undelivered letter

Here is one reason why I absolutely love my job. Last spring, Spolia published my translation of a series of letters written between surrealist photographer Claude Cahun and her lover Marcel Moore. These were letters exchanged while the two women were incarcerated on Jersey Island during WWII. I am currently translating an excerpt of a diary (or is it a letter? This is just one of the mysteries of these fantastic handwritten papers) that Cahun wrote about her internment and about the occupation of the island. This second longer translation will also be published by Spolia later this year.

But today, as I am editing my draft of these thirty or so pages, I came across a tiny anecdote that makes me really excited. Cahun writes a considerable amount about a man in a cell near to hers—a German deserter who arrived in the prison a few months before Liberation. He was arrested, along with his lover (a woman from Jersey), and both were sentenced to death. The German was eventually shot about ten days before the islands were liberated, but the woman was pardoned. Cahun writes about his mental state and how he died – in detail – and it is quite sad. But there is one last part that she mentions only briefly. She receives (from one of the guards) a square piece of cardboard covered in careful handwriting. Moore (who could speak and read German) deciphers it while the two are hiding behind a wood shed in the courtyard of the prison. Here’s the best part, Cahun doesn’t write out what was written on the cardboard but only says that she has kept it, is holding it while she writes this story, and that she decided not to give it to the Jerseywoman, that it wouldn’t do that woman any good.

I don’t write historical fiction, but this is exactly the kind of personal historical footnote that would inspire me to do so – the existence of an undelivered letter between two people who were separated under horrible circumstances. I suppose what I find more interesting is coming across this story in the way that I did: from handwritten papers left in an archive that discuss related events, yes, but that are not intended to be about this German soldier and his Jersey lover. And yet they both became more real to me because of the secret letter that Cahun—who did not really “know” either of them—holds between them, refusing to give what might have been an ending to their story (or not – so many ways to consider why she didn’t just pass the note along; her reasons may be good, may be flawed, may be of no matter at all).

I’ll make a mention when the entire excerpt will be published – it’s a wonderful project, and I’m very excited to see it out in English. Cahun was such a thoughtful and prolific writer, and as far as I know, none of her writing has been translated yet into English.