Sunday 22 June 2014

The Game of Life by Kate Lord Brown

It's good to have your values questioned - why do you write? What do your books say about what you believe in? There is nothing like a school workshop on writing hist fic to keep you on your toes. Adults are a cakewalk - 100 eight year olds pull no punches. The questions ranged from: 'You mean someone pays you to make stuff up?' to the immediate 'How much do they pay you?' (Answer: not as much as J K). From talking to the teachers afterwards, the thing that most interested them was overturning the idea that books appear by immaculate conception, perfect in form.

I showed them a couple of snapshots of the research files and some of the reference books for the new novel, and told them that a lot of this work and reading never makes it into the final story. I told them about late night skype conversations with a 96 year old professor of literature in the US who had been not much older than them when he was Varian Fry's office boy in Marseilles during WW2. I passed round photos of Aube Breton, Andre Breton and Jacqueline Lamba's daughter, who was five years old when she found sanctuary at Villa Air Bel, and told them about our letters. I hope all this gave them some idea how books live and breathe as they come together, the frustration of blind alleys and red herrings, and the sheer joy of uncovering forgotten bits of history and remarkable characters.

This new novel has been something of a labour of love. My research into the artists involved began in 1993/4 at the Courtauld Institute, writing a thesis on surrealism. An unusual name kept cropping up: Varian Fry. Perhaps your writing process is the same - maybe you also have that shadowy mental filing tray marked 'ideas' or 'must look into this when I have time'. I am not sure why some ideas, particular historical figures get hold of your imagination and won't let go until you write their story - why it is that the universe seems to bombard you with signs or moments of synchronicity until you give it your full attention. This particular idea has been maturing for twenty years, and took three to finally research and write. It is the story of 'the artists' Schindler', the real Casablanca.

In 1940 an international group of rescue workers, refugee intellectuals and artists gathered in the old Villa Air Bel in Marseilles. Every artist sheltered in Air Bel, and over 2000 other refugees escaped from ‘the greatest man-trap in history’, thanks to American journalist Varian Fry and his remarkable team at the American Relief Centre (the ARC or Centre Américan de Secours). With the support of Eleanor Roosevelt and funded by the New York based Emergency Rescue Committee, in all they helped some 4000 people survive, working undercover and without official sanction from the US or France.

Artists and writers such as Andre Breton decamped from Paris to Marseilles, and established themselves at cafes like the Bruleur de Loups, and created a remarkable Sunday salon at Air Bel.

Varian Fry (right) had arrived in Marseilles with a few thousand dollars strapped to his calf and a small suitcase, thinking he would be there a matter of weeks, helping the initial list of artists and intellectuals escape. The list was a virtual mirror of the Nazis infamous 'Liste Noire' of artists considered degenerate. In the end, Fry stayed months, until he was forced to leave France by the authorities. They were extraordinary times - Fry and his maverick band of immensely brave relief workers helped artists escape by legitimate and illegitimate means, by escape routes over the mountains into Spain, or by smuggling refugees onto boats, and forging exit visas.

Life was not easy at Air Bel - the winter of 1941 was freezing, and they were so hungry they even ate the goldfish in the ornamental pond. But there was great company, an illegal radio that could pick up the US Jazz programmes for dancing, and there was still wine - the house was a sanctuary, and there was joy, and creativity. It was a beacon of hope at a dark time, and people such as Antoine de St Exupery's wife Consuelo (inspiration for the Rose in the Little Prince), Marcel Duchamp and Peggy Guggenheim flocked there. It was in Marseilles that Guggenheim met Max Ernst. Max said ‘when where and why shall I meet you?’ Peggy said ‘Tomorrow, four, Café de la Paix, and you know why.’ They escaped to America together and married.

Jacqueline Lamba

Consuelo de St Exupery

Marcel Duchamp

The lasting legacy of the artists who came together at Air Bel is the Jeu de Marseilles. Breton spent hours in the library in Marseilles, researching the history of the city's original Tarot deck. He proposed a new game - new suits: Love Dream Revolution Knowledge, symbolised by the flame, the wheel, the star, the key. Brauner, Breton, Lamba, Dominguez, Ernst, Herold, Lam and Masson designed the cards.

It is a rare and beautiful thing, testament to their creativity and their defiance at the darkest time of their lives (and I was thrilled to discover a pack during my research, from a book dealer in France). 

Perhaps you have seen the meme wrongly attributed to Churchill that has been doing the rounds: 'when Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he said 'then what are we fighting for'? I came across the real thing in the MOMA archives, penned by Barr:

Fry, like Barr, believed in the importance of these artists, and in the sanctity of freedom and democracy. In the great game of life, these are things worth fighting for. Asked why he and his team risked their lives to help the artists, he said that their art had brought great happiness to his life and he just wanted to help them in their hour of need. Fry received little thanks for his remarkable work during his lifetime. Now, the US Consulate General in Marseilles sits on Place Varian Fry. But in 1971 when Fry published the Flight portfolio of prints in aid of the International Rescue Committee, he struggled to convince artists to take part – though he was responsible for saving many of their lives.

He was honoured with the International Rescue Committee’s medal in 1963, and the Croix de Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the French government in 1967. He died alone in his sleep later that year aged only 59. A manuscript lay at his side. Fry died surrounded by his incomplete notes for a new account of those extraordinary months in Marseilles.

In 1991 the US Holocaust Memorial Council awarded him the Eisenhower Liberation Medal, and in 1996 he was named ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem – an honour bestowed on non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust. It was an honour shared with Schindler and Wallenberg. He was the first American to be honoured in this way.

When Fry wrote 'Surrender on Demand', he said it was worse than War and Peace with its cast of thousands. Writing 'The House of Dreams' has felt like that at times, with editorial notes coming back time and again asking for yet more characters to be cut. I came to admire Fry and his team immensely, to love the factual characters that form the backbone of my fiction. I hope the novel will eventually bring the little known story of 'the artists' Schindler' to a wider audience. When you look at the restless world we live in now, it is more important than ever to treasure and defend the enlightened values of freedom, democracy and creativity that they fought for.

'The House of Dreams' is being published in German as 'Das Sonntagsmadchen' by Piper this autumn.


Carol Drinkwater said...

This is inspiring, Kate, thank you. I must drive along the coast and visit. Is The House of Dreams only to b published in German? And what an irony that the book's first publication should be in German. (Or am I missing a beat here?)

Joan Lennon said...

Wonderful things to build a novel from - thanks for posting about it!

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thanks,Joan and Carol. The same fantastic German publishers who did such a great job with 'Perfume Garden' are the first to publish. Hope UK and others will follow soon ...

Anonymous said...

Riveting. And I'd always thought that if Churchill hadn't said that, he should have done!

The History Girls is no good for my bank balance - I keep buying your books! Now I want to buy The House of Dreams. As Carol has asked, is it to be published in English? I do hope so.

Kate Lord Brown said...

Thank you - I hope so too!

Clare Mulley said...

I am sure it will be, and you must let us know when... I want one too please!