Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

8 Responses to “undelivered letter”

  1. smithereens

    Congratulation on this translation! This little snippet of a story is very fascinating, you should indeed write the complete story in another novel!

    • Scott W.

      What a good project; I’m very much looking forward to this. I first learned of Cahun through Eric Dussert’s marvelous collection of articles concerning neglected writers (Une forêt cachée, unavailable in English), and thought almost immediately that here was someone about whom a novel deserves to be written if that hasn’t happened already. Cahun’s life seems to have been just incredibly daring: socially, artistically, politically. Dessert credits her and her partner Suzanne Malherbe with almost single-handedly leading the Resistance on Jersey – and also notes that her uncle was Marcel Schwob.

      • Michelle

        I am definitely going to have to look for Dussert’s book – it sounds wonderful. Thank you for mentioning it. And I agree, so much more could be written about Cahun, and a novel-type book would be a fascinating way to do this. I have to admit that I did not know much about Cahun before getting this project – I’d seen some of her more famous photos, but that was all – and learning about her has been a pure delight.

    • Michelle

      Thank you! What strikes me so much about Cahun throughout both her letters with Moore and her letter/journal here is that she is mostly focused outward. She is as concerned about her ‘comrades’ in the prison as she is about her own comforts and her potentially looming execution. As Scott writes below, she was an incredibly courageous individual, on so many different levels.

  2. helen

    I only know of Cahun through some of her photographs and alas, my French is far too weak for me to be able to read her. I had no idea you’d been translating her, now maybe I can learn more about her.

    The story about the undelivered letter is fascinating and so very sad. I wonder what the German could have written that wouldn’t do his lover any good? And why… It’s completely irrational, but the deaths of people just before the end of a conflict always seem to me so particularly frustrating, if only they could have survived just a few days longer, etc. etc., which is I know a silly way to look at it.

    • sandra jane smith

      I know what he wrote as I have been researching this also as I’m writing a novel concerning these events (loosely). Its quite a shocker! He wrote in German:
      Mit Muht Geht Alles,
      Mit gewalt bricht mann eisen.
      Der idiot geht in den Todt fur eine Frau

      It kind of means…
      Everything/body goes to the lows,
      Violence is broken/or is broken (or the body is broken by violence).
      The idiot goes to death for a woman

      I need a German speaker for an accurate translation! He wrote it on the eve of his death, so we can excuse his cynicism. Yeah, no wonder the kind-hearted Lucy didn’t pass it on. She was so admirable.

  3. sandra jane smith

    Actually a German friend of mine Thomas has just offered a better translation :
    With courage everything goes
    With violence one breaks iron
    Only an idiot goes into death for a woman

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: