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Queer theory and Rupert Thomson’s 'Never Anyone But You'

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Queer theory and Rupert Thomson’s Never Anyone But You, London, Corsair Books

Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. 'Queer' then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative.[1]


By this definition, Thomson, one of our finest British novelists, has always been a writer of queer novels. His subject-matter and incidents (where for instance a nun might eat a repast that is loaded onto (and sometimes smeared on sexual organs) the naked body of a man who has been kidnapped and chained in a sinister room in The Insult) have always held him back from mainstream appreciation, although seen (by David Bowie for instance) as somewhat of a one-person cult.

The decision to base a novel on the true life-stories of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore is strangely normative in comparison. Both women, who became, almost by accident, half-sisters and by design, lovers and life-long partners[2], play many roles – some in secrecy, others quite openly and some in a way that can only be called involuntary or automatic. Hence the underlying theme of female madness, suicide and the role of the asylum, which orchestrates the novel, even in its the histories of major characters like Schwob’s mother, and background characters, such as the former owner of the House with No Name. This is not a story that can be corralled into the LGBT identity novel, with much of what we experience of human sexuality being an experience of questioning uncertainty where statements are hardly ever statements but puzzles. Look for instance at this resumé of the marital history of the ‘real’ character, Georgette, where duration is not at all equated with stability of social or personal arrangement:

She had lived with Maurice Maeterlinck for almost twenty years – she had inspired many of his plays – but in the end he found her attitude to sexuality quite bewildering. It was known, for instance, that she went to bed with other men – with women too – and that she considered such behaviour quite normal. In those days, in Paris, it sometimes seemed that women were more powerful than men (121).

That last sentence is determinedly ‘queer’. It is an axiom of sexism that women hare seen as more powerful than men, disguising the overdetermined structural power inequalities in most societies. In this context, though, that statement wears its quality as a mask of an unstated reality: one of deep uncertainty about ‘norms’. What attracted Thomson to Cahun, as it attracted Marcel to her, even when the former is holding a cold knife to the other’s throat, is the remoteness of identity in self or other when persons interact:

‘Don’t move,’ she said.

Her face was stiff, her eyes glittered through peepholes in her skin. What had she written once? Under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all the masks. The ceiling above her tilted at an angle, like a ship’s deck in heavy seas (280).

The metaphor here is born from a contingent action, where a ceiling seen from below only appears to tilt as Claude’s knife pushes back Marcel’s head. It is subsequently Marcel’s own perception of that tilt as an instance of a moment in an apparently endless circular motion that is merely projected onto it.  Are we witnessing then actions that determine reactions or purely contingent associative perceptions and interpretations that merely create an appearance of determinant action and motion? The italicised words, of course, are Cahun’s, and what we see here is a character resurrecting another character’s earlier printed words to interpret the present personal situation. But her interpretation uses a metaphor of the swell of seas that has been Marcel’s from the beginning when Claude’s body meets hers:

I longed to go further, but didn’t dare. Instead, I drew the smell of her skin into my lungs. I breathed her in. My heart rocked like a small boat caught in the wake of a larger one (18).

The dangerous destabilisation of the world is the essence of these elemental metaphors. That destabilisation occurs where masks become more than masks and take in a dangerous life of their own as in the lovers’ resistance-games played with the occupying Nazi forces. The Soldier with No Name like the House with No Name become forces even though they are difficult to imagine – names being the means by which we normatively imagine. Marcel hints at this when she compares her choice of a life with Claude to one with a man:

The nervousness or apprehension I was feeling didn’t have anything to do with the life Patrice could have offered me. I knew that life. It had been all around me when I was growing up, and it was still here, … . No, it was the life I was living that unnerved me. The path I had chosen was the one I could not imagine (72).

That all this is mediated through Marcel is even more interesting. Claude may be different and often uncategorizable, but Marcel is ‘hard to read’ (216). She presents as the shifting focus of thoughts, feelings and embodied responses that may not even be readable as is revealed in metaphors such as these: ‘There was a flutter in my stomach, like the pages of a book turned over by a gust of wind (72).’ Beautiful and disturbing!

Being ‘hard to read’ is part of a constant birth, exchange and death of social roles in a play that makes up lives in this wonderful novel, with perhaps the wonderful and sad Max in his attempt to be a lover when he can no longer be just an actor (97).

That all of this is enacted against the background of surrealism is important too, but the oddness of Dali (and his sexual voyeurism), Gala, Breton and others is hardly the centre of this novel’s queerness. In a sense, it merely adds a contrast with a more easily graspable kind of queerness. What is ungraspable are the sometimes-comic interplay between people, their relationships and their absurd representations in types that don’t match them – like the wonderful affair between Claude and the rigid Robert Steel (59f.), whom she nevertheless represents to herself as Antinous and Rimbaud (queer archetypes that have nothing at all to do with Bob).

There are too many beauties in this novel. Why, was it not chosen for the Booker given some of the dross that was?

All the best


[1] David Halperin (1997:62), Saint Foucault: Towards a Gay Hagiography, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

[2] For photographs of Suzanne Malherbe (Marcel Moore) and Lucie Schwob (Claude Cahun) see : https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2016/09/surrealist-sisters-artistic-resistance.html

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