It’s a question one often hears during crises such as wars or pandemics: What role can artists play to help the situation? Two female French artists found a unique way of putting their creative talents to use during World War II. Historian Jeffrey H. Jackson tells their story in his riveting new book, “Paper Bullets.”

The two women were lovers: writer and photographer Lucy Schwob, and illustrator Suzanne Malherbe. Modern readers may know them by their adopted names: Schwob published books under the name Claude Cahun, while Malherbe took on the pseudonym Marcel Moore.

As Jackson expertly describes, Cahun and Moore may have seemed unlikely candidates for the resistance. Both were “daughters of wealthy and prominent residents of the western French city of Nantes.” In the 1920s and ’30s, they had worked with French surrealists on what the Nazis would call “degenerate art” and became friends with such artists as André Breton.

The narrative gains momentum when the story shifts to 1937. With fascism spreading throughout Europe, Cahun and Moore move to Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, to escape political persecution and anti-Semitism — Cahun’s father was Jewish — and live a quieter life.

That quiet was short-lived. Drawing mostly from Cahun’s book “Disavowals” and Moore’s later writings, Jackson writes that the peace on Jersey ended in 1940, when 180 German bombs fell on the Channel Islands.

Cahun and Moore’s defiance started with small acts, such as when they “twisted road signs the wrong way to confuse the Germans who were still learning to navigate their way around Jersey.”

But then they became more sophisticated. They wrote messages on cigarette papers, sheets from ledgers or anything else they could find, and slipped them into German soldiers’ tunic pockets, helmets or boots. They created photomontages critical of the Germans and surreptitiously dropped them into magazines the soldiers would buy. The goal was to make the soldiers “reflect on the gap between men on the ground and the elite in Berlin who exploited them for their own purposes.”

Cahun and Moore were arrested in 1944. They spent months in prison and were sentenced to death before their release at the war’s end. Jackson does an excellent job in piecing together their story to depict the deprivations of their time in jail.

The book’s interrogation scenes are surprisingly flat, but the drama leading up to them is intense, as are scenes after which they are sentenced to death.

In later testimony, Moore spoke of “Lucy’s concept of indirect action, that a work of art could change people by making them see the world differently.” As this skillfully constructed book shows, art may not end a war or pandemic, but it can provide receptive audiences with needed clarity.

 

Michael Magras is a freelance book critic. His work has appeared in the Economist, Times Literary Supplement, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Kirkus Reviews and BookPage.

Paper Bullets
By: Jeffrey H. Jackson.
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 336 pages, $27.79.