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Libby Cone

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War on the Margins
by Libby Cone   

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Publisher:  Duckworth ISBN-10:  0715638769 Type: 


Copyright:  July,2009 ISBN-13:  9780715638767

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War on the Margins

The Holocaust played out in microcosm on a tiny island in the English Channel occupied by the Germans. The real-life Surrealist Jewish Lesbian artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore figure prominently.

A historical novel with mostly real-life characters, War on the Margins follows the adventures of the now-almost-forgotten Surrealist artists and lovers, Claude Cahun/Lucille Schwob and Marcel Moore/Suzanne Malherbe as their quiet Boston marriage is interrupted by the occupation of their island, Jersey, by Nazis for the duration of the war. They become Resistance propagandists, help a young woman, Marlene, who has fled the city because she is Jewish, and wind up in German military prison on death row. Translations of their prison letters and notes are included.

Otto took him down the dark stairway to Lucy' s cell. “Kleine,” he called as he unlocked the door, “I bring you a visitor.” Lucy was lying down; she did not get up when Giffard entered. The cold and semistarvation, along with an inability to digest the prison food, forced her to husband her strength. He glanced back at Otto, who was paying no attention and was already leaving the cell, and rushed up to Lucy's side, pressing Suzanne's note into her raw and bony hands. “Mademoiselle, this is from your friend,” he whispered. Lucy sat up and looked at the folded note, then stuffed it under her shirt. Giffard took another handkerchief from his jacket pocket and gave it to Lucy, who stuffed it, too, into her shirt. Then he fished in another trouser pocket and came up with more cigarettes, matches, pencil, candy. These were taken greedily and stuffed under the straw mattress. “Did you just find out we were here?” she asked. Shame rose in his throat like acid; in a small voice he said, “No, Mademoiselle. As I was just telling Mademoiselle Malherbe, I am here on a real estate matter brought up by the Bailiff.”

“Real estate?” She wasn't laughing.

“I'm sorry. Yes, uh, because of your sentence, the Germans need to make sure that your real property is not up for sale or, as they say, 'hypothecated.'”

She looked much more openly angry than Suzanne. “Oh, is that why you came, then? You think I have the deed under my mattress ? Could I be smuggling notes out to agents in my slop bucket? No, Monsieur, it is not 'hypothecated,' as you put it. It is not.” She rubbed her back , looked at him with irritation. “So, they want us to die very tidily, then?”

He felt the tears again. “Oh, Mademoiselle, I am sorry! I know you are not thinking of such things at this time! I pray for you! It is all so miserable!”

“Come on, Giffard, straighten up! The war could end before they kill us!”

“Yes, it could,” he managed to say. “I will try to visit you again.”

She refused his hand. “Thank you.” She looked exhausted just from the short time of sitting up.

He called for Otto, who looked soberly at Lucy as he let Giffard out. Giffard shook hands with a surprised Otto, who found a cigarette and a fifty Reichsmark note in his hand. “Please take care of them,” Giffard whispered. Otto handed back the note, kept the cigarette. “I already do, Herr Advokat.”

Otto walked slowly back to Lucy's cell and let himself in. This gave her plenty of time to hide Suzanne's note; he wouldn't bother her about the candy. “Miss Schwob,” he began,

“Yes, Otto?”

“You are looking ill; you always stay in your bed. I am going to bring the doctor to see you.”

“Are you afraid I will die before I am executed?”

“Please, Miss Schwob.”

“By all means Otto, fatten me up for slaughter.” Otto sighed and closed the door softly behind him. Lucy rolled onto her side and rubbed the scabs on her back, the result of skin and bones lying on thin straw. Otto was such a strange mixture of traits, she thought; he adhered fairly strictly to the rules, and was always impassive in demeanor, but displayed great solicitude toward his charges. All in all, the best traits for survival in a Fascist state. His superiors considered him to be loyal, and he considered himself to be kind; his conscience was untroubled.

Lucy sat up in bed and took out the piece of paper. There were two drawings on it; one of a bird's mouth, a playful sexual symbol they had always shared. The other was of a tortoise with the head and tail of a happy, chubby cat. Both had been drawn quickly and expertly; Suzanne, who could express herself with root vegetables, found paper effortless. There were also some lines: ”My love, I am well. I hope Giffard delivers this, and delivers us. Your little bird-mouth, Suzanne.”

Rich Cream from Jersey
It is said that evil prevails when good men do nothing. For good men, also read good women, for in Libby Cone’s novel of wartime Jersey, War on the Margins (Duckworth, £12.99), it’s the covert petticoat brigade who most rile the occupying Nazis.

Starting life as Cone’s strictly academic MA thesis, this blossomed into a hardback gem of Jewish resistance, chilling, charming and interspersed with authentic papers and broadcasts of the time. Here is Jersey not as millionaire tax haven, but characterised by labour camps, informers, precious parsnip tea and a swastika flying over Fort Regent. Plain, single, nervy Marlene Zimmer is the improbable heroine, a very ordinary clerk at the island’s aliens office. She keeps herself — and her late father’s ethnicity — to herself, though German orders oblige her to register others — friends and neighbours among them — as Jews.

Marlene may have no idea what her inherited kiddush cup betokens, but Jersey’s fate stirs her latent semitism. Fear forces her undercover, but outrage draws her close to other partisans, from whom she learns to dare, to share a lone root vegetable, to love and to be her bravest self.

“Suzanne” and “Lucille” are two bewigged bohemians who bring the best out of Marlene — and high praise to Libby Cone for exquisitely enshrining their genuine wartime contribution. In real Channel Island history, they were Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, Jewish lesbian lovers and artists who together defied the Germans, chalking on walls Churchill’s ubiquitous V for victory.

Their tireless propaganda prompted soldiers to desert, so landing the colourful pair in Nazi cells, under sentence of death. Libby Cone breathes life into the poetic exploits of these “surrealist sisters” and into the transformation of Marlene — a victory V in itself.

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