Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
By Francine Prose
Harper, 448 pages, $26.99
The plot of Francine Prose’s new novel, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” sounds, in an admittedly reductive summary, slightly preposterous: A cross-dressing French lesbian racecar driver collaborates with the Nazis, revealing where the Maginot Line ends, thus enabling the Germans to breach French defenses.
But the book is actually based on the true story of an actual person, though one largely scrubbed from history. Louisianne “Lou” Villars is Prose’s fictional counterpart to Violette Morris, the once-celebrated French athlete whose sports career was overshadowed and elided by her work with the Gestapo during the war. The first French woman to excel at the discus and the shot put, Morris boasted the motto, “Ce qu’un homme fait, Violette peut le faire!” (“What a man can do, Violette can do!”). Morris was banned from participating in the 1928 Olympics amidst an outcry caused by the revelation that she had had sexual relationships with women. This may have been one reason why she was amenable to recruitment by the SS, especially after she was personally invited to attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics at Hitler’s behest. Whatever her reasons, Morris supplied the Germans with information instrumental to the invasion of Paris, including the plans for the Maginot Line, the line of fortifications built along the border with Germany. She became a Gestapo interrogator and a notorious torturer.
Morris was also one of the subjects of Brassaï’s well-known image, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932,” in which she wears a man’s suit and her short hair slicked back, her arm proprietarily posed around her companion, a woman in a slinky gown and pin curls.
In Prose’s novel, this photograph is taken by Gabor Tseniy, a Hungarian photographer with more than a passing resemblance to Brassaï. (Like Brassaï, who palled around with Henry Miller, Gabor has his own dissolute American writer-friend in the person of Lionel Maine, who is working on a memoir about the impoverished expat’s life in Paris.) Gabor introduces Lou Villars to the Chameleon, a nightclub for cross-dressers, and it is at the Chameleon that Lou meets Arlette, the beautiful, cruel, xenophobic temptress who becomes her lover and costar in Gabor’s indelible picture “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.”
Did Arlette’s abandonment of Lou for Clovis Chanac, the proto-fascist prefect of the Parisian police put Lou on the road to perdition? Or was she sent there earlier by her negligent parents, who sent Lou’s beloved but troubled brother Robert to an asylum and refused to tell her his exact whereabouts? Or did she go wrong later, influenced by the hateful ideas of Armand de Rossignol, the virulently nationalistic brother-in-law of Gabor’s patron, the Baroness Lily de Rossignol?
It is the impossibility of answering the question of evil’s origins that animates the novel. Beyond the roman à clef drinking game of recognizing the historical personages behind the characters, at least some measure of fun lies in the recognition that the temptation to uncover how someone might betray her friends and her country is bound to end in disappointment. Prose divides the narration among several people: Gabor, who relates his perspective on the events through letters written to the Mama and Papa who send him money from back home; Lionel, documenting the excesses of “the red-blooded male who just wants to eat, drink, and f–k” in Paris; Suzanne Dunois Tseniy, Gabor’s girlfriend and future wife, who requests that her unpublished memoirs be destroyed “on the occasion of [her] death”; the Baroness, who writes her own memoir, jauntily titled “A Baroness by Night”; and Yvonne, the Chameleon’s owner, who watches in silent horror as her refuge for outcasts falls apart. This splintering of perspectives allows Prose to show off a rather impressive range of voices and literary impressions: The only thing that keeps you from wondering if she has somehow uncovered and repurposed a lost Henry Miller manuscript is the fact that her rendering of Miller’s work via Lionel Maine is almost too uncannily perfect (and is perhaps missing a vulgar turn or two), which is all the more impressive considering that she includes two other “memoirs,” which are no less different from each other than they are from Lionel’s. Prose’s inclusion of multiple perspectives also serves to continuously cast and recast events, call into perpetual doubt what we think we know, and ultimately persuade us that we can know nothing past the surface, which is itself a kind of lie.
This is perhaps one reason why Prose did not write the story of Violette Morris as a biography. (In her brief author’s note to the advance reader copy of the book, she cops to an initial instinct to do so.) If a biography is bound to be a fiction of sorts, why not go all out? Anyway, the true lure of the biographic enterprise may be something beyond the genre’s parameters. Among Prose’s narrators is one Nathalie Dunois, great-grandniece of Suzanne and the author of “The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars.” Nathalie believes she has, in her “Life of Lou,” answered, if only partly, “the question of what drives… a person like Lou Villars.” But although she valiantly works to make her “humble contribution to the literature on the mystery of evil,” Nathalie mostly succeeds in revealing too much of herself. The only thing we definitely know of Prose, in reading “Lovers,” is that her last name speaks to a vocation to which she is exceptionally well-suited. And that is all we need to know.
Yevgeniya Traps is a frequent contributor to the Forward.