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by Claude Cahun, translated by Susan De Muth, Tate Publishing, London 2007, 226pp, 11 b/w illus, £14.99 pb, 978 1 85437 627 5.

Claude Cahun (1894-1954) is an artist whose posthumous cult reputation overshadows her earlier obscurity. In the English-speaking world she initially emerged into the public eye during the 80s when she became a figure of fascination for queer theorists. Cahun's art world profile has risen steadily in recent years and her photographic work is now perceived as a precursor to Cindy Sherman and others. Although there are arguments over whether Cahun's 'self-portraits' were made by her alone, or were produced in collaboration with her lover Suzanne Malherbe, the actual images nonetheless retain their power as extraordinary examples of gender bending. To date Cahun's writing has not been readily accessible to English readers, something that will change with the publication of this translation of her book Aveux non Avenus, which interlaces text and collaged images into an integral whole.

As one would expect from the chameleon-like Cahun, Disavowals is difficult to categorise, but the label 'anti-memoir' seems the one that most readily describes it. The text's 'factional' (half fact, half fiction) status makes it sound like a canonical work of Surrealism such as Andre Breton's Nadja, 1928, but in many ways it feels closer to surrealist antecedents such as Lautreamont (Poesies rather than Les Chants de Maldoror). While Disavowals is clearly a 20th-century book replete with references to Breton and Benjamin Peret, it certainly does not read like a manifestation of official Surrealism; indeed it sits more easily alongside the work of this movement's fellow travellers and dissidents, most obviously figures such as Georges Bataille. Cahun's friendships with Robert Desnos and Henri Michaux are indicative of the ways in which both she and her work are inextricably bound up with the period between the two great interimperialist wars, but her oeuvre simultaneously echoes and anticipates the epochs that preceded and succeeded the first half of the 20th Century. As Cahun herself observes: 'The exception proves the rule--and disproves it too.' It is reversals such as this that bring to mind Lautreamont's Poesies, but which simultaneously make such comparisons patently inadequate. Cahun is difficult--at times impossible--to pin down, and this is an effect she self-consciously sets out to achieve.

Cahun was born Lucy Schwob, her father was a journalist and her uncle was the symbolist Marcel Schwob. Her family formed an integral part of the literary scene that preceded Surrealism, which may account in part for why her writing appears closer to the works that influenced Breton and his cohorts than their own output. Likewise, Disavowals is not marred by the misogyny that crept into the compositions of many male surrealists, and as a consequence of both this and Cahun's gender-bending stance, her words have aged better and dated less than those of many of her contemporaries. Now that Cahun's writing is available in English she might be seen as precursor to Kathy Acker and Lynne Tillman. This has nothing to do with direct influence but neither is it mere coincidence: 'Two parallel lines meet at infinity ... I've never been able to appreciate the definition.'

Disavowals is marked by constant changes of tone and style. Between pages 52 and 57 it reconfigures itself into a series of psychological questions with conflicting parody answers provided by 'A', 'B' and 'C'. Cahun uses these three voices to turn questions inside out: 'What would you like to be?'; 'What would you like to do?'; 'What would you like to know?'; 'What distinguishes you. What are your most obvious characteristics?' The punctuation in the last two sentences I've cited is telling; the full stop which breaks the flow of a seemingly neutral interrogative voice appears to signal Cahun's distrust of a process that was embraced wholeheartedly by the official surrealist group when it initiated its 'researches into sexuality'. This particular set of surrealist round table discussions took place in 1928, the year in which the final section of Disavowals was composed.

The oscillating distances and fusions between the views of the author and her adopted (anti-)narrative voices in Disavowals are often impossible to disentangle. Cahun may or may not be talking about herself when she writes: 'Tendency to push everything to the absolute, and thus: to the absurd.' In fictionalising her life, Cahun simultaneously fights against potential closures that might limit who and what she will become in the future. Thus while it is historically inaccurate, it is not necessarily unreasonable to understand Cahun to be writing about literary postmodernism when she records that: 'The siren is beguiled by her own voice.' Since this modified classical allusion appears to be self-referential, it is indicative of Cahun's inward turn that prophetically ties her to a later age of simulations.

Disavowals echoes across time. It anticipates both its own fate and that of its author. In July 1944 Cahun and her lover Suzanne Malherbe were arrested and sentenced to death by German occupying forces for anti-Nazi activities on the island of Jersey (where they had settled in 1937 as recluses), but both lived to tell the tale. Nietzsche claimed that 'some are born posthumously', Cahun is less histrionic but more subversive when she observes: 'It's not enough to be vanquished, you also have to know how to turn defeat to your advantage.'

Marine Hugonnier (review of 2008 London exhibition)

Ida Kar (surrealist fellow traveller and photographer)

Kurt Schwitters (trip to his grave)

Boris Vian and Serge Gainsbourg (book reviews)



Books & Writing

cover of Disavowals by Claude Cahun