Set in 1927 Paris, The Last Nude is inspired by the Russo-Polish Art Deco painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young woman who modeled for her most famous painting, Beautiful Rafaela. De Lempicka met Rafaela on a walk in the Bois de Boulogne and drove her back to the studio: the two women became lovers, and their relationship generated six of de Lempicka’s most powerful paintings. The last painting de Lempicka was working on when she died in 1980 was a copy of her 1927 Beautiful Rafaela. Avery’s novel adopts a dual point of view, imagining the 1927 affair between painter and model from Rafaela’s point of view, and Tamara de Lempicka’s last day alive, spent making the copy of Beautiful Rafaela, from the painter’s own point of view.
In this interview, Walsh and Avery explore how the novelist depicts the affair between artist and model, and how she negotiates the contemporary politics of lesbian representation by bringing to life a cast of sexually fluid characters. They touch on the ways in which The Last Nude adopts a classically realist mode to tell the story of a neoclassical painter who preferred the Italian Renaissance and Ingres to Impressionism and Picasso. Finally, they discuss Avery’s creation of a veritable who’s who of Twenties Paris, which includes obscure figures like Violette Morris (the butch French boxing champion of 1923); cult heroes like Sylvia Beach (founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore and the first publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses); and literary stars like Ernest Hemingway, whom Avery reimagines as Anson Hall, a writer blocked in multiple ways.
Keri Walsh (KW): My first impression is that The Last Nude is a novel about jealousy and betrayal—is that right?
Ellis Avery (EA): You know, the only exam I ever failed was in Sunday School, when they asked me what my values were, and I freestyled it with a quote from The Waterbabies, which is the book I was reading at the time. I said, “I believe that everything on land has its counterpart at sea,” and I went on to list a bunch of examples. I flunked.
Moreover, I wrote a novel called The Last Nude, and I found out that I value modesty. Not modesty as in what one wears—I love clothes!—but in two other senses. First, I mean the kind of reticence that allows you not to engage sexually with everyone you’re attracted to, but rather allows you to form one kind of bond with your spouse and a clearly different kind of bond with your friends. But in this novel, what sex means is contested and confused, and when it comes to the model, Rafaela, Tamara de Lempicka really exploits that confusion. My point is, after I finished writing The Last Nude, I realized I had finally, thirty years later, come to a kind of shadow-articulation of my values, by writing about their opposites. I value honesty, and I wrote about a liar. I value loyalty, and I wrote a novel about betrayal.
Second, I mean a modesty of ambition. I believe in towering ambition when it’s you alone with your work, but out in the world, I don’t think being a good artist is more important than being a good person. Tamara de Lempicka would disagree, and so would James Joyce, who figures peripherally in the novel. But Rafaela comes to believe otherwise, as does one of Joyce’s translators, formerly one of his biggest supporters, someone you’ve written about beautifully, Keri: Adrienne Monnier.
Furthermore, in terms of modesty of ambition, while I’m going to write about whatever interests me, whether it’s gay or not, I’m also not going to closet myself. There are consequences to that choice when you’re selling a book in a country that’s divided about how to treat its gay citizens, but I’m happy to live with them. Life is too short to write a book you don’t love. And I think Tamara de Lempicka would agree with me on that.
Last of all, to come back to this articulation of values, it really hit home for me how much I value reciprocity. I wrote a novel about a love affair between a painter and a model in which the model thinks what she has with Tamara is a reciprocal relationship, while Tamara, despite feeling real passion for Rafaela, also assumes that sex is her prerogative as a painter. There’s an extent to which any model, any warm body, would do. And there’s a moment when Rafaela finally realizes this. So this is how you loved me, she thinks. And she says: I loved you differently.
KW: Given that Tamara’s sexual values are so different from your own, tell me why you decided to write the last section of the book in her voice. It’s clear that Tamara is a great character—Faustian, driven by demons, unapologetically bitchy. It would be easy to make her a clichéd villainess, but you do more than that. You let her explain herself. You suggest that the history of the twentieth century shaped who she became, beginning with the displacements of the Russian revolution. It’s clear that she was a ruthless survivor, and it’s unlikely she would have made the same mark on the art world had she been any other way. Her experiences made her someone who only trusted her art, and who relied on her charisma and glamor to promote it. She treated sex as a bargaining tool and a brief pleasure. She chose safe marriages with men—financially safe, at least—and stolen pleasures with women.
When I read the last section of the book, I didn’t necessarily like Tamara any more than I had before, but I understood her better. She had thoroughly perpetuated and profited from the patriarchal values of the art world, and you don’t play down the ugliness of that. Yet Tamara’s vindication of the rights of the romantic artist, and her own sense of entitlement as an individual woman of genius, get the last word in this novel. The reader is left to judge whether the compromises she made were justified by her achievements.
EA: Well, I wouldn’t need to figure out for myself whether I thought it was more important to be a good artist or a good person if it weren’t a real question, and I want to give serious weight to both sides.
KW: I was impressed by the empathy that you brought to all of your characters.
EA: Good. I’m glad. I think as novelists we’re trying to have empathy for even unlikable characters. And for me, one of the little slogans that was powering me through the writing and rewriting and thinking about this book was: person or thing? You know, here you are being painted, Rafaela, seventeen-year-old girl. And what are you going to grow up to be? A person or a thing? I’m the one shouting from the sidelines, albeit subliminally, I hope, “Seize the means of production, Rafaela! Be a person!”
Anyway, after having really thought about both of those terms, person and thing, for Rafaela, both as an object and as an actor in her own life, I sort of owed it to Tamara to investigate those terms for her too. If we had only had the story of how Tamara treated Rafaela badly, and only from Rafaela’s point of view, Tamara would have been a thing, a set of circumstances, of unfortunate circumstances. But she has her reasons.
KW: Let’s talk a bit about Sylvia Beach, whom you’ve called your favorite American in Paris, and about her partner, Adrienne Monnier. Sylvia Beach was the original publisher of Ulysses, and founder of the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, which was the literary epicenter of Anglophone Paris between the wars. Just a few doors down from Shakespeare and Company stood La Maison des Amis des Livres, the French-language bookstore founded by Sylvia’s partner Adrienne Monnier.
KW: Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier appear in your book as guiding spirits. They’re beacons of the kind of long-term, monogamous, egalitarian, and socially recognized relationship that Rafaela longs for with Tamara. Beach and Monnier are almost like fairy godmothers in The Last Nude. Every time Rafaela is in distress she turns to them for help. And they give her a little bit of mentorship—encouraging her dressmaking, sympathizing with her broken heart. I like the way you depicted Sylvia Beach as a kindred spirit of Rafaela’s, because she too paid the human cost of helping to bring a great modernist work into being. Beach tells Rafaela, “But just think, so many people get their hearts broken and have nothing to show for it. At least you can point to those gorgeous paintings out in the world.” That’s when she glances toward her copies of Ulysses. You’re alluding, of course, to the many ways in which Joyce hurt Beach. And Beach, drawing on her own experiences with a modernist megalomaniac, doesn’t want Rafaela to undervalue her role in inspiring de Lempicka’s best work.
EA: Actually, it’s Adrienne who glances at the copies of Ulysses, because Adrienne is on a slightly different timeline of getting fed up with Joyce than Beach is. (laughter)
KW: Yes, that’s right, it’s Adrienne who glances toward Ulysses. But if I’m remembering correctly, it’s Beach who counsels Rafaela to find some comfort in being a modernist muse. I liked the way you presented Beach as an aesthete, but with a heart. She counsels Rafaela that the messiness of her affair with de Lempicka might have been worth it in the end, for the lessons learned and for the piece of immortality she won. How did you decide to use Beach and Monnier as models in this way? You mentioned that you like to think that Adrienne Monnier has the last word in this book. Can you explain?
EA: Again, there’s that question, Which is more important, life or art? That’s a tension that’s alive for me in this book, and I address it by giving voice to a number of different positions on the art-versus-life continuum, including those of both Tamara, for whom art and genius—hers—is always more important, and Adrienne, who’s getting a little sick of the demands placed on her by art and genius (Joyce’s). Sylvia’s position lies somewhere in between those two.
But as for why to include Sylvia and Adrienne at all? You know, the only lesbians I encountered in print until I was sixteen years old were in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s science fiction, and the message that sent to me was, “It’s okay to be gay… on another planet!” I had family members I loved who were gay, and my parents believed it was important to protect me from this knowledge. At fifteen I was sleeping with my best friend, and it was safer for me to imagine we were the only two girls like us on earth than to imagine myself as disgusting or less than human, which is the message that kids in the Eighties were getting from their peers.
And suddenly, though I wasn’t yet out to myself, lesbians weren’t scary anymore; they were beautiful and exciting and smart and opened bookstores, and published books, and wrote them. And perhaps I loved Sylvia most of all for the simple reason that I spent so much time meeting other readers and writers at Shakespeare and Company bookstore, not the original one, but the spiritual heir to Sylvia’s store, on rue Bûcherie. And so Sylvia was a guiding spirit to me, too, as a young artist, just as she is to Rafaela in my book. And I loved her and Adrienne as a couple: after I came out, the fact of them was a beacon to me that I, too, would find love one day. I love Adrienne for standing up to Joyce. And what’s more, I look like a skinny Adrienne Monnier. And then when I did turn sixteen, during the summer between high school and college, I took a course at the American University in Paris called Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties, with Noel Riley Fitch. And suddenly I encountered a wealth of examples of lesbians, including and especially Sylvia and Adrienne, as well as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney, Janet Flanner, Solita Solano, Bryher, and H.D., all of whom figure very briefly in this book.
So, anyway, perhaps because I grew up, as many of us did, in a vacuum of lesbian representation, when I first encountered Tamara de Lempicka’s stunning paintings of women at the Royal Academy in London, and read there, on the wall, that the painter had picked up the model for Beautiful Rafaela in a public park, and that the girl had become her lover, it blew my mind. I was so happy to encounter a sexy, glamorous, magnificent example of lesbian representation that then it was disappointing that the more I read about Tamara, the more fascinating she became, but the less I liked her.
So I needed to make my Tamara as complicated, as ruthlessly driven, as sexually compulsive, as ambitious, as deluded, as cruel, and as charming as the real Tamara had been. She was all these things, and she slept with women, but I didn’t for a moment want to suggest that women who sleep with women are necessarily any of these things. That’s why I needed to counterbalance a biographical, real, historical woman who used and betrayed a younger and less powerful female lover with two other real, biographical women who were loyal to each other and who were equals, both in the power they wielded out in the world and in their relation to one another.
So the role that Sylvia and Adrienne play in the novel is to offer strong counterbalance to Tamara for the reader, yes, but also for Rafaela. They offered a way to make it make sense why Rafaela might think she could have a relationship with Tamara that looked so much more like a marriage than like an affair. This isn’t just a fantasy that Rafaela’s inventing whole-cloth, this is a way of being—in the world and in a relationship—that she sees every day. It just isn’t Tamara’s way of being. But not only is this how Rafaela sees Sylvia and Adrienne, and not only is this the role they play in this novel, it really was how the biographical Sylvia and Adrienne conducted their lives: even after their sexual relationship ended, even after Adrienne’s affair with Gisèle Freund (which took place outside this novel’s time frame), they still moved in together again at the end of Adrienne’s life.
What I meant when I said that I give Adrienne Monnier the last word in my book is this. The Last Nude is written in two sections, one from Rafaela’s point of view, narrating the affair with de Lempicka that occurred in 1927, and one from Tamara’s point of view, on the last day of her life in 1980, which she spends working on a copy of the painting that was central to that affair, Beautiful Rafaela. We’ve talked about the ending of the Tamara section, in which Tamara grants agency to Rafaela in art, which she couldn’t do in life, but Adrienne has the last word in the Rafaela section. I didn’t end with the end of the affair. I end with a scene in which Adrienne admires a dress Rafaela made and tells her, “You should keep at it, Rafaela. You have a gift.” Because concurrent with the story of the affair with Tamara, this is a novel in which Rafaela discovers, almost behind her own back, that she’s an artist too, a couture artist, and Adrienne recognizes and validates that discovery. So Sylvia’s right, that the affair with Tamara wasn’t in vain because these gorgeous paintings came out of it, but Adrienne’s right, too, that Rafaela has this gift: not only did Tamara use Rafaela as an object, she also, inadvertently, gave Rafaela a future as a subject, by giving her a model of how to be a working artist.
KW: Ernest Hemingway appears in The Last Nude in such an ingenious way. It didn’t dawn on me immediately that you were writing about Hemingway. It only hit me when you wrote about how Anson’s wife responds to his falling in love with another woman: she tells him to wait for a year, and then if he is still in love, she will grant him a divorce. That’s when I realized that your Anson character was based on Hemingway. Or at least that you were using some details of Hemingway’s biography to create the character of Anson Hall. And then, of course, I was mystified: why would you write about Hemingway under the name of Anson Hall, when all of your other Twenties characters had kept their real names? Soon I realized that in this case, the narrative tracks between fiction and history were separating. Ernest Hemingway and Anson Hall were going in different directions. You did something very interesting with historical truth by posing these questions about what might have been, had Hemingway not recovered from his early losses as an artist. At this stage in his life, you also present Hemingway as impotent. What’s the historical reality there?
EA: I don’t think that Ernest Hemingway was impotent; he had three children. However, I think that you only write The Sun Also Rises and have an autobiographical I-character who is an impotent man if you’re working out certain issues about impotence and thinking about what that would mean for yourself. And at the same time, in The Sun Also Rises, when I read about how miserable and tortured Jake Barnes is because he can’t make love to Lady Brett Ashley, I can’t help but think, Why so gloomy, Jakey? Somewhere out there, there’s a lesbian who could teach you a thing or two.
So my Anson Hall—and Anson is Hemingway’s paternal grandfather’s first name, Hall is his maternal grandfather’s last name—is the person that Hemingway would have turned out to have become if he’d never gotten over the loss of his suitcase with all his manuscripts in 1922. The real Ernest Hemingway lost those manuscripts. His wife lost them on a train and he was brokenhearted and angry and he never really forgave her. Yet he got over it and went on to write the really beautiful work of his 20s. I think that a lot of other people wouldn’t have gotten over that loss. No computers, no Xeroxes, this is it. My Hemingway figure is the one who never got over that loss and whom he might have turned out to have become.
KW: This is a really heartbreaking part of your novel. Thinking about the fate of Ernest Hemingway, had he not discovered his voice. Thinking of him doing errands for Gertrude Stein—
EA: —As the real Hemingway did—
KW: Which seems okay in retrospect, in the context of being a starving young artist. But here you get the sense of him indefinitely eking out a sad existence. One unexpected effect of your novel was to give me a sense of gratitude for the work of Hemingway, what he managed to do in the face of the losses he’d suffered.
Anson and Tamara have in common that they’ve both lived through some of the most painful experiences of the First World War. Their art clearly comes from loss, in different ways. When I teach modernist literature, I always find myself saying: “These writings come out of the devastations of the First World War.” But your novel gave me a much stronger sense of what that meant. First of all, there was the compulsive nature of the art-making of the 1920s: there was so much that these artists felt they had to express, to record, to mourn, and to re-invent. These works of art, all of this creative energy, seemed to come out of a need to tell and share what had happened, to overcome solitude and build a new world. I got from your novel a new sense of the courage and dogged effort of the people who brought that art to the public, and all the obstacles to it. We see that through the negative example of what would have happened to Hemingway if he’d simply given up.
EA: Exactly. I was thinking about creative failure. How things can go wrong for artists. I had just had a first novel come out, and at first I thought, oh my god, I did it. And then, after that: Will I ever be able to do it again? I think I may have had that second-novel anxiety bubbling underneath the writing experience.
The Last Nude focuses on three artists, one of whom is destroyed by surfeit. Tamara gets everything she wants. She gets money, she gets a title. And it crushes her. Then there is another artist who is destroyed by loss. My Hemingway character, Anson Hall, loses all of his manuscripts, and never really picks himself up again. My third artist, Rafaela, actually gets her act together and is successful as an artist, albeit in an under-the-radar medium, the trivialized, demoted art of fashion. But for her, it’s the wrong time, wrong place. 1940s Paris is not a good time or place to be a Jewish artist.
Now in the case of Rafaela, nobody’s going to feel the loss of her work in the world, because she’s fictional. And in the case of Tamara, enough people haven’t heard of her, that I’d have to do a lot of explaining—too much explaining!—if I tried to mourn the counterfactual, fictional loss of her work. So I based my third artist character, Anson, on Hemingway, who is, thanks to high school reading lists, the single-most-read figure of literary Paris in the 1920s, because I wanted readers to really feel the absence of his work. I myself would be so much the poorer if Hemingway had never managed to write A Moveable Feast. And to maximize that feeling of loss, the book had to express the loss Anson experiences in both creative and sexual terms.
KW: What Tamara de Lempicka and Hemingway/Anson seem to have in common is that they see the artist’s calling as a kind of heroic quest. But Rafaela doesn’t. She becomes a student of Sylvia Beach. As she says, “A little dress shop, mine, took shape in my mind, a place as warmly inviting as Sylvia’s bookstore.” That’s a different model of community and a different model of art.
EA: Yes. I was excited about that prospect. Art doesn’t have to be this monolithic “Me and My Enormous Shadow!” This is what I meant about modesty of ambition. The art Rafaela makes isn’t permanent; it’s ephemeral. She doesn’t work alone; she has colleagues. Her imagined critics aren’t men; they’re women. And her work doesn’t project the illusion of existing for its own sake autonomously from its viewer; instead, it’s created in conversation with its wearer. I’m juxtaposing Rafaela’s story of talent, ambition, and fulfillment with the frustration and depletion that characterizes the stories of both of the artists she loves. And I’m doing this because I want to valorize a more egalitarian perspective on art, art-making, and art appreciation.
KW: How do you see de Lempicka’s legacy as an artist? In some ways, it seems, she is recognized as a major figure (and of course in her own time she enjoyed commercial, critical, and popular success). But she still doesn’t have the same status as a Picasso or a Dalí. Could you talk a bit about the intervention you’re trying to make, if any, in how we understand what she produced?
EA: Well, I feel like my job with Tamara is twofold. One is to introduce readers to this half-forgotten genius. Because I can’t tell you how many times people would ask me, “What are you writing about?”
“I’m writing a novel about Tamara de Lempicka.”
And then I would whip out an image that I kept in my wallet, of Tamara’s self-portrait in a green Bugatti, and people would say, “Oh! I recognize that! I love that.” They knew the art, but not the artist.
I felt a responsibility to promoting the work of this half-forgotten genius, and to overcoming the “Who’s that?” response. I’m saying, “Hey, there was this woman genius painter you don’t know about and maybe you should, because she was that good.” At the same time, I’m also asking, do we have to worship our geniuses? Is that the only way we can approach art making and art consumption? In this respect, it’s kind of great in a way that nobody knows who she was, because I’m leaving footprints in fresh snow. People can read this book and think that Rafaela and Tamara were equally important. That’s what I’m trying to do. And it works.
KW: It absolutely does. One reason that de Lempicka is underrated is, of course, because she’s a woman. Another is because she’s a classicist. That’s why I liked that you also mentioned Edna St. Vincent Millay in The Last Nude: she presents a parallel case to de Lempicka’s as a poet of the 1920s. She’s glamorous, complicated, and undeniably compelling as an artist—but not avant-garde or experimental in the same way that Eliot or Stein is. I like how The Last Nude provides a way of thinking about how we can appreciate art that doesn’t conform to what our sense of high modernist art is.
EA: I hope so. Sometimes I did think, here I am writing about the ’20s. I guess I should write a high modernist novel. And I do owe a debt to Joyce in that Tamara is my Molly Bloom, an unapologetic female voice that bursts out of nowhere with this unexpected aria in the end. But remember, although Tamara spearheaded the Art Deco aesthetic, in doing so she was brushing against the Picasso-esque modernist grain. I’m writing about a neo-classicist, and I made formal choices consistent with my subject matter. What’s more, in a world where people can consider themselves well-read without ever encountering a lesbian character, it may be avant-garde for some writers to abandon beauty, and good storytelling, and engaging central characters, but for someone in my position, I wonder if it isn’t actually avant-garde to employ those tools. If Western literature spans 2500 years, post-Stonewall fiction is still new enough that those tools are still taking us new places. But most of all, I like suspense. I like characters. I like not being bored. There’s something to be said for…
KW: … the pleasures of fiction in a nineteenth-century vein. Who are some of the historical-fiction writers who have been your inspiration?
EA: Penelope Fitzgerald is my all-time favorite writer of historical fiction—and fiction, period—because, yes, she’s engaging in the nineteenth-century pleasures of giving the readers characters, suspense, a world. Of having things happen, and having the things that happen matter. Of taking a theme and approaching it using multiple characters in order to get at it, rather than demanding we pay attention only to one poor little autobiographical character. But, she’s doing it in a flickering, flaming way, where you’re forced to ask yourself: what’s going ont? Why is this happening so fast? Why didn’t she write to the end of the scene? Why isn’t there more? Oh, I have to imagine what’s behind that corner. She’s stopping just at the corner. So, I think that she’s an example of the kind of writer of historical fiction that I’d like to be. Someone who is both engaging in the novelistic pleasures that I grew up with, and engaging in those challenging, difficult moments that catch you up when you’re being lazy, as a reader. Wait, you thought you were going to just slide right down though this story, but now you have to stop, carry your canoe across to the next river, and then go.
KW: You’re asking that the reader do some work, too.
KW: And now, obviously you’re involved in getting this book out into the world. But have you thought about where you might go next as a writer? From 1880s Japan to 1920s Paris, what lies next?
EA: I’m working on personal essays right now, but I have a novel project glimmering about frontier-era Florida. And I’m torn: do I want to be Marilynne Robinson or do I want to be David Mitchell? Or is there some way I can be both? I have the impulse to work very, very closely on just one devastated psyche. And at the same time, I have this more encyclopedic impulse telling me, I want to do this, and I’m going to bring in this, and I’m going to bring in this other impossible thing and I’m going to make it all work together. So I can’t say yet.
KW: The Last Nude presents a diverse spectrum of relationships between women in 1920s Paris. Anson lists some of the possibilities when he’s talking to Rafaela:
“You thought you’d be like Sylvia and Adrienne?” His pity made me dig my face into my knees. We took a hard right and my body swung toward the window. “Rafaela, some of these women are like Gertrude and Alice, and some of them sleep around with other girls, like Natalie Barney. Some of them sleep around with men, too, like Djuna Barnes’s girlfriend. And I hate to say it, but according to Bobby, there are some who like to get coked up and fool around with two sailors at a time.”
That’s Tamara, of course, getting coked up and fooling around with sailors. I wonder, when you write passages like the one above, do you feel a duty to represent as wide a range of experience as possible?
EA: I wanted to contend that lesbians can be just as awful to their lovers as anyone, that it would be bleaching out and distorting of lesbian experience to say otherwise. We’re just as bad as anyone else. But I also wanted to have as many different representations as possible.
So, for example, I have Violette Morris, a butch character who was—true story—the French boxing champion of 1923. She raced automobiles, she raced planes, she raced motorcycles. She got a double mastectomy, she said, in order to fit into her racecar better. But her male lover was upset about that. So he leaked the names of her female lovers to the press, which got her disqualified from the Olympics. Which made her turn on La France. So, in her next incarnation, in which her motto could have been, “I will betray France the way she betrayed me,” she sold the plans to French tanks to the Germans, and the plans to the Maginot Line. She went to the 1938 Olympics as Hitler’s invited guest. She turned in Jews. She was an evil person, by the end: she had been wronged, and she went on to wrong.
In the book, I wind up making this point that we judge people of the ‘20s by a different standard than we judge people of the war years… “Oh!” readers will say of Violette in the Twenties, “Look at this sexual outlaw, how cool!” And then, those same readers, when they find out what Violette’s up to ten or twenty years later, are going to say, “Wait a second…” So I have this character. And she was a real person. You can’t dress that up. And it’s fascinating for that reason. And at the same time, I said to myself, you can’t have her be the only butch character in your novel, so I was conscious about playing out the fate of the other butch character: I made her a Resistance hero. Just as I tried to sidestep stereotypical writing about Japanese people in my first novel, by representing dozens of them, I think in this book, too, my way of dealing with issues of representation is not to suppress, but rather to amplify.