‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’ by Francine Prose – The Monthly Book

May 2014

Welcome to the Monthly Book. 

Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 – Francine Prose

This month’s Monthly Book is a novel set in the dark and somewhat seamy depths of Paris in the 1930s. Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 was inspired by a black-and-white photograph the author saw in Washington, DC at the National Gallery of Art almost 15 years ago. The work of the famous Hungarian-born photographer Brassaï, it’s a portrait of two women in a club: one in an evening gown and the other, her lover, in drag in a suit. The latter is a famous professional athlete and racing driver, Violette Morris, who went on to collaborate with the Nazis. She spied for them, gave them intelligence that aided the German invasion of France and tortured French resistance fighters. She was assassinated by the French Resistance in 1942.

Prose’s question is: what made this former Catholic schoolgirl turn from a talented athlete into a woman capable of such monstrous acts?

To answer this, Prose created the character of Lou Villars and has written a novel that imagines Lou’s life as told from the point of view of other characters in the Paris of the time. Some of the characters are based on real artists and writers – Brassaï, the American writer Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso – and others are fictions of Prose’s imagination.

Prose’s chapters are a mix of letters from her Hungarian photographer to his parents at home, excerpts from a biography of Lou Villars being written by a neurotic woman who claims a family tie with the photographer, newspaper articles by the Henry Miller-esque writer (always on the lookout for a free drink and an easy woman) and a memoir by a baroness (married to a gay husband whose money funds the photographer’s work) plus contributions from other characters. Through these voices, Prose gives us an insight into a Paris in flux. We are right there in the Chameleon Club in Montparnasse, where the password is “Police! Open up!” and anything goes. Girls here are “dressed up as boys and vice versa. You needed a forensics expert to tell them apart.”

Here, as elsewhere in the Paris of the time, things are on the slide so that political tensions sneak up. First one thing is possible, then another, and then the formerly unthinkable is permitted to happen.

Prose writes evocative scenes, from the erotic burlesque on offer at the Chameleon Club to an elaborate dinner party given by Adolf Hitler, and her descriptions of Brassaï’s photographs take us into the way they were made (both restaged shadowy street scenes and candid shots) and the vision behind them.

Francine Prose is an American author well known for her fiction, such as Household Saints (1981), Blue Angel (2000) and A Changed Man (2005). She has also written literary criticism for the New York Times, art criticism for the Wall Street Journal, and children’s books. Her non-fiction works include The Lives of the Muses: Nine women and the artists they inspired (2002) and Anne Frank: The book, the life, the afterlife (2009).

Watch the interview

Read the transcript