Ruth Brandon is a historian, biographer and novelist. She is the author of seven novels, a radio play, and twelve works of non-fiction. Her last book was Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good, (HarperCollins 2011) which has been published in five languages.

Her book about Marcel Duchamp, Spellbound by Marcel, will be published next year by Pegasus:

This is a story about war, love, memory, fame, art, and the endless conflict between those who want to shape the future and those who would prefer to keep it at bay. World War 1 both destroyed an old way of life and opened the doors to a new one, in which people felt free to follow their inclinations untrammelled by social conventions they now perceived as useless.  The action takes place in New York and Paris: the New York of the Arensberg salon, and the American Paris of Gertrude Stein, Janet Flanner and Man Ray.

In 1915-16 a group of French artists fled war-torn Europe for New York.  In the few months between their arrival and America’s entry into the war in April, 1917, they pushed back the boundaries of the possible, in both life and art.  The hub of this transformation was the apartment at 33 West 67th Street owned by Walter and Louise Arensberg, where artists and poets from both sides of the Atlantic met nightly to talk, eat, drink, discuss each others’ work, play chess, plan balls, organise magazines and exhibitions, and fall in and out of love.  None of the participants ever again experienced so thrilling a moment.

At the centre of all this activity stood the mysterious figure of Marcel Duchamp, always approachable, always unreadable.  Many people, of both sexes, were in love with him, but although he was blithely friendly to them all, his own feelings, if any, remained opaque.  Decades later, when Duchamp became famous for the second time and was reincarnated as the twentieth century’s most influential artist, anyone still living who had been present during those all-consuming months was avidly sought out.  Most of these accounts, however, were more a study of memory’s vagaries than an accurate record of what actually happened.  

Henri-Pierre Roché and Beatrice Wood were both in love with Duchamp, and briefly, and (for her) life-changingly, with each other.  Both kept daily diaries, which along with other contemporary writings give a picture of events very different from what they later remembered.  Or rather two pictures – for the views they offer, including of their own love affair, are stunningly divergent. 

Roché’s reminiscences of the Arensberg years are contained in a novel, Victor, unpublished because still unfinished when he died in 1959;  Beatrice’s form part of a memoir, I Shock Myself, published in 1985 when she was 92.  When put side by side with the contemporary accounts it becomes clear that both these books often misrepresent both the sequence of events and how people felt at the time.  What they do reveal is how the writers prefer to remember what happened.  So in Victor the Beatrice character is called Patricia, which was the name of her dog – a detail that says quite a lot about Roché’s post-hoc diminution of her importance to him; while Beatrice, in her memoir, says she met Duchamp after Roché, and that he (Duchamp) was in love with her, when in fact she was madly in love with Duchamp, who introduced her to Roché in hopes that she might find another object for her romantic yearnings.  In I Shock Myself this is rendered thus: ‘Marcel knew I was in love with his good friend Roché and did not approach me amorously.  Secretly I wished he would.  My love for Roché could not keep me from being a little in love with Marcel.’

Duchamp, too, left a contemporary record of his life in the shape of the artworks he produced. They obviously reflect the frame of mind in which he made them; but as they are also, like their maker, open to infinite interpretation, he remains an enigma. He never wrote any autobiographical account of any aspect of his life, and often said different things to different people.  The principle he applied to all his works, however, was that any and every interpretation was correct.  And if, as Roché remarked to François Truffaut, Duchamp’s greatest work was his life – a verdict with which Duchamp himself heartily agreed – all his accounts should perhaps be taken as correct.  Truth takes many forms, and Duchampian truth embraces most of them.