There is something undefinably different about the writer Rupert Thomson, something Warhol-esque perhaps (from the Drella phase), a quality of other-ness that stops you from a simple categorisation. This, of course, makes Thomson the perfect person to have written a novel about proto-post-human and societal square-peg surrealist that was the French artist (and sometime Jersey resident) Claude Cahun.
More about Cahun in a moment because, for the immediate hour, it’s clear that there is a living star on stage in front of us at the Arts Centre. After listening to him in conversation with Andrew Davey, one lingering question I could never have asked out loud is: how is Rupert Thomson not better known (by me at the very least)? I can’t remember the last time I heard someone speak so incisively and absorbingly about the process of turning inspiration into words on a page. The small moments that start it all. The innumerable notes taken. The ‘headlong dive’ into early drafts never to be read. The slow drawing into focus of how the novel is framed. Voices found, voices transcribed.
Whilst it would be appallingly patronising to talk about how well he understands his writerly craft (you don’t, for example, bang on about how well a plumber knows plumbing), it was fascinating to see how Thomson veers away from an evidently vast fund of technical know-how and literary self-awareness towards being more of an ‘intuitive’ writer. To go with his gut and get ‘between the facts and behind the facts’.
As for the facts about Cahun’s life and art, they were little known and were on the verge of disappearing into oblivion until picked up on by a French biographer and again now by Rupert Thomson in his novel, Never Anyone But You. Other biographies are just beginning to appear and interest is growing in this most ahead-of-her-time artist: as luck would have it, the CCA gallery currently has an exhibition of her work on (finishing tonight sadly) featuring art from her time in Jersey. Despite her connections to the Dadaists and Surrealists, in life she remained an outsider even amongst other outsider artists. Following her death, as with many artists referenced by Thomson (the Velvet Underground, Wim Wenders, Andre Breton and others) her influence has extended beyond her fame, inspiring others and indirectly enriching culture for the rest of us.
Every year when the Festival of Words brochure is published, I flick through it and grumble to myself about never having heard of half the writers. In spite of that, every year I go see as many of them as I can. Every year they’re brilliant. I end up buying the books. Because the Festival of Words is a beautifully crafted thing, curated by people who know what is worth reading and who actively seek out new treasures to inspire and enthral you. From the supremely knowledgeable organisers who book the writers, to the intelligent interviewers who painstakingly prepare, this is a Festival run by people who care deeply about writing and reading. This was the first event of the Festival for me and already this year is on to a winner.
WORDS: Ben Evans
PICTURES: Peter Mourant