Pssst. Looking for a good read? Check out the Chameleon Club in Montparnasse. Go alone — or with someone you trust. Step down a few stairs, knock on the door and whisper the password: “Police! Open up!”
Welcome to “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.” Inside these smoky pages you’ll find an oasis of ribald humor, sexual transgression and military intrigue. Our host, Yvonne, is a Hungarian singer with a pet lizard and a weakness for sailors. Play nice and she’ll let you mingle with one of Europe’s most famous photographers or a cross-dressing Nazi collaborator or the wife (ha!) of a luxury automaker. And look — sitting behind those naked men painted silver, isn’t that some scandalous American writer talking to a dancing girl with suspiciously broad shoulders? (Don’t ask, don’t tell.)
So dazzlingly does Francine Prose re-create this seamy chapter of mid-century Paris that it’s tempting to think of her as not a novelist but an editor who corralled all these people into a raucous work of history. But for all Prose’s dark magic, blades of fact slice through this novel, too. Her inspiration came from a black-and-white photograph she saw in Washington at the National Gallery almost 15 years ago. Taken in 1932 by the young Hungarian now known to the world as Brassaï, the picture shows two women: one in a party dress, the other in a man’s suit. Curious about the cross-dresser, Prose discovered that she was Violette Morris, a celebrated French athlete who later betrayed her country to Hitler and tortured Resistance members for the Gestapo. “It was such an amazing story that I considered writing it as nonfiction,” she says, “but 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.”
Vive la liberté!
Sexual roles aren’t the only things crossed in this spectacular saga of Paris at war. Deadly serious and hilariously gossipy, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club” comes to us as a collection of documents written by people with wildly different perspectives and motives. Even as these characters retain their own personalities in this noisy conversation, Prose fits shards of history together to form a mosaic that only we can see. The interlocking voices — all seductive and unreliable in their own ways — show Paris as it devolves from the decadence and gallows humor of the 1930s to the terror and bravery of the Occupation.
In this alchemy of patriotism, xenophobia, sexual frustration and anti-Semitism, Prose raises up underground heroes and cosmic villains. We hear first off from Brassaï — renamed Gabor — in his affectionate letters to his parents in Hungary. Full of gratitude for their financial support, he describes the bizarre sights of the city even while begging them not to worry. “I know your blood must run cold,” he says, “at the thought of supporting a son whose ambition is to photograph transvestites.” But his ambition rises far higher than that, and his profession gives the novel a gorgeous lens through which to record Paris — “an insomniac’s heaven” — in those anxious years before the tanks roll in. “Is it my fault,” he asks, “that desperation looks so stunning through the camera lens?”
His radical techniques — from surreptitious candids to restaged street scenes and shadowy night shots — reflect Prose’s own approach as a literary artist. She, too, mixes historical tableaux with carefully re-imagined moments and alluringly distorted visions. Among the many unforgettable scenes in these pages is a lavish dinner party during the Olympics hosted by Adolf Hitler, whose queenly graciousness renders the event equally comic and grotesque. But usually Prose works off in the wings of history, changing the names of almost-forgotten figures and blending their stranger-than-fiction lives into a cabaret act of horror and heroism.
From the ranks of Brassaï’s friends and lovers, she lifts Henry Miller and refashions him as archly cynical Lionel Maine, a writer constantly on the prowl for women and someone to buy him a drink. We read his embellished news items for gullible Americans and snatches of his (banned) chatty memoir, “Make Yourself New.” “So what if I’m a useless middle-aged bum? A phony and a poseur. Who cares if no one reads my work?” he writes in a moment of exasperated bravado. “I can write what I want and rip the ghastly wig off the beautiful bald head of truth!”
Among the other characters who speak up in these chapters are Gabor’s future wife and a gorgeous baroness — a “streamlined radiant sunbeam of sleek modern beauty” — who funds Gabor’s photography career with money from her gay husband’s sports-car business. But none of these narrators is more fascinating and troubling than Nathalie Dunois, a frustrated high school teacher who has self-published a biography of Lou Villars, a.k.a. Violette Morris, the cross-dressing traitor. In the interspersed chapters of this alarmingly subjective work of scholarship, we race along with Lou’s life as she morphs from Catholic schoolgirl to cabaret dancer to Nazi collaborator.
Who could make this stuff up? And yet Prose has created a particularly promiscuous biographer, who eventually becomes part of the swirling mystery of the novel. Not only does Dunois drift off into chatty complaints about her own life, but she constantly suggests the root causes of Lou’s treachery, her “elastic adaptability,” even while warning us not to draw facile psychological connections between the struggles of her youth and the history-changing crimes of her adult life: “Not every spurned lover punishes the world by telling the Germans where the Maginot Line ended.” True, but as we “wade deeper into the swamp of Lou’s psyche,” her Joan of Arc complex grows increasingly mesmerizing. What’s the source of her sexual frustration (she elects to have her breasts removed), her patient cruelty (she politely burns her countrymen with a cigarette lighter) or her attraction to race-car driving (she moves like “a lunatic on Nazi speed”)?
Surely, truth is here, somewhere, scurrying through this thicket of thrilling, wrenching, self-serving testimonies. But Prose eventually deconstructs any claims to documentary evidence, forcing us to admit that historical fact may remain as elusive as the participants’ motives. Nevertheless, we crave a unified theory: Was Lou clinically depressed? Are we seeing “the power of resentment, the corrosive acid produced by the conviction that a person has been overlooked, cheated, or betrayed”? What if some nice young lesbian had really loved Lou? What if Hitler’s art teacher had been more encouraging? Such speculations are futile but irresistible.
So don’t be nervous. Walk through the door of “The Chameleon Club” and you’ll be entranced by the way Prose plumbs the enigma of evil, the puzzle of history and the mystery of valor. C’est magnifique!
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. Follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB, PARIS 1932
By Francine Prose
Harper. 456 pp. $26.99