Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

No one could mistake Francine Prose’s historical novel Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 for a costume drama. With an ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic narrative fractured among the written recollections of a handful of colorful characters, it is full of sharp angles — the sorts of prismatic, sometimes distorted or jagged points of view that can lead to intriguing questions about what really happened. Chronicling the incipient creep of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and right-wing proto-fascist hoodlums in Paris between 1924 and 1944, Prose’s energetically intelligent book evokes both the dark dazzle of Cabaret and the Cubist art of the period.

The novel was inspired by Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s famous photograph Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932. Prose has trained her focus on the androgynous woman in the tuxedo — a professional athlete and race car driver named Violette Morris, who endured a double mastectomy in order to fit more comfortably behind the wheel but then was expelled from the French team for wearing more items of masculine apparel than allowed by the Napoleonic Code. Seduced by the Nazis, she became skilled at extracting information for the Gestapo and was assassinated by Resistance fighters in 1944. We learn about this unhappy, unlucky-in-love, Joan of Arc–obsessed cross-dresser — whom Prose rechristens Lou Villars — via a round robin of chapter-long excerpts from the fictional memoirs, letters, and books purportedly penned by Prose’s characters. These overlapping and sometimes contradictory accounts artfully highlight the self-serving nature of memory. 

Prose’s cast includes several habitués of the titular Montparnasse nightclub, a place whose de facto motto is “Love is strange.” With its wry “secret” password — “Police! Open up!” — and risqué floor shows, the Chameleon Club is a popular refuge of the demimonde, attracting artists, lesbians, homosexuals, and cross-dressers. But despite its tolerance for sexual diversity,  its revues are increasingly filled with nasty jabs at Jews and foreigners, and its Polish coat check girl makes extra pocket change selling “religious cards of Joan of Arc, dirty photos, and cartoons of hook-nosed Jews counting money and molesting children.”

The novel’s stand-in for Brassaï, insomniac Gabor Tsenyi, prowls around Paris by night photographing prostitutes, transvestites, and the homeless, a mission he describes in apologetic, loving letters to his parents back in Hungary. He frequently crosses paths with Lionel Maine, a cynical American writer — based on Henry Miller — who is perpetually on the hunt for free drinks and freer women. Commenting on Gabor’s growing fame, Lionel notes that his brilliant photographer friend “has arranged the perfect union of serious art with the ever-beloved  dirty French postcard.” We are treated to whole chapters of his books, which achieve notoriety after being banned in America. In them, Lionel writes of his love affair with Paris and its artists (including Picasso), and of his determination to “rip the ghastly wig off the beautiful bald head of truth!”

Gabor’s wealthy patron, the sleek Baroness Lily de Rossignol — who is married to a luxury sports car manufacturer who likes kissing women but sleeping with Swedish boys — puts her own rich spin on the story in her bestselling postwar memoir, A Baroness by Night. Both she and Gabor’s wife, Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi, become heroines of the French Resistance. “The selections from Suzanne’s unpublished memoir offer a more convincing version of events, though her story, too, is skewed, colored by her jealousy of Gabor’s relationship with the baroness.

Threaded among these “memoirs” and “letters” is the most dubious account of all, a biography of Lou Villars called The Devil Drives. This self-published, wildly subjective and alarmingly sympathetic inquiry into Lou’s incremental slide into evil is written by an increasingly unhinged provincial schoolteacher named Nathalie Dunois, who professes to be the grand-niece of Suzanne, the photographer’s widow. She raises red flags from the start when she confesses, “I have had to embroider a bit, fill in gaps, invent dialogue, make an occasional imaginative leap or informed guess about what my subject would have thought and felt.” Her book is laced with hilariously inappropriate asides comparing her own disastrous romantic relationships and personal trials with those of her subject.

Prose, who has demonstrated her keen talent for chameleon-like versatility, mimicry, and sharp social commentary in a prolific career that includes Blue Angel, A Changed Man, and, most recently, My New American Life, obviously had fun parodying her characters’ varying writing styles, but she goes overboard on this send-up of purported scholarship, which is hysterical in more ways than one. Like a clever joke that goes on too long, the chapters from The Devil Drives eventually drag, diluting the intensity of Prose’s novel.

But even this faux biography showcases Prose’s considerable skill at blending research and fiction while slyly raising serious and sometimes delicate questions about guilt, blame, responsibility, and “the mystery of evil.” Lovers at the Chameleon Club oozes with stinging examples of French anti-Semitism, racism, ugly nationalism, and prejudice against foreigners that add up to what one character calls a culture of “poisonous Frenchness.” Suzanne insists that her fellow countrymen had to have known what was happening to the Jews during the Occupation, though “no French citizen wants to hear it.” Nathalie attributes her inability to find a publisher for her biography of a French collaborator to the country’s “sensitivity about its World War II record — its willful erasure of the shameful truth about our historic past.” While Nathalie is clearly missing the mark about her book’s risible inadequacy, Prose intimates that she is not entirely off base in her political assessments.

Substance aside, one level on which to appreciate Lovers at the Chameleon Club is as an impressive feat of literary engineering. With its revolving carousel of voices and witnesses, Prose builds a chronological plot that is circular as well as linear. There are casualties to this structure, however: Narrative momentum suffers from the repetitions, and suspense is dissipated, since we’re told up front what will become of Lou — who remains something of an enigma at the heart of the novel.

Yet we keep turning pages — more eagerly after heroes emerge — to see how it will all shake out and where Prose is going with her elaborate construct. The intrigue is in the nuances between the divergent points of view, but along the way, we’re entertained by often absurd set pieces, which include a bizarre dinner in Berlin at which Hitler beguiles a susceptible, disenfranchised, carnivorous Lou over vegetarian nut cutlets on the eve of the 1936 Olympics. One of my favorite sentences captures Prose’s subversively parodic approach — and the loopy, twisted perspective of the off-base biographer Nathalie. After outrageously using the word “decent” in connection with Lou’s remuneration for her “stressful” job  as a Nazi torturer and spy, she comments: “How far she’d exceeded the low expectations of her governess and her teachers!”

For another recent novel inspired by a famous photograph, I highly recommend Marisa Silver’s Mary Coin, which spins an absorbing multi-pronged story based on Dorothea Lange’s iconic Depression-era photograph Migrant Mother. Both books penetrate deep beneath the enigmatic surface of the images that inspired them and make a case for learning how to re-frame even the things you think you know well.