A photographer, a baroness, an author, a French Resistance worker and a cross-dressing lesbian race car driver turned Nazi collaborator walk into a bar — not just any bar, but the Chameleon Club, inspired by Brassai’s iconic photograph “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932” and the scene of Francine Prose’s tour de force novel.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932 opens in the exhilarating 1920s, when the glittery, naughty Chameleon Club welcomes tout Paris, whatever your gender preference or quirk. Among those seeking refuge is Lou Villars, based on real-life Violette Morris, French athlete, auto racer and Olympic hopeful who later spied for the Germans and was assassinated by the French Resistance.
Rather than write Morris’ story as biography, Prose explains, “I soon decided that I would have more liberty, and that I and my readers would have a lot more fun, if I wrote it as a novel.” The result is fresh, layered, nuanced. It’s historical fiction done right and one of the finest accomplishments of this accomplished author.
With 16 previous novels including National Book Award finalist Blue Angel plus six works of nonfiction to her credit, Prose doesn’t play it safe here, writing in alternating voices, with shifting and contradictory perspectives, creating a prismatic effect. The same could be said of Paris at the time of the novel, which spans the late 1920s through World War II. “Paris,” says Lionel Maine, an American expat author loosely modeled on Henry Miller, “has something for everyone.”
For driven artist Gabor Tsenyi, Prose’s homage to Brassai, Paris, is the series of decadent, beautiful nighttime images like his photograph of a tuxedoed Lou sitting with her lover Arlette. Tsenyi is bankrolled and championed by the baroness Lily de Rossignol, who loves him. Alas, Tsenyi loves only Suzanne, a pretty Parisienne, and his own artwork. When Suzanne sees Tsenyi’s famed photograph, “I felt a warning chill. . . I was being shown the future: a glimpse of what Lou and Arlette saw as they gazed past the camera. A bleak and sinister shadow of what was to come.”
The narrators speak of Paris, and they speak of Lou. None, though, speak for her, nor does she speak for herself. That thankless job goes to another of the novel’s narrators, Nathalie Dunois, Lou’s fictional biographer.
Dunois dutifully states the facts of Lou’s life — raised by emotionally distant parents, shipped off to boarding school, an athlete and Chameleon Club favorite turned auto mechanic, spurned lover and Nazi collaborator. Facts, though, only take Dunois so far.
Is Lou a misguided innocent who convinces herself “the Germans weren’t annexing France but fixing it? Their ministers and soldiers were visionary mechanics”? Is she an example of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil? A wronged lover taking revenge on a grand scale? In her research, Dunois develops “a profound respect (if respect is the word) for the power of resentment, the corrosive acid produced by the conviction that a person has been overlooked, cheated or betrayed.”
Dunois’ own resentment — over numerous failed relationships, a dwindling bank account and Lou herself — threatens her integrity as a biographer. “Am I any closer to understanding Lou than I was on page one?” Even with access to Lionel Maine’s writings, memoirs by the baroness and Suzanne and Tsenyi’s letters to his parents, she can’t see the truth of Lou — or of Paris — more clearly than the other characters.
The clarity comes from Prose, who fits together her characters’ differing accounts of a person, a city, a time like the intricate workings of a car engine. All her characters believe the truth as they present it in the moment. “Everyone has an explanation for why they did what they did.” History, though, reveals a greater truth. As Paris falls to the Nazis, each character realizes no amount of wealth, youth, love, talent or denial can offer protection.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris, 1932, suffers from a clumsy though appropriate title and sometimes an uneven pace. Oh, but the novel dazzles. With sure, intelligent narrative and elegant detail, Prose has crafted a story that honors its characters and a pivotal time in history even as it questions the chameleonlike thing we call the truth.
Ellen Kanner is the author of ‘Feeding the Hungry Ghost: Life, Faith and What to Eat for Dinner.’