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Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 22, 2014

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Editorial Reviews Review

Francine Prose
Francine Prose Explains the Genesis of Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 began with a Brassai photograph I saw at a museum show in Washington. I was familiar with the photo, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”: a portrait of two women sitting at a table in a bar, one in a sparkly evening gown, the other in drag, with short hair and a tuxedo. But the wall text said something I hadn’t known, which was that the woman in the tuxedo, a professional athlete named Violette Morris, had worked for the Gestapo during the German occupation of Paris and later been assassinated by the French Resistance.

A little research turned up an even more interesting story. Morris was an Olympic hopeful and a professional auto racer. When her license to compete as an athlete was revoked by the French government, as punishment for being a public cross-dresser, Hitler somehow got wind of it, and invited Morris to be his special guest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. By the time she got back to France, she was not only spying for the Germans, but she was the person who told them where the Maginot Line ended: where they could breach the French defenses. During the Occupation, she did indeed work for the Nazis, and was killed by the Resistance in 1944.

It was such an amazing story that I considered writing it as nonfiction, 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. As the process went on, the novel became less linear, and about all sorts of things besides Violette Morris (in the novel named Lou Villars). Moving back twenty years from the date of her death, I found myself writing about Paris in the ‘20s, and using several different voices. Gabor, the photographer, is writing letters home to his parents in Hungary, as did Brassai. An American, Lionel Maine, is writing a novel/memoir about expatriate life, a little like Henry Miller. There are several other faux-memoirs, some “published,” some not, one by a baroness, one by Gabor’s wife. And Lou’s story comes to us in the form of a life history by her “biographer,” Nathalie Dunois, a teacher at a regional high school, who cannot seem to separate her own life and her own problems from her subject’s. Hitler and Picasso make cameo appearances.

Each person has his or her version of the truth about the bright and glorious days of Paris in the ‘20s, the theatrical spectacle and intrigue of Berlin in the ‘30s, and the darker era that began when those two worlds came together. As always, the novel ended in a very different place from where it began. I started off writing about a woman in a tuxedo and wound up writing about art, love, evil, money, auto racing, espionage, insomnia, seduction and betrayal—and the way that history changes, depending on who tells it.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Artistically and intellectually adventurous, Prose presents a house-of-mirrors historical novel built around a famous photograph by Brassai of two women at a table in a Paris nightclub. The one wearing a tuxedo is athlete, race-car driver, and Nazi collaborator Violette Morris. So intriguing and disturbing is her story, Prose considered writing a biography, but instead she forged an electrifying union of fact and fiction by creating a circle of witnesses and chroniclers of varying degrees of reliability. Gabor, a Hungarian photographer enthralled by Paris after dark, photographs two weary lovers: Arlette, an opportunistic performer, and Lou Villars, a tux-clad athlete. The women are regulars at the Chameleon Club, a safe haven for lesbians, gays, cross-dressers, and others who must change their stripes to survive. We glean the many facets and repercussions of Lou’s “dramatic and terrible life” via Gabor’s surprisingly explicit letters to his parents, an unpublished biography, works by an American writer in Paris, and the memoirs of two rivals for Gabor’s love, a young teacher and a lonely baroness. In an intricately patterned, ever-morphing, lavishly well-informed plot spanning the French countryside and reaching to Berlin, Prose intensifies our depth perception of that time of epic aberration and mesmerizing evil as she portrays complex, besieged individuals struggling to become their true selves. A dark and glorious tour de force. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Destined to be a breakout book, Prose’s novel will be promoted with an eight-city author tour, a major media campaign, and library and book-club outreach. --Donna Seaman

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (April 22, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061713783
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061713781
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (204 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #302,930 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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56 of 61 people found the following review helpful By Jill I. Shtulman TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 5, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Early on in Francine Prose's richly imagined and intricately constructed tour de force, Yvonne - the proprietress of the Parisian Chameleon Club -tells a story about her pet lizard, Darius. "One night I was working out front. My friend, a German admiral whose name you would know, let himself into my office and put my darling Darius on my paisley shawl. He died, exhausted by the strain of turning all those colors."

History - and the people who act on its stage - is itself a chameleon, subject to various hues and different interpretations, depending on who's doing the telling. Francine Prose seems less interested in exploring "what is the truth" and more intrigued with the question, "Is there truth?"

The title derives from a photograph that defined the career of the fictional photographer, Gabor Tsenyl: two female lovers lean towards each other at the Chameleon Club table. His is one of five narratives that punctuate the novel. The showcase narrative - written as a biography by the grand-niece of one of the participants - focuses on Lou Villars, a one-time Olympic hopeful and scandalous cross-dresser who crosses over to the dark side and becomes a Nazi collaborator. The other four narratives are composed of devoted letters from Gabor to his parents; the unpublished memoirs of Suzanne, his wife; excerpts from a book by the libertine expatriate writer Lionel Maine; and finally, the memoirs of a benefactor of the arts, Baroness Lily de Rossignol. Each narrative plays off the others and provides subtle suggestions that the other narratives may not be entirely accurate.

What is the truth of this intoxicating time, when artists of all kinds gravitated to the Paris scene and when war with Germany was an increasingly sober possibility?
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Roger Brunyate TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on March 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
This thoroughly entertaining novel carries the usual disclaimer: "Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." A disingenuous disclaimer in this case, since the author admits that her source is a famous photograph, "Lesbian Couple at the Monocle, 1932." Unfortunately, no doubt for copyright reasons, this is not reproduced in Prose's book, which instead has a garish cover that does the text no justice; this book is not neon but noir. Do look up the picture on the Internet.* You will see two figures sitting side by side at a disheveled cafe table; one is a birdlike woman, the other a slightly pudgy man. Both are staring into private spaces of their own; the male figure seems distracted, a little sad, even tormented; what IS going on in his mind? Francine Prose asked herself the same question, and the result is this novel, a stirring and at times even moving blend of imagination and fact.

As the title of the photograph reveals, of course, the "man" is in fact a woman in male clothes. The stylishness of her suit, tie, and silk handkerchief contrasts with the rumpled collar and her slightly lost air; this is a woman who is comfortable nowhere, certainly not in conventional female roles, but not entirely in male ones either. Prose discovered that the original was a Frenchwoman named Violette Morris, trained to phenomenal strength as an athlete in many sports, including discus, soccer, and water polo, and later achieving fame as a race-car driver. But as a national role-model, her unacceptable bisexual lifestyle got her banned from participation in the 1928 Olympics, causing her to withdraw from sport. Later still, she was recruited as a spy for the Germans and ultimately worked for the Gestapo as an interrogator.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By close reader on May 31, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I think that the author must have enlisted her most faithful friends to write the blurbs on the back of the dust jacket, telling prospective readers all the things that the author no doubt wanted her book to be. But it is none of those things--not vivid, not spellbinding, not daring, etc. etc.

It's not at all like Rashomon, which tells us the same story from different points of view and with startlingly different details and endings. The various tellers of this tale are all part of the same dull narrative; there is here no "shimmering library of possible truths and forking pathways." Nobody's narrative conflicts in any important way with anyone else's except for Suzanne's denunciation of Lou's biographer in the final chapters. No, the multiple points of view simply provide the author with an easy way to tell the story, much easier than constructing a complex novel with a single omniscient narrative voice. No glimmer of Tolstoy here. And the multiple points of view provide excuses for everything that is lame or lacking in the novel. For example, Gabor's letters home serve mainly to feed information to the reader. Isn't it convenient that he has parents to whom he can write even the most intimate details of his life? The main failing though is the writer's inability to make her main character interesting in the least. She even invents a bad writer with her own personal problems to handle that very important part of the book. So we get, for instance, that interminable, boring, horribly badly-written chapter when Lou meets Hitler and is immediately in total awe of him and ready to do his every bidding. No explanation, no analysis, no reason behind any of it.

I could go on and on, but the book isn't worth it.
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