The Last Nude

Author: Ellis Avery
Publisher: Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2011
ISBN: 978-1594488139
Genre: Literary
Rating: 4-stars

Paris in the 1920s was a glittering refuge for expatriate artists, hedonists, the sexually unconventional, exiles and runaways of all sorts. Its soundtrack was le jazz hot. The author of this novel, who teaches fiction writing at Columbia University in New York, has brought this milieu back to life in words that seem as carefully chosen as a palette of colours.

The “last nude” of the title is a copy of one of the six paintings of “beautiful Rafaela” made in the 1920s by an actual painter, Tamara de Lempicka. In this novel, seventeen-year-old Rafaela is Tamara’s model, her muse, and the primary narrator of their story. Their affair is redeeming and inspirational for both, even though it is characterized by dishonesty and betrayal.

Rafaela recounts her short history without self-pity: the child of a scandalous marriage between a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who eloped from Italy to New York in the early twentieth century, Rafaela becomes the outsider in her family after her father dies and her mother marries a socially prominent man in the local Italian community and gives him four sons. By the time Rafaela is sixteen, her lush beauty is distracting and disturbing to her stepfather and her mother. To “protect” her and get her out of the way, they plan to marry her off to a relative of her stepfather in Italy. Her step-grandmother agrees to escort Rafaela to her new home. On a trans-Atlantic ship, Rafaela attracts the attention of a much older Frenchman who helps her to escape to Paris.

Alone in a strange city, Rafaela seems doomed to the dramatic but sordid life of a kept woman or (especially when desperate for cash) a casual whore. When her parents in New York learn her whereabouts, they disown her.

Rafaela meets another mistress of a married Frenchman, Gin from California, who hopes to launch a career as a singer and a dancer. The two girls are set up in an apartment together by their frugal patrons, and they become best friends.

Rafaela shows no sexual interest in women until she is picked up in the Bois de Boulogne by the charismatic Tamara, who claims to be twenty-nine. As always, Rafaela’s appearance produces a reaction in an observer that Rafaela herself can’t fathom. Without being fully aware of it, the girl is famished for love.

Tamara is brilliant, selfish and opaque. She claims to be a refugee from the Russian Revolution of 1917 with a husband who is in the process of divorcing her. “De Lepicka” seems to be a French-slanted version of a Polish name, but whether Tamara herself is Polish or Russian is open to question. Her young daughter Kizette is often left in the care of Tamara’s mother, but in Rafaela’s viewpoint, Tamara is wonderfully attentive to her daughter.

Tamara’s claims to a rightful place among the nobility serve as a warning to the reader that Tamara craves financial security and improved social status, two things she couldn’t have in an exclusive relationship with Rafaela. Yet love and hope are often impervious to common sense.

A supporting cast of secondary characters includes Sylvia Beach, the American owner of a famous bookstore, which serves as an avant-garde social centre, Shakespeare and Company. She and her long-term lover Adrienne Monnier take a motherly interest in Rafaela, who sees evidence in them and their regular clientele that life outside the social mainstream doesn’t have to be degrading. Eventually, Rafaela’s talent as a seamstress enables her to survive without selling her body in any way.

Tamara has the last word in their story, yet Rafaela’s innocence in the midst of exploitation and self-promotion haunts the reader after the last page. Her beauty is shown to be more than physical.

Repeated references to Rafaela as “Juive” (Jewish) by Tamara’s admirers point to the growing anti-Semitism—particularly in France—that eventually resulted in the Holocaust. The elderly Tamara, reminiscing about the Second World War, expresses concern for Rafaela and a willingness to rescue her from a fate worse than poverty or prostitution, but by this point, Tamara’s credibility is open to doubt.

It is tempting to quote directly from the novel, but the review copy I read is an advance proof, which could be revised before the book is released for sale. The author’s style in the advance version is already so vivid and painterly that I can only hope the last version (like the last nude) retains the freshness of the original.

Jean Roberta

Jean teaches English in a Canadian prairie university, where she is also a consulting editor for the literary journal.

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