In the preface of Francine Prose's astonishing Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, the author tells how a Brassai photograph, "Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932," inspired her novel about "art, love, evil, money, auto racing, espionage, insomnia, seduction and betrayal–and the way that history changes depending on who tells it." That sounds comprehensive and fascinating, but Lovers at the Chameleon Club is so much more: part loving critique of human frailty, part celebration of heroism, part cautionary tale, and, all told, a ripping yarn.
Presented through letters, memoirs, and a pulpy biography of one of its characters, Lovers at the Chameleon Club chronicles the intersecting lives of several Parisians occupying a timeline stretching from the heady, Cabaret-era `20s to the fascist Occupation of the `40s. We meet Lionel Maine, a Henry Miller-ish expat writer, through his essays and yellow journalism. Maine's undervalued (but not for long) girlfriend, Suzanne, speaks through a tantalizing memoir "to be destroyed in the event of the author's death." The autobiography of arts patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol offers the upper-crust perspective. Through letters home, Brassai-inspired photographer Gabor Tsenyi wrestles with success guilt while simultaneously seeking money from his parents.
The locus around which everything turns is the magnetic Louisette "Lou" Villars, a lesbian racecar driver turned Gestapo agent. Lou is an analogue of the very real Violette Morris, the "butch" half of the couple in the aforementioned Brassai photo. Like Morris, Lou is an Olympic hopeful who dares to wear men's clothes in public, resulting in the revocation of her racing license by the Vichy government. Also like Morris, Lou is unlucky in love, and, oddly, captures the fancy of Hitler, who admires her athleticism and enlists her as an effective undercover agent. Most of Lou's story comes via her modern-day biographer, a narcissistic high school teacher who compulsively inserts herself into her work, and whose depictions of Nazi-era pomp are frighteningly seductive.
Prose varies all of these voices with great skill, conveying widely divergent personalities and showing how storytelling is every human's innate, mysteriously powerful tool for making sense of both shadows and light. More often than not, the novel's narrators are only dimly aware of how they add artifice to their versions of events, yet Prose enables us to see this process in the characters and, ultimately, in ourselves.
For all its sophistication, Lovers at the Chameleon Club zips briskly along. Late in the game, when the horrors of the Third Reich infect the cobbled Parisian streets and our characters must choose sides, the intensity becomes gut-wrenching. Not all these folks are admirable, even ones we've come to like. Some rationalize in the face of casual evil, and it's heartbreaking. This is where Prose's work delivers its biggest payload. Anyone aware of history knows, intellectually, about the Holocaust and the rise of fascist Europe. Heroes existed, but much more common were regular people, like us, standing by, paralyzed, numb. When we feel that numbness now, we fear, idly, that such evil could rise again. Lovers at the Chameleon Club is that rare art that remedies this disconnection. Prose's work serves as connective tissue to a visceral, emotional experience of our shared humanity; we ache for people we have never met, we perceive more acutely a genuine darkness against which we must be vigilant, and when we close the book, we're sensitized, and ready.
Francine Prose will appear at Oblong Books & Music, Rhinebeck, 5/10 at 7pm.