Paper Bul­lets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives to Defy the Nazis

  • Review
By – June 21, 2021

A sto­ry of resis­tance, love, and priv­i­lege, Paper Bul­lets high­lights the wartime lives of two artists large­ly lost to time, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Mal­herbe. Jef­frey H. Jack­son, a pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and an expert in mod­ern Euro­pean his­to­ry and cul­ture, strives to both recov­er and ques­tion the accept­ed truth of these women, bet­ter known by their pro­fes­sion­al names, Claude Cahun and Mar­cel Moore. While Jack­son describes their deep involve­ment in the avante-garde artis­tic and lit­er­ary cir­cles in 1920s Paris, the book’s true focus is their self-imposed iso­la­tion on the island of Jer­sey pri­or to and dur­ing World War II. Far from the artis­tic milieu to which they had once been so cen­tral, they must build a new life in a place where their roman­tic rela­tion­ship and polit­i­cal affil­i­a­tions can­not be open­ly shared. Ulti­mate­ly, they set them­selves up as self-appoint­ed counter-agents to the Nazi forces that set­tle on the island.

Paper Bul­lets is enlight­en­ing and reads almost like a sub­tle spy nov­el: it is enjoy­able, intrigu­ing, and sus­pense­ful. In tack­ling this dual biog­ra­phy, Jack­son puts forth a new under­stand­ing of Schwob and Malherbe’s per­son­al lives and pro­fes­sion­al out­put. Dis­lodg­ing the tra­di­tion­al nar­ra­tive that places Schwob as the sole cre­ative force in their duo, Jack­son pro­pos­es that these women act­ed as part­ners and equals, under­stand­ing the poten­tial risks and rewards, and shar­ing in the con­se­quences. This read­ing not only chal­lenges the pre­vail­ing his­to­ry as it per­tains to the war, but also seeks to address the art his­tor­i­cal canon. As an aside, Jersey’s role in the war is also some­thing oft over­looked, and ben­e­fits from the atten­tion giv­en to it in the book.

Per­haps it is in the light of the past year that it is strik­ing that Jack­son does not seem to ful­ly acknowl­edge the priv­i­lege Schwob and Mal­herbe enjoy, and how that sets them apart from the Jer­seyites they encounter more than their artis­tic and activist activ­i­ties. The women seem gen­uine­ly sur­prised to learn that oth­ers on their adop­tive island have also been active in resist­ing Ger­man occu­pa­tion, as though only they would have the intel­lec­tu­al pow­er or sur­vival instinct. Schwob’s Judaism, seem­ing­ly poised to play a piv­otal role in their sto­ry, is large­ly over­looked by their Ger­man occu­piers-turned-cap­tors. Based large­ly on the wom­ens’ self-reflec­tive writ­ings — some orig­i­nals from the war years, but many writ­ten after the fact to pre­serve their mem­o­ries—Paper Bul­lets inci­den­tal­ly high­lights the ben­e­fits they were offered because of their wealth, man­ner­isms, and edu­ca­tion, even in the moments when their lives seemed most precarious.

Jack­son is a good sto­ry­teller, and in Paper Bul­lets he has picked sub­jects whose mer­its deserve to be revis­it­ed. He looks past their bet­ter-known artis­tic prac­tice to fore­front a time in their lives that has large­ly been ignored, and reframes how the world might see their rela­tion­ship to one anoth­er. He leaves the for­mal his­tor­i­cal analy­sis and source mate­r­i­al ref­er­ence for the end of the book, mak­ing an excit­ing and acces­si­ble biog­ra­phy that allows the read­er to decide how far they will go.

Sophie Olympia Riese is an art col­lec­tor and cura­tor. She holds a B.A. in His­to­ry from Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty and an M.S. in Teach­ing from Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives in New York City.

Discussion Questions