Paris in the 1920s: for Americans this phrase tends to evoke the U.S. expatriates who spent time there, including Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. But most of the people who created the magical atmosphere that attracted all those foreigners were, of course, French natives. Rupert Thomson's tenth novel is a fictionalized portrait of two real-life Frenchwomen who participated in the artistic life of that place and time, and went on to play an equally significant part in the resistance to Nazi occupation.
The central characters of this story--Lucie Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe--were both born in the coastal town of Nantes in the last decade of the nineteenth century to fairly wealthy families who moved in the same social circles. Suzanne, who narrates the novel, is a shy, artistic girl nearing 17 when her mother takes her on a 1909 visit to the Schwob househol. She encounters Lucie Schwob, who immediately becomes her closest friend. Lucie is about two years younger, but is generally the dominant figure in the relationship, and is a born nonconformist, with literary ambitions and strong opinions about everyone and everything. She suffers from anorexia and suicidal tendencies which occasionally lead to supposedly accidental overdoses of ether and other drugs. Some of her problems may stem from a traumatic childhood: When she was four her mother had a mental breakdown and spent the rest of her life in various asylums and sanatoriums. A few years later, Lucie was bullied and beaten by anti-Semitic schoolmates during the Dreyfus affair, after which she was sent away to a school in England.
After a couple of years Lucie and Suzanne become lovers, a relationship that will endure. Though Lucie, impetuous as always, would like the world to know, Suzanne points out that this would almost certainly result in their being separated and perhaps even institutionalized. In Lucie's opinion, they are not lesbians--just two people who love each other. She considers herself what would today be called gender-fluid--often, but not always, dressing in men's clothes and wearing a short haircut. She decides to take a gender-neutral name (Claude Cahun) and urges Suzanne to do the same. Suzanne becomes Marcel Moore for artistic purposes, though most people continue to call her Suzanne.
The Great War brings many changes to their lives, including the death of Suzanne's father. After a decent interval, Claude's father quietly divorces his institutionalized wife and marries Suzanne's mother. They are suddenly stepsisters, and when Claude's father, who appreciates Suzanne's stabilizing effect on his daughter, encourages them to live together, they are delighted to follow his suggestion. Claude, who has spent time at the Sorbonne, urges Suzanne to join her in Paris, where no one will care about their relationship.
Now in their 20s, they settle into their new home just as the surrealist movement is developing, and soon become friends with writers and artists, such as Andre Breton, Robert Desnos, Sylvia Beach, and Salvador Dali. Claude and Suzanne make their own artistic and literary contributions as well, and in particular their avant-garde photography attracts attention. Most of the photos feature Claude, and she usually makes the decisions about costumes and poses, but it is generally Suzanne behind the camera, so their art, like their relationship, is a collaborative effort.
As the heady 1920s become the more somber 1930s, Claude and Suzanne are increasingly alarmed by Hitler's rise to power, particularly given Claude's part-Jewish heritage, and in 1937 they make the decision to move to the isle of Jersey in the English Channel. They buy a house there and leave Paris behind, but by 1940 France is under Nazi occupation, and the Germans take control of the Channel Islands, where Hitler plans to launch his invasion of Britain.
Claude and Suzanne are repulsed by their new overlords, and Claude soon hatches a plan to use a hidden pistol to assassinate the German commandant--thus accomplishing a blow to the Nazis and her own long-anticipated suicide simultaneously. Ever-practical Suzanne points out that Claude is a terrible shot and that her act would certainly lead to reprisals against other innocent people. They come up with an alternate scheme--a propaganda campaign in which they use their typewriter and carbon paper to produce demoralizing flyers and leaflets, which they sneak into spots to be found by German soldiers. For nearly four years, they carry out this project in complete secrecy, working at night and venturing out during the day dressed as ordinary middle-aged island women, who won't attract much attention. Despite the hardships of the war years, this is perhaps the most fulfilling period of their lives: They are collaborating on their most important work of art--one in which they tacitly acknowledge their willingness to die for a cause--and for each other.
The 1940s chapters also form the most involving and moving section of this necessarily episodic but beautifully written novel. Rupert Thomson has unearthed a piece of World War II history that deserves to be better known--and would make a terrific film.