A stunning story of love, sexual obsession, treachery, and tragedy, about an artist and her most famous muse in Paris between the world wars.
Paris, 1927. In the heady years before the crash, financiers drape their mistresses in Chanel, while expatriates flock to the avant-garde bookshop Shakespeare and Company. One day in July, a young American named Rafaela Fano gets into the car of a coolly dazzling stranger, the Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka.
Struggling to halt a downward slide toward prostitution, Rafaela agrees to model for the artist, a dispossessed Saint Petersburg aristocrat with a murky past. The two become lovers, and Rafaela inspires Tamara's most iconic Jazz Age images, among them her most accomplished-and coveted-works of art. A season as the painter's muse teaches Rafaela some hard lessons: Tamara is a cocktail of raw hunger and glittering artifice. And all the while, their romantic idyll is threatened by history's darkening tide.
Inspired by real events in de Lempicka's history, The Last Nude is a tour de force of historical imagination. Ellis Avery gives the reader a tantalizing window into a lost Paris, an age already vanishing as the inexorable forces of history close in on two tangled lives. Spellbinding and provocative, this is a novel about genius and craft, love and desire, regret and, most of all, hope that can transcend time and circumstance.
I only met Tamara de Lempicka because I needed a hundred francs. This was sixteen years ago. I had just learned that if I had a black dress with a white collar, I could take over my ﬂatmate’s department store job. In 1927, you could get a bed or a bicycle for three hundred francs; one hundred was a fair price to pay for a ready-made dress, but I didn’t have it.
I would try my friend Maggey ﬁrst: I had given her money once when she needed to see a doctor. After my interview at the department store, I looked for her in the Bois de Boulogne.
Maggey went by the name of her place of employment, a magnolia tree on the southernmost lip of the bigger lake, close to the road. I could see a man turn as I walked by, and as I approached the magnolia tree (where was Maggey?) I could see another, a man in a ﬁ acre, pointing me out to his driver.
For my part, I couldn’t help noticing the jewel-green motorcar parked on the grass up ahead, out of which emerged a woman with a dog. They formed a triangle at the edge of the trees: greyhound, green Bugatti, slim stylish woman. Her bobbed hair gleamed pale beneath an exquisitely useless aviator’s hood done in putty-colored kid. Her dog’s whole body strained toward the trees, yet he stood as still as a hound in a medieval tapestry, quivering patiently until the woman unclipped his leash. He looked up at her, waiting. “Vas-y!” she cried, and the dog vanished into the green, a long-bodied blur.
I reached the neck of land between the two lakes, and saw neither Maggey nor the overdressed boyfriend she sometimes brought along. I would walk as far as the Chinese pavilion on the island, I decided, and if I didn’t see Maggey when I came back, I’d give up and ask my ﬂatmate, Gin, for the money. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask for her uniform: Gin had the boyish, birdlike looks that were in vogue then, while next to her I felt heavily, irredeemably, New York Italian. But if she could give me both of her uniforms, I thought, maybe I could use fabric from one to work gores into the other. That would take time, though, and I needed the dress ﬁrst thing the next morning. The sunlight broke the lake into a thousand hard-edged mirrors, but the pines were cool overhead, their needles fragrant on the ground. One of the men on the path said something to me and I looked away. But then I heard footsteps behind me, and a woman’s voice. “Where did you get your dress, Mademoiselle?”
I had chosen my lucky blue dress for the interview at Belle Jardinière precisely because it often drew comment. I looked back: it was the woman with the green car. She didn’t speak French like a French person, but she spoke it better than I did. “I made it,” I said, struck shy by her beauty and her obvious wealth.
In her twenties, the woman stood as tautly slender as her greyhound, yet her Eastern European features suggested a ﬂeshy, languid ease. “Comme c’est jolie,” she said.
I pointed at the Bugatti. “I was just admiring—” I said, or hoped I said.
“It’s not mine—should I speak Italian to you? English?”
“English, I guess,” I said in English, embarrassed. But I switched back to French, explaining, “I try to practice—”
“—but I am thinking I might buy myself a car like this one,” she said. Her English was like sandpaper, Slavic and pained. That’s why her French sounded strange, I thought. Was she Russian? “Would you like to help me try it out?”
I laughed uncomfortably, and looked over at Maggey’s tree. No Maggey, so I lingered with the woman as she called her dog. “Seffa!”
“Seffa?” I had to repeat the woman’s explanation out loud to understand it. “Zee Vest Vind? Oh!” I said, catching on.
More gale than zephyr, Seffa suddenly burst out of the trees, carrying a bloodied rabbit. He tossed his prey to the ground and rolled around on the torn body, legs in the air. “No, Seffa! That’s enough,” the woman said in French, and the dog stood, trembling. He was slow to let her open his jaws and pry something out. When she leashed him, he stood close by her side near the car, but looked back, openmouthed.
The top of the car was down. The woman reached inside for a copy of Le Temps and opened a sheet of newsprint across her dog’s back. She wiped the blood off him, and he whined when the corners of the paper nipped at his legs. “In,” she said, and in two leaps the greyhound was helming the backseat, eyes and nose trained on his relinquished prize. “See?” she said to me. “Now we can go anywhere you like.”
“You’re kidding,” I said, laughing again.
The woman laughed, too, but her gloved hands wound together. Her red mouth moved before she spoke. She seemed afraid she might offend me. She looked down at my sad old shoes, and suddenly I knew we were thinking the same thing: she had money and I needed it. It was the Bois de Boulogne, after all. What was she doing here? “I ask because you are beautiful,” she said, “and I am a painter. I paint nudes. Please, may I give you my card? May I paint you sometime?”
Was that all, then? I looked at her carefully. Whatever she had in mind, I ﬁgured, I could get out of it if I needed to.
The woman was named Tamara, she said. Her studio was in the Seventh, a quick ride. Her car shone bottle-green, a praying mantis, a cunning toy. As I stared at it, a man in a fedora addressed me in ﬂat Chicago English: “Well, can I paint you too?”
I glanced over at him: a nattily dressed midwestern boy, standing too close, but smiling so hopefully I felt a spike of pity for him. I relished it. “Sorry, Charlie,” I singsonged, and then someone called out to him in French.
I watched the American and his friend spar in greeting like boxers, glancing over at me from time to time. It felt good to harden my face against them the way Tamara did, to turn away. And toward a car that wasn’t a taxicab, at that. I looked up at her. “Would you think about it?” she said.
“For a hundred francs, I would do it,” I said. “I would do it right now.”
“A hundred francs for ﬁve hours, yes?”
I could have Gin’s job and owe her nothing. I looked back again toward Maggey’s tree: still no Maggey. “Let’s go,” I said.
It was a warm day, but between the cool Bois and the open car, my summer dress was what seemed impractical, not Tamara’s thin cape and aviator’s hood, not even her long driving gloves. I felt a little breathless in my gray leather seat: I’d never gone so fast before. At one stoplight, Tamara asked my name and wrote herself a note. “Rafaela,” she repeated, drawing out the middle two syllables. She had a stainless-steel mechanical pencil and a creamy little notebook, exquisitely plain. I wanted both. At another stoplight, she reapplied her lipstick. I had never seen a mouth so red. Her bloodied gloves were the pale yellow of her hair, her cape and hood the gray of her heavy-lidded eyes.
The trees ﬂashed by. As my skin puckered into gooseﬂesh, I was glad for the heat that seeped into my thighs, glad again when we burst into an open ﬁeld and, brieﬂy, heat poured into me through the windscreen. I leaned back for a moment, basking in the hot light, the speeding car, Tamara’s beauty: this was why I had come to Paris, I thought. Back home, a year ago, one glimpse of a Chanel dress had made me crave glamour, and now I had found it. Tamara’s eyes ﬂicked toward me, the color of chrome. It was too loud to hear what she said, but I smiled in reply. She reached over and touched me under the chin with a gloved ﬁnger, tipping my face toward her. Her eyes moved from my face to the road and back. She gave me a last, approving look and took the wheel in both hands again. I had seen that look before, on Hervé’s face. On Guillaume’s, too. I would ask for the money ﬁrst thing.
We burst out of the green silent bubble of the Bois into a hot bright day crowded with scrambling taxis and squawking claxons. People ﬂooded the little streets. Pushcarts crammed with vegetables, ﬂowers, and books inched through the crowds. When we stalled behind an orange-and-brown horse-drawn sewage truck, Tamara grimaced at the smell, then pitched her car into a pedestrian square and passed the horses, frightening two nuns up onto the plinth of a statue. Tamara looked back at them and laughed, and I nervously followed her lead. We sped along the river and crossed the Pont de la Concorde. The Seine glowed like a sheet of lead foil.
Tamara parked in front of an apartment house in the aristocratic Seventh. I followed her—led by Seffa, clawed feet clacking—up two ﬂights of stairs to an apartment much grander than any I’d ever lived in. “My daughter’s room,” she said, pointing to a door off to the side. I caught a glimpse of a kitchen, too, before we reached the apartment proper: three wide handsome rooms, each one leading to the next through French doors, all hung in the same gray velvet as the low couch where Tamara seated me. Both sets of French doors stood open: from the middle room I could see both the dining table at one end of the apartment and the starkly elegant bed by the far wall of the other.
On a low marble table before me sat a glass jar containing the remains of what might have once been a hair ribbon, burned to a stiff charcoal curl. Beside the jar sat a bottle of mineral water and a glass, a bunch of grapes, and the skull of a small animal. When the dog sighted the skull, Tamara moved it to a sideboard behind us and poured me a glass of water. “We can eat this still life. It was no good,” she said, glancing down by way of explanation at the one hint of disorder in her cool, bright ﬂat: a torn sketchbook page on the ﬂoor.
As I nibbled at a proffered grape, Tamara moved quickly through the three rooms, wiping down her dog and gloves with a wet cloth, hanging her cape and hood, shaking out her bobbed blond hair. Something about Tamara’s apartment made me think of the street where I lived, which was home to a series of art dealers, but it wasn’t the paintings on the walls: the art dealers, as if trying to outdo each other in drabness, hid away their wares like gold bricks. It was the smell, a resinous vapor that spindled the room. “What’s that?” I asked, snifﬁng.
“Huile de lin,” she said, gesturing toward a table full of brushes and glass jars. “Is that linen-seed oil in English? And térébenthine. I do not know the word.”
I nodded. “The grapes are delicious,” I said. Even mixed with the sharp oil smell, I liked them: tart skin and sweet pulp, but full of seeds.
“Once, when I was very poor, I brought home some pastries to draw. I set them on the table here, and then I am sitting down with my tablet, here, and I look and I look, and all the time my stomach is saying, ‘Eat them, eat them.’ ”
“You ate them?”
Tamara pulled off her driving gloves while she spoke, revealing long wrists, long ﬁngers, red-painted nails, and a wealth of rings, one with a square topaz as big as a walnut. It ﬂashed as she nodded, repeating my words, Slavic and vehement. “I ate them.”
“Are you very poor now?” I asked, pretending to joke as Tamara vanished behind her bedroom doors. “Should I worry about the hundred francs?”
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No!” Tamara called from the next room, as she exchanged her mauve crepe afternoon frock for a black cotton housedress and a white chef ’s apron. Reëmerging, Tamara looked at me. “You understand the job? You do not move. I will paint you for forty-ﬁve minutes. Then you will rest for ﬁfteen. Then forty-ﬁve again, and so on for ﬁve hours. It is noon now. We will stop at ﬁve.” Belle Jardinière would close at six. I needed to show up in uniform at nine the next morning, before the store opened. I nodded.
“The WC is down the hall, or you may go behind the screen,” she said, pointing at the dining room. “You change there.”
I knew I had agreed to model, but here it was: I would have to take off my clothes. “How many people come in and out of this apartment?” I asked warily.
“No one all day,” Tamara said, spreading both hands in a gesture of ﬁat. “And then at ﬁve, the housekeeper will come by and make dinner for my mother and daughter.”
“Your mother lives here too?”
“Oh, no. We are just myself and Kizette. My mother lives close by, and she looks after Kizette when I go out at night.”
“And your husband?” I asked, before I could stop myself.
“Is in Warsaw,” she replied curtly. And then, as if to forestall further questions, she crossed the room again. “This is for you,” she said, unlocking a drawer. She drew a banknote from a gray satin envelope-style purse and set it on the table by the grapes. One hundred francs: a black dress with a white collar.
“Thank you,” I said. I was relieved to see she was serious about paying me, but even so, I took a long drink of water. I wanted to make it last, the moment she owed me, before I picked up the money and owed her. I proudly set down my glass. “I’ll take it when I go,” I said.
Behind the screen in the dining room, I discovered a bathtub, a chamber pot, and a hook on the wall with a single empty hanger. I guess that’s for you, I thought, addressing my lucky blue dress. Here we go.
Just one look at a dress had been enough to lure me to Paris. The summer before I met Tamara, I was living in the Bronx with my stepfather’s mother, my Nonna Gioia. The farthest she let me out of her ﬂat on Grand Concourse Boulevard—a cell of furniture polish, porcelain ﬁgurines, and Italian prayer cards—was onto her tiny balcony, to water the plants. I didn’t miss looking after my brothers, four boys between the ages of nine and three, but I was so bored without them, I watered those plants twice a day. Nonna Gioia disapproved of her next-door neighbor, a pretty, young widow named Theresa, but I liked peeking into Theresa’s apartment from the balcony. She went out often. From ﬁve on, Theresa sat near the window with her hat on the table beside her, until a black motorcar pulled up outside. Then she pulled her cloche so low it covered her eyes, tripped outside in her long light coat, and got into the back of the car without talking to the driver. Sometimes she didn’t come home until morning.
Every afternoon, Theresa went out to the balcony to drink a cup of coffee and dry her shining bobbed hair. One day, after sweating at the stove for Nonna Gioia all morning, I stepped out onto the balcony, panting, to ﬁnd myself face-to-face with my neighbor, dressed radiantly in rose, black hair wet from the bath. “Oh!” she said. “I didn’t know Mrs. Russo lived with anyone.”
“She’s my grandmother. My stepfather’s mama. I’m just here for the summer.” I looked behind me, into the apartment: Nonna Gioia was at church and could come back any moment.
“You in trouble?”
“Sorry?” Did I look as unhappy as I felt?
“You in trouble?” she repeated.
“Well, my parents are sending me back to Italy to get married,” I said.
“Oh, after the baby comes,” she said. “That’s convenient for everybody, huh?”
I stared at her. What baby?
She reached over the railing and touched my shoulder. “You’ll have another one someday,” she consoled.
“And meanwhile”—she shrugged, giving me a smile like a secret handshake—“you only lose your reputation once, right?”
“You think I’m pregnant,” I protested awkwardly. “But I’m not.”
Theresa’s smile, startling in its sudden warmth, vanished. “Oh,” she said. “Sorry, sweetheart. A girl goes away to live with her grandmother for a few months, and . . .” She gestured in a way that made me self-conscious about my all-too-female body. “. . . Sorry.”
“I see,” I said. “I understand. Don’t worry.”
“And I never see you outside,” she added in her defense.
“It’s really all right,” I assured her. “She keeps me pretty busy in here.”
“Well, come outside sometime. The nice weather won’t last.”
“I like your dress.”
I nodded. Theresa was wearing a solid pink drop-waist sheath with an extra pleat in front, knit out of light wool that clung without bulging and made her long legs look all the stemmier. Four ribs knitted into the fabric gave the dress the sleek, metallic look of a motorcar, while a row of soft loops at the neckline doubled as buttonholes where the vee of the dress closed, showcasing a ridge of pink buttons that plunged almost all the way to Theresa’s navel. I stared at the wink in the fabric: I had never seen a girl’s navel through her clothes before. I had never seen a dress so simple, yet so stylish, so seductive, yet so classy.
“It’s from Paris, sweetheart,” she said, both relieved that the awkward moment had passed and genuinely proud of her dress. “Coco Chanel.”
Theresa and I did not speak again after that fumbling exchange. More than once I’ve thought about that smile she gave me, a smile quickly offered and as quickly retracted, a smile that intimated we were two of a kind, that we two alone had somehow bested all the others. When I ﬁrst met my ﬂatmate in the barroom of the Vaudeville restaurant in December of ’26—the men we were seeing then made us climb up on chairs with them and sing “La Marseillaise”—Gin’s slender, nervy poise had made me think of Theresa in her little ribbed dress. Since then, I’d seen Gin go off in a taxi just as effortlessly as Theresa had. I’d seen her reappear a day later, just as coolly buoyant. Until Gin had met her current banker, Daniel, she and I had often exchanged Theresa’s conspiratorial smile.
M y lucky dress, inspired by Theresa’s Chanel confection, was cut from a sky-blue blend of raw silk and linen that caught the light like sequins when I went outside. It ﬁt like a coat of paint. If I wanted a change from baguette and cheese at home, I could wear that dress to a café and, every time, someone— though rarely anyone I liked—would take me to a restaurant. As I stepped out of that dress behind the screen in Tamara’s apartment, the painter’s high heels crossed the room toward me. She passed me a handful of fabric. “Wear this,” she said.
The dress Tamara handed me was a far cry from mine: a dull brown cotton sack-like affair with wide straps for sleeves. Though the garment looked ﬁnished enough on the outside, I was surprised when I pulled it over my head to discover raw fabric against my skin. I felt a little superior as I smoothed down the selvage that lumped under the bodice: I knew how to ﬁnish a seam. Had Tamara made the dress herself? Had she been looking for a girl whom she thought this odd costume would ﬁt? Walking back into the salon, I felt like a sausage in my sack.
“Sit,” she said, pointing to a café-style table and chair. “Good. Lay the right hand here, on the left wrist. Good. Stay there. First I will draw you for ten minutes.”
Sitting opposite me on the gray couch, a tablet braced against her knees, Tamara held a slender twig of charcoal and looked at me. Her eyes were like mercury. They moved over me with a ﬂat, empty look that made me uncomfortable. When her gaze ﬂicked down and her hand moved over the page, I looked away, relieved.
More stylish even than Theresa, more coolly poised even than Gin, Tamara reminded me of a third woman, someone I had met just three months after seeing my neighbor’s pink dress, the day I ﬁrst entered Chanel myself, on the well-upholstered arm of my boyfriend, Guillaume. After whisking me up a mirrored staircase, he had me ﬁtted for a tight satin ruby-colored cocktail gown by the most sophisticated, the most competent woman I had ever encountered. The way Tamara spoke to me, without hesitation, without doubting herself, made me think of that tailor at Chanel, as uncowed by Guillaume’s age, bulk, and money as she was by the shining, buttery fabric in her hands. As the seamstress draped and pinned the satin on me, I could not speak, awed. When we left, Guillaume took me across rue Cambon into the Ritz, where we cut through the city block using a plush corridor that ushered us into the octagonal, moneyed hush of Place Vendôme. “C’est belle, n’est-ce pas?” he said. It was beautiful: the silent column, the airy beveled square bounded by arches. I nodded, still dumbfounded.
I never did wear the red satin dress. While we were together, Guillaume kept me in a ﬂat with a doorman, a lift, steam heat. He had a beautician pluck my single brow into two arches and a coiffeur bob my hair. He dressed me in new clothes, from Perugia pumps to a Lanvin cloche, from silk stockings to a fox-collared coat. He sent me to the Alliance Française and paid for classes. However, the day I graduated from Is this a salad? to Why do you like me? he stopped. “Ça commence à bien faire!” he said, meaning he was fed up. I stared at him, bafﬂed. It begins to do well?
Within a week, Guillaume had moved a mutely bewildered Swedish girl into the apartment next door to mine. When I met her, I thought, You found another duckling to swan, is that it? I didn’t wait around to see if we ’d go back and collect my dress. Instead, I slept with one of his employees, a man too young to have even fought in the war, named Hervé. By the time I made it back to rue Cambon with Hervé’s money, the red dress was gone.
"As erotic and powerful as the paintings that inspired it, Avery's artist-muse love story is moreover a tale of money, class and betrayal."
-Emma Donoghue, author of Room
"The Last Nude is a remarkable novel: at once a seductive evocation of Lost Generation Paris, a faithful literary rendering of Tamara de Lempicka's idiosyncratic and groundbreaking art, and a vibrant, intelligent, affecting story in its own right. It's also smoking hot."
-Emily Barton, author of Brookland
"A sly, sleekly written stereograph of art, desire, and desperation in Paris in the '20s, The Last Nude brings Rafaela to electric life, much as Tamara de Lempicka did when she painted her."
-Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh
What about this second novela technique, or a subjectwas a stretch for you?
My first novel, The Teahouse Fire, was about the tea ceremony of Meiji-era Japan. Because the subject matter was one most American readers know little to nothing about, I felt an almost missionary obligation to offer the reader everything I knew about that worldto lecture, reallyand the book is paced accordingly.
My second novel, The Last Nude, takes place in Paris between the wars, a setting about which most readers know at least a little, and many readers know far more than I. It isn't news that flappers listened to jazz in the twenties, or that Europe in the forties was a bad place to be if you were Jewish. This time around, I had to learn how not to lecture but to converse, how to give the reader the pleasure of supplying missing information, how to leave things out.
The result of leaving things out is, I hope, a more fast-paced novel than my first. I went into this book thinking about the various pitfalls artists can encountersurfeit in Tamara de Lempicka's case, loss in Anson Hall's, history in Rafaela Fano'sand I knew that if I was writing a novel about something as un-American as failure, I should at least try to make it sexy and suspenseful.
Between the moment you first thought of writing The Last Nude and the moment you finished it, what in the story or in your conception of Tamara and Rafaela changed most?
At first, I had no idea I would wind up writing sixty pages in the first person from Tamara's point of view. As I discovered a year and a half after having done so, adding her voice meant that, as Tamara, I could skip over things that, as Rafaela, I would have needed to expand on. To that end, I condensed 110 pages from Rafaela's point of view into two sentences from Tamara's, resulting in a leaner if somewhat darker book.
Cutting out a quarter of my novel at the last minute of the editing process reweighted the story away from Rafaela's coming-of-age and onto the vexed relationship between the two women: now I think the book bears down more squarely on a key question: What did the affair mean to each of them?
The other thing that changed most is that I initially imagined an unabashedly happy ending for Rafaela: I saw her in California, living with a nice woman she'd met while studying the bodywork techniques pioneered by Ida Rolf. Groovy, huh? This ending was total fantasy, extraneous to the central action of the story, and very like the ending of my first novel, The Teahouse Fire. That novel takes place in the Victorian period, and offers a self-consciously Victorian ending: Good is rewarded, love comes at last. Most of the action of The Last Nude takes place in 1927, so ultimately it felt wrong to force a Victorian ending onto a Jazz Age novel. What's more, in the next decades, so many Jews were killed in Europe that to report Rafaela's survival without making the story of how she survived the focus of the book would be to disrespect the millions who died.
At what points did you find you had to change a fact in order to make a better fiction?
First, if Tamara's apartment and the train station had been on the same side of the Seine, there would have been no need for Rafaela to cross the river on a crucial occasion toward the end of the book. For that reason, although the biographical Tamarawhom I got to know through the excellent work of Laura Claridgelived in what was at the time the newish-money Sixteenth Arrondissement of Paris, my fictional Tamara lives in the old-money Seventh.
Second, when I finished my first novel, set in 1880s Japan, I promised myself that my next book would be about English speakers. Of course, next thing you know, I'm fired up to write about a Polish painter who grew up speaking French. Partly because the biographical Tamara never specified the biographical Rafaela's nationality or origins, and largely for my own sake, to avoid writing another book full of translated dialogue, I have taken the liberty of imagining an English-speaking Rafaela.
Third, and most interesting to me as a writer, there's a quietly counterfactual strand to this novel, which appears in the character of Anson Hall. Hemingway buffs will wonder why Anson has the first name of one of Hemingway's grandfathers and the last name of the other, and also why I have claimed the story that Hemingway's wife lost all his manuscripts on a train as Anson's story. While Hemingway overcame the loss of his manuscripts and went on to write his great first novels, Anson Hall is the man Hemingway would have become if he had never overcome that loss: a nicer person than Ernest Hemingway, but a sadder one, too.
In thinking about the pitfalls artists can encounter, I wanted to play out the consequences of creative failure, which for me meant envisioning a world in which certain works of art had never come into being. I suspect that the world we live in is a poorer place for its paucity of artworks by women and other oppressed peoples, but a negative assertion lacks the force of example. So I needed to eliminate a real artist. I know I poke fun at James Joyce in this novel, however much I owe the inspiration for Tamara's final monologue to Molly Bloom, but I wanted to make a sacrifice that actually pained me, so Hemingway was the author whose life story I altered. What would 1927 Paris be if The Sun Also Rises hadn't come out in 1926? Jazz Age Paris without Hemingway in itand an interwar literary tradition in which Gabriele D'Annunzio's name replaced Hemingway'swould be pallid indeed, and my own life without A Moveable Feast in it would be so much the poorer.
Could the relationship between Tamara and Rafaela have happened anytime, or do you see it as specific to Paris in the twenties?
I don't see Paris in the twenties as simply the setting in which the biographical Tamara happened to be painting when she created Beautiful Rafaela, the painting that inspired this book. Rather, what's remarkable about expatriate Jazz Age Paris is that it provided an environment in which a number of different kinds of romantic and sexual relationships between women flourished in a way they rarely had before. You know the examples as well as I: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Janet Flanner and Solita Solano, Bryher and H.D., to say nothing of Natalie Barney, Djuna Barnes, Radclyffe Halland did Virginia Woolf ever make it to Paris? My point is, in the 1920s, and especially in Paris, you see a concentration of lesbians in the arts, and at the center of the modernist movements in literature and painting especially, that strikes me as singular and profoundly exciting. These circles, however, have already been documented by top-notch scholars and biographers, and I'd be bored if I stuck to dramatizing the research of others.
Rather, I was interested in a world in which two women like Tamara and Rafaela can have an affair and have vastly different interpretations of what it means. It's not like Rafaela thinks she's inventing a new category of relationship from scratch when she falls in love with Tamara: surrounded by appealing models of what look to her like marriages between women, she imagines she's embarking on one of them. At the same time, this is so long before Stonewalllet alone before same-sex marriage becomes legal anywherethat Tamara can see what she's engaging in solely in terms of sexual freedom, or decadent naughtiness, or a painter's prerogative: certainly nothing remotely related to marriage.
So I see the relationship between Tamara and Rafaela as specific to this time and place, which was one in which sexual acts between women seemed more possible than in preceding or subsequent decades and one in which the meaning of those acts was perhaps even more up for grabs than it is today.
(My partner Sharon Marcus's scholarly work on nineteenth-century marriage between women has influenced my own thinking considerably.)
How does a painter's job differ from a writer's?
I sat for two paintings when I was in my twenties. The experience itself was as dull as (sorry) watching paint dry, but I found myself thinking things I hadn't thought before, both about what it's like to be in a body and about what it's like to look and be looked at. I promised myself I'd come back to those thoughts one day.
As part of the research for this book, I took a weeklong intensive figure-painting class, less to become a painter than to see what it's like on the other side of the brush. What's it like to stare at the same beautiful naked woman for sixteen hours? I wasn't surprised to find that my reactions changed from sexual excitement to visual and spatial problem-solving within the first few minutes of each class. Nor was I surprised by the frustration I felt when the time ran out on each pose and I'd barely begun. What surprised me was the feeling of delightof love, eventhat washed over me on the second day of class when the same model came back, a feeling that felt separate from the private, individual me, who said no more than "Hi" to her each morning and "Thank you" to her each afternoon. I name that feeling in The Last Nude as "a gratitude, a joy that translates badly into words. I know how to mix these colors. I know what to do with these lines."
While I can't get behind the seigneurial assumptions that make painters think they have the right to sleep with their models, I wouldn't have understood the layers of the painter's reaction to the model, which consists of innocent gratitude and joy, if I hadn't experienced it myself.
(Thanks to that class, I also learned the answer to a question that had been puzzling me for years: Why is Western art so preoccupied with breasts? Because they're easy to draw!)
Based on my limited experience of painting and modeling, I think the biggest difference between writers and painters lies in our relationship to labor and time. A viewer can experience a painting in an instant, no matter how long it took the painter to create the image, while a reader has to take time to read all the author's words, little by little, left to right, so that the work of art can take hours or days to make its full impression. Conversely, a fiction writer can write something like "Sally Bowles showed up in a new fur coat" in a few seconds, while a figurative painter would need hours to render an image of Sally and her coat: all those sequins, all that fur, all those brushstrokes.
I think my pacing of the affair between Rafaela and Tamara replicates the tension between instantaneity and slowness that seems peculiar to visual artists: the novel begins with Rafaela making an impulsive, instantaneous choice to do exactly what our mothers always told us not to do: get into a car with a stranger. But then the pace slows dramatically to accommodate what my painter friend Caroline Wampole calls "the hours in the paint" that transpire between artist and model, the hours of looking and being looked at that allow, in Rafaela's case, for the slow blossoming of love, and of her own vocation.