‘Chameleon Club’ evokes mood of occupied France

Apr. 23, 2014 @ 05:06 PM

“Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932”

By Francine Prose (Harper, $26.99)


If you have ever imagined yourself walking the streets of Paris between the world wars, if you devour the drama and history of France under the German occupation, if you are enamored of the romance of the French Resistance, if you have ever pretended to appreciate the novels of Henry Miller (you like the descriptions of Paris, not the sexy parts), then you will be captivated from the first page of Francine Prose’s novel “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.”
The inspiration for this historical novel, Prose tells readers in a brief introduction, is Hungarian photographer Brassai’s photograph “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932,” which shows a woman dressed in a tuxedo sitting at a table with her lover. The woman in the tux is Violette Morris, an Olympic hopeful and auto racer. After the French government took away her license to compete because of her public cross-dressing, Morris became Hitler’s special guest at the 1936 Olympics. She later became a spy for Germany.
Prose’s character Louisianne (Lou) Villars is based on Morris. Villars’ parents send her to a convent, where she trains to represent France in the Olympics. When she resists her male trainer’s sexual assault attempt, she flees and winds up at the Chameleon Club, which is run by Hungarian singer Yvonne Nagy. The club is a refuge for outcasts, and Yvonne takes in Villars. Soon she is part of a floor show with Arlette, who becomes her lover. Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, who roams the streets of Paris at night looking for subjects, eventually convinces Arlette and Lou to pose for the photo that is the title of this novel.
Prose tells us in the introduction that she is interested in the imperfection of memory, “the way that history changes, depending on who tells it.” She chooses a profoundly inventive way to tell the story of Villars’ descent, from a spurned athlete to spy to interrogator and torturer for the French Gestapo, through the eyes of different characters. Gabor Tsenyi tells us the story through a series of letters to his parents, who are still in Hungary. The principal narrator is Nathalie Dunois, a literature teacher at a French high school, who has become fascinated with Villars’ tale and is writing her biography.  Nathalie is the great-niece of Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi, Gabor’s lover and later his wife. Suzanne tells the story through her “unpublished” memoirs, “to be destroyed on the occasion of its author’s death.” Suzanne and Gabor are, respectively, lover and friend to novelist Lionel Maine, who tells this story principally through the pages of his book “Make Yourself New.”
Villars for a time drives race cars for the Rossignol family, who hope to enrich their auto fortunes by beating the German driver Inge Wallser, who drives for Mercedes. This side of Villars’ story is told through the eyes of Lily de Rossignol, who is married to Didi Rossignol, whose brother Armand becomes a mentor to Villars, filling her with lots of pro-France, but also anti-Semitic and pro-Fascist, propaganda.
All of these characters and their stories connect in this page-turning narrative that is plausible not just because of its historical basis, but Prose’s imagination, and her ability to assume different voices and characters. Everyone must decide their breaking point, how much they are willing to risk to fight the German occupiers. Suzanne and Lily de Rossignol become members of the Resistance, and, though rivals for Gabor’s heart, grudging admirers. Didi commits an act of sabotage. Yvonne’s club entertainers send coded messages to the Resistance.
But Prose does not let the reader rest, even after the story climaxes. In keeping with her theme, nothing is tied up neatly. A letter from Suzanne Tsenyi to a publisher casts doubt on a certain narrator’s credibility. Prose leaves it up to us whether we think some narrators are exaggerating their heroism, or understating it in this entertaining, thoughtful and profound historical-psychological novel.


Francine Prose will read and sign copies of “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” at 7 p.m. May 7 at The Regulator Bookshop, 720 Ninth St., Durham.