahun’s death Moore sees the woman again, the drama this time expressed by the movement of air: ‘A gust of wind swept in off the sea and circled us, muscular and questing, like a shark drawn by the stink of blood.’

Thomson makes Moore’s solitary last years something grander than a coda, since these pages amount to more than a tenth of the book. He presents the banality of the photographs Moore took during this period with more sympathy than the technical expert could manage: ‘Perhaps I was trying to capture what was left after the justification for a photograph has been removed. Background, distance. A lack of focus.’ The narrative gets to explore its own modest vein of Surrealism, as Claude’s ghost appears in various guises. Once, naked and rejuvenated, she seeks, using no words, to continue their long collaboration as makers of images: ‘Every few minutes she would alter her position, like a model in a life-drawing class, revealing nothing but a quarter of her face, or sometimes half, the loose curve of her spine, and the tighter curves of calf, thigh, shoulder, ear …’ Moore, though, isn’t holding a camera.

Since it is both nourished by the vogue for Claude Cahun and feeds back into it, acknowledging the contributions of the leading researcher in the field, Never Anyone But You risks seeming like the narrative arm of an art historical enterprise, rather than a novel with its own power source. The difficulty of reading it innocently, without reference to the status of its central figure, is part of a more general difficulty faced by fiction in the information age. Novels set in the past now compete with the historical record in a way that has no precedent. Until recently amateur historians would be likely to have reservations (and professional ones would never be satisfied) but the common reader would happily skate over any amount of loose handling. The two ways of writing about the past weren’t expected to converge, but now books claiming to be non-fictional enter people’s heads as a matter of course, and fiction has to adapt in its turn. This isn’t anything as simple as a raising of standards in historical fiction but a shift in the definitions. Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen novels, for instance, weren’t expected to withstand scrutiny in the way that Philippa Gregory’s books claim for themselves (to say nothing of Hilary Mantel): in fact the degree of waywardness on offer, the blur of Fordian impressionism, was the whole appeal of those books. When L.H. Myers set an immense tetralogy in the time of the Mughal Empire (The Near and the Far, 1929-40) it wasn’t because he was an expert on the period, but because it offered him a blank canvas on which to develop the themes that preoccupied him. One of the attractions for Gore Vidal of Julian the Apostate as the subject of a novel was the slenderness of the documentary evidence as late as the 1960s.

Anyone with internet access can acquire in a minute or two the smattering of expertise that would once have taken hours in a library, in a way that supplements non-fiction but hollows out the experience of reading a novel. Look up the Wikipedia entry of someone mentioned in an article (Who is this Chana Orloff, sounding like a cross between a chickpea and an actor in horror films?) and you lose nothing, but look up Claude Cahun before reading Never Anyone But You and you sabotage your own possibilities for pleasure. The reader of a historical novel that features household names (a category that the internet has enormously expanded) is in the position of someone watching the recording of a sporting event while not wanting to know the result, safe in a bubble of voluntary ignorance. Early readers of The Blue Flower in the late 1990s didn’t need to resist digital temptation to stay in the state of mind that fiction requires and rewards, of occupying a world that is both true and not true. Fitzgerald did provide an Author’s Note explaining the novel’s basis in the life of Friedrich von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, but it is a reader’s privilege and custom to skip such things. She also used a citation from Novalis as the book’s epigraph: ‘Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.’ It’s not necessarily that history has excelled itself as a discipline, but an invading army of facts has set up camp outside the gates of the historical novel.

[*] The essay, ‘Claude Cahun: An Analysis of Her Photographic Technique’, was published in Don’t Kiss Me: The Art of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, edited by Louise Downie (2006).