Francine Prose divines the making of a monster
by Rob Neufeld
The book’s title is also the title of a photograph in which a cross-dressing woman supports a female nightclub dancer on her lap. In the novel, the photo was taken by an émigré Hungarian named Gabor Tsenyi, one of the main characters.
In actuality, the photo and the novel had been inspired by a Brassai photograph, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932,” which Prose had seen in the National Gallery eight years before starting her story.
“The wall text (for the image),” Prose related, “said something I didn’t know, which was that the woman in the tuxedo (Violette Morris)…had worked for the Gestapo during the German occupation of Paris and had later been assassinated by the French Resistance.”
Prose—author of 27 acclaimed books, including 17 novels—brings her exploration of an epic moral downfall to Malaprop’s Bookstore, Thursday night.
Fruits of repression
The novel doesn’t start with the tragic girl—Lou Villars—but with Gabor, writing a letter to his parents, thanking them for their financial support, and telling them of his dubious forays into the Parisian demi monde, 1924.
“Dear parents,” the book begins, “Last night I visited a club in Montparnasse where the men dress as women and the women as men….The place is called the Chameleon Club…The password is: Police! Open up! The customers find it amusing.”
You can guess, from the tolerant tone of the opening, that “Lovers at the Chameleon Club” is not about the affinity between deviant lifestyles and fascism, but about people’s need for free expression—and what can happen when that’s repressed in a person who is both full of power and aching with need.
“I found out,” Prose said, continuing her account of the discovery of Morris, “that she’d been an auto racer and an athlete, and had been forbidden to compete because she was a cross-dresser, and that she’d gone to the Berlin Olympics as a special guest of Hitler, and been recruited by Hitler, and had become a spy and torturer for the Gestapo.”
“What a story!” Prose commented.
Wanting to make her protagonist, Lou, sympathetic, Prose imagined Lou’s childhood and then her life path—a series of betrayals by people who seemed to value her, but turned out to be self-interested seducers.
Histories about Lou’s era—France’s slide from national pride and people’s attraction to totalitarianism—reveal the psychological roots: privation, put-downs, and resentment.
Life’s a cabaret
“Lovers at the Chameleon Club” is a teeming social portrait, told through several peculiar voices—Lou’s is not one of them—and made real by astonishingly authentic details.
One of the fantastic details is the pet chameleon after which Yvonne, the nightclub owner, names her place.
“One night,” Yvonne said (according to Gabor), “I was working out front. My friend, a German admiral whose name you would know, let himself into my office and put my darling Darius (her first chameleon) on my paisley shawl. He died, exhausted by the strain of turning all those colors.”
I feel a little bad citing this example because it’s the only place in the book in which the absurdly real seems unreal—but there are other things going on with that anecdote.
First, perhaps unwittingly, Yvonne is telling a parable about identity. And second, it’s not fact; it’s Gabor making a tale for his parents.
The narrators in “Chameleon Club” are wonderfully unreliable.
In addition to Gabor, we have: Lionel Maine, Gabor’s dissolute writer friend, penning a Henry Miller-like memoir; two other memoirists—a baroness, who supports the arts, and a young Frenchwoman, Suzanne, who embraces artists—and, most notably, Nathalie Dunois, a present-day biographer of Lou Villars, purporting to be Suzanne’s great-niece.
A sixth point of view belongs to Yvonne, though it’s not known who narrates chapters headed by her name. Are they third person omniscient?
Prose is versatile and fluid. You never tire of her voices: sometimes they are intimate; sometimes witty or recording dialogue; and sometimes distant, like a chronicler’s account.
“I have had to embroider a bit,” the biographer, Dunois, admits, stating that the key figures in her account were either dead or denying her interviews; and noting that there have been “concerted efforts to remove Lou Villars from history and, one could say, from the planet.”
This points to the brilliance of Prose’s novel. It flies in the face of political correctness for humanely correct reasons.
It is not acceptable, most of us think, to make a sympathetic protagonist out of a Nazi. But how else are we to avoid the kind of non-sympathy that fosters hateful self-righteousness in the first place?
Think of the people you hate or fear, and who hate you.
You have to get to the haters and bullies while they’re young, you think—and Prose, through Dunois, gives us pictures of Lou as a child: her neglectful parents; her autistic brother, shuttled to a cruel institution; her discovery of her physical prowess; and her removal to a convent school, where she finds validation for the qualities others have considered freakish.
Lou eventually gravitates to the Chameleon Club; a right-wing faction takes over in Paris, disrupting her life; Lou finds other outlets, such as race car driving, and—following Violette Morris’ history—she falls into the arms of the Third Reich, which celebrates her, aligns with her feelings about “true” French nationalism, and uses her.
Viva la difference
Dunois supposes that Lou had been clinically depressed (another marker that makes one not fit in). She takes an opportunity to interpret Lou’s state of mind just as Lou is accepting the French right-wing world view.
“Once Lou had dreamed of being a star,” Dunois writes. “But she was a reasonable person. Meaning, she was French. She could lower her expectations and get through the day. Like Saint Joan, she could accept, even glory in, shame and degradation.”
Prose nimbly navigates the littlest vanities as well as the biggest historical themes—such as the Saint Joan legend, and how a myth can fuse with different political movements or personal rationales from one era or enclave to the next.
The openness with which Prose considers the various possible roots of evil is one of the novel’s virtues; and leads to its only problem.
We do not get inside Lou’s mind and soul through either a first- of third-person narration. She remains a mystery—a very well-documented one. This shifts the impact of the book from being disturbingly felt to being brilliantly observed.
You might say that “Chameleon Club” is a social novel, but it is even more than that since you get to feel the moods of the observers.
In addition to rigorous research and the development of authoritative details (such as Adolf Hitler’s dinner table talk), Prose’s process involved channeling the minds of her speakers.
“I felt immersed in a world that wasn’t my world,” Prose said, “and that I wasn’t myself when I was writing (the novel). One of the great pleasures of writing it was the freedom to be other people.”
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (HarperCollins, Apr. 22, 2014, 443 pages, $26.99)
Francine Prose talks about “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville, 7 p.m., Thursday. Call 2543-6734.