Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2018

Gwen, a Novel (2017), by Goldie Goldbloom

Just recently, a dear friend of mine said to me that Jews always travel with the Holocaust in their suitcase, which is why, I think, I understand what Goldie Goldbloom is trying to do in her most recent novel, Gwen.  It’s a fictionalisation of the complicated life of Gwen Johns, (1876-1939) the Welsh artist overshadowed by her flamboyant brother Augustus John, and the novel is set mostly in Paris at the turn of the twentieth century.  But there are some surreal elements of the novel that will baffle readers unless they know something of the dark history of Paris under the Nazis.

These days, Paris has marketed itself as the city of love, and tourists flock there in droves to enjoy its light-hearted ambience.  I’ve done that too, and will again, I hope.  But I’ve never forgotten the shock of seeing this plaque on a wall in the Rue Vivienne on my second trip to Paris in 2005.    My translation reads:

In memory of the students of this school deported between 1942 and 1944 because they were of Jewish birth, innocent victims of Nazi barbarity with the complicity of the Vichy governments.  They were exterminated in the death camps.  140 children lived in the 2nd arrondissement.  Never forget.  April 2004.

At that time I knew nothing of the events it referred to, but I photographed the plaque, and in an inept kind of homage, I kept it in the scrapbook that I made of my travels.  And later, when I saw the film Sarah’s Key (2010) which dramatises the 1942 round-up of over 13,000 Jewish French citizens in the Vélodrome d’Hiver, I realised that this plaque was a belated acknowledgement of French complicity in the deportations to Drancy and then to Auschwitz.

At first, none of this seems to have anything to do with Goldie Goldbloom’s novel.  It is set, after all, four decades before those events took place.  The book, in three parts, is a pastiche of texts with names that sound like paintings: ‘Street at Night’, ‘Self-Portrait in a Red Dress’ and so on, and there are narratives by an omniscient presence from the perspectives of Gwen, her brother Augustus and her lover Dorelia, as well as letters to Gwen’s mentor and lover Auguste Rodin, and notes from Gwen’s journal.  The novel begins in a rather startling way, by listing nineteen women (including Gwen Johns) known to have been seduced by Rodin, and their usually tragic fates.  Three pages of short, rather indifferent bios.  And then Gwen John’s narrative begins.

Written in a frantic, choppy, heartfelt style from Gwen’s point-of-view, this chapter introduces startling elements.  It tells how at the turn of the twentieth century Gwen bullied her repressive father into letting her study art at the Slade in London – and she did it by shutting herself in her room and refusing to eat for fourteen days.  It tells us that Gwen had a (mostly) consensual incestuous relationship with her brother Augustus – who was a jealous, conniving rival in awe of her talent.  It tells us that when Gwen sets off for Rome to escape him, she took with her a beautiful young would-be artist whom she renamed Doloria instead of Dorothy, because Augustus (married to the stoic Ida but an incorrigible philanderer) had fallen in love with her too.

In the next chapter, in a more languid, airy tone, Augustus admits to stealing from Gwen not only Doloria, but also Gwen’s notebooks that detail her experiments with paint. He can’t bear not knowing how she achieves the effects she does, and she won’t tell him.  He also tells us that Gwen sabotages herself by not complying with requirements for art exhibitions that he’s arranged for her. He tells us how pitifully thin she is and how she uses refusal of food as a weapon.  He paints a picture of an exacting, obsessive, tortured soul who lives only for her art. And he tells us that after their mother had died when they were both very young, he and Gwen were sexually abused as children by their father.

Mostly, apart from these backstory elements the narrative is straightforward and chronological.  It follows Doloria and Gwen walking to Toulouse together, becoming lovers, and then separating when Doloria falls for Leonard.  It continues in Paris as Gwen finally attracts the attention of Rodin, becomes his lover and (in rather unpleasant graphic scenes) submits to his perverted sexual demands and then stalks him when he takes up with another woman.  It covers the arrival of Augustus in Paris and his reunion with Doloria, and Gwen’s conflicted attitudes to all her relationships (including her friendship with Rodin’s secretary, Rainer Maria Rilke) and her continuing eating disorder.

But on these travels – on the ferry and as Gwen and Doloria make their way across the French countryside, and then in Paris – Gwen sees strange things that are out of time.

Both she and Doloria are anti-Semitic, but Gwen keeps seeing an old Jew with a yellow star on his coat, and in Paris where they stumble on a Jewish neighbourhood, she sees these yellow stars on all the Jews’ clothing though Doloria doesn’t see them at all.  People think she’s mad because she talks to an ever-diminishing line of ragged and starving Jewish children who are eternally waiting for their parents, and she becomes frantic to try and help them.  One of these children tells her that Rodin died more than twenty years ago and that he gave his house to be a museum. Gwen (who is at that time, in 1905, having an abusive sexual relationship with Rodin) is baffled:

Gwen looked at the little girl.  She looked closely at her clothes and at the clothes of the other children in the line.  The newsboy on the corner blared news of a new war.  Les operations militaires. Les forces allies approchent des fauborgs de Rostov.  La guerre aero-navale à l’ouest.  Une declaration de Gandhi.  Un premier train de prisonniers liberes arrivera prochainement.  [Military operations.  The allies are approaching the suburbs of Rostov.  The air-naval battle is in the West.  Ghandhi’s declaration.  The first train of liberated prisoners is arriving soon]. There was a story about a monster, a doctor who had killed many people [Joseph Mengele] and stolen their suitcases, and then tried to burn them in the oven of his house. (p.314)

The little girl tells Gwen that her mother was taken away in July, a day that Gwen remembers being at the Velodrome when she saw the old Jew with his mouth open and his eyes rolled back.  But she can’t believe it:

What kind of imaginary world did these children think they lived in, where an old man could be gassed?  (p.315)

It is when they were visiting the Catacombs that Gwen comments that all the times [are] jumbled in one place, as if years don’t matter at all and she also says that instead of time being a line, it’s just a single dot with everything happening all at once.  Later on, she also says that time is a human invention, as ephemeral as light. 

I don’t think that Goldie Goldbloom is suggesting for one moment that Gwen John was a seer.  I think that she is showing us that she, the author, can’t make her way through beautiful, romantic Paris without remembering.

You can read a sample chapter at the Fremantle Press website.

Author: Goldie Goldbloom
Title: Gwen (Such an unprepossessing title! What were they thinking?)
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2017
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Available from Fishpond: Gwen or direct from Fremantle Press where it is also available as an eBook.


  1. I adore Gwen John’s work but I’m becoming increasingly wary of fictionalised lives, however well done. But on the subject of France during the Second World War and its treatment of its Jewish subjects, I’d recommend Bath Faith by Carmen Callil – a shocking and quite eye opening read.


    • *chuckle* I think the autocorrect gremlins got to you today… Goodreads tells me you mean Bad Faith, and I’ve put it on my wishlist.


      • Oh dear… Yes they did (have I ever said how much I hate autocorrect??) Bad Faith, as I should have said – excellent read!


  2. I don’t mind fictionalised lives so much, but using the Holocaust in this way seems to me gratuitous.


  3. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Paintings on show in the Tate, St Ives


  4. […] Gwen, by Goldie Goldbloom (Fremantle Press), see my review […]


  5. […] to Goldie Goldbloom’s wonderful novel Gwen,  (see my review) I know that Rilke was secretary to Rodin for a while, and that Gwen Johns might well have been one […]


  6. […] Gwen, by Goldie Goldbloom […]


  7. […] Gwen, a Novel, by Goldie Goldbloom […]


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