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.
Ellis Avery is the author of The Teahouse Fire.The winner of three awards, The Teahouse Fire was translated into five languages. Avery teaches fiction writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.
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 world-to lecture, really-and 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 encounter-surfeit in Tamara de Lempicka’s case, loss in Anson Hall’s, history in Rafaela Fano’s-and 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.
Q. 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.
Q. 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 Tamara-whom I got to know through the excellent work of Laura Claridge-lived 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 it-and an interwar literary tradition in which Gabriele D’Annunzio’s name replaced Hemingway’s-would be pallid indeed, and my own life without A Moveable Feast in it would be so much the poorer.
Q. 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 Hall-and 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 Stonewall-let alone before same-sex marriage becomes legal anywhere-that 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.)
Q. 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 delight-of love, even-that 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.