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Customer Review

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Entirely Coincidental??, March 23, 2014
This review is from: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel (Hardcover)
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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.

Francine Prose says she considered writing her story as non-fiction, but eventually decided on a novel. So Violette becomes Lou Villars, whose life story follows the original pretty closely. But the facts are not the point: in the first few pages, we are told the equivalent to virtually everything I have said about Violette Morris above. Prose's purpose is to ask the searching questions: how could a national heroine turn into torturer and traitor, and what did it feel like to live inside the hyperdeveloped body and tormented mind of Violette/Lou? To do this, she interweaves many voices: drafts of a biography written sixty years later, the autobiography of a French Baroness who was for a while Lou's patron, excerpts from the writings of an expatriate American writer, the letters of the Hungarian photographer who took the photo, and the memoirs of his wife, whose path crossed Lou's on several memorable occasions. Not all the voices are equally successful; the American writer seems almost peripheral to the plot and his writing has nothing of the spice of Henry Miller, his presumed model. But together they make a finely nuanced portrait not only of the major characters involved, but also of the decadent period between the wars that nursed the ensuing tragedy.

[Ignore, incidentally, the references to RASHOMON you will see on the book cover. Although these various accounts differ in perspective and minor detail, this only gives greater depth to the whole, and a softer-edged sympathy. There is none of the outright contradiction you get in the Kurosawa film masterpiece, although a chapter near the very end of the book will introduce a surprising new twist.]

But Lou Villars, while interesting, was not the main attraction of the book for me. No, it was the artist behind the camera of the original photograph, the great Romanian photographer Brassaï. Apart from changing his name to Gabor Tsenyi and his nationality to Hungarian, Prose adheres much more closely to his real biography than she does with any of her other characters, including his fondness for photographing the Paris of the shadows and his later friendship with Picasso. His was the viewpoint that I trusted most, because in essence it still exists. Rely on the author's prose to provide insight into the torments simmering behind the man-woman in the famous photo, but keep a gallery of the real Brassaï photographs open as you read, as the perfect visual background to this intriguing novel.

*See first note.
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Showing 1-10 of 14 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 23, 2014 4:16:06 PM PDT
One of many links to the Brassaï photograph:

Posted on Mar 24, 2014 6:07:27 AM PDT
Roger, interestingly, you've taken another angle on your review: the "factional" approach of Ms. Prose. I wonder, though, how you would have perceived this book if you did not know about the Brassai photograph. I was aware that Francine Prose considered writing her story as non-fiction but for the most part, I viewed it as a book of fiction, only going back and researching after I closed the pages. To me, it would work very well even had no photograph existed in real life.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2014 6:20:28 AM PDT
I agree, Jill, it would work quite well without the photograph. But the publisher, in a letter to Vine reviewers that I have unfortunately now lost, made a big deal of the specific inspiration. Just looking at the photo, as I assume you have, does raise all sorts of fascinating conjectures; the "male" character is so enigmatic. I am almost sure I did know the photo before reading, in any case, so I can't really say how I would have responded otherwise. And I am quite sure that I would have identified Gabor Tsenyi with Brassai, even without knowing that specific shot, just as we both identified Lionel Maine with Henry Miller (of whom I thought he was a very pallid and somewhat pointless copy).

As for the "faction," I do think that the convention disclaimer was virtually meaningless, given the far-from-coincidental resemblances to the real lives of at least the two major characters. BUT this is not in any way to knock Francine Prose, who did a magnificent job -- essentially a novelist's job -- imagining everything that might lie behind and around her given facts. Roger.

Posted on Mar 24, 2014 7:46:09 AM PDT
Mary Lins says:
GREAT review, Roger! I'm glad you liked it, too. And thank you for suggesting we look at the inspirational picture! I hadn't thought of that while reading though normally I DO look up art described in novels - while reading Peter Heller's new book, "The Painter" for example.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2014 7:57:57 AM PDT
Thank you, Mary. I looked at THE PAINTER, and am not sure it is for me; much depends upon the extent of the fighting tough-guy element. Let me know when you review it. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2014 8:13:51 AM PDT
Mary Lins says:
I reviewed "The Painter" on Goodreads. I'll email it to you. (Bottom line - it wasn't as good as "The Dog Stars" - but still a solid 4-stars.)

Posted on Mar 24, 2014 1:46:36 PM PDT
Yes, terrific review, which I completely agree with. And thank you for providing the photo! I had no idea that the photographer was based on someone true, but it didn't matter in my enjoyment of the book. He was also my favorite character, because his introspection, and the nuanced reasoning to his style of photography, really grabbed me. (By the way, I do like the cover, which seems to me to be a combo of glitter and noir, like the novel).


In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2014 2:40:23 PM PDT
Thank you, Bug. I think having the picture in your mind's eye really helps the reading, but it is not essential. If they could not put it on the cover, for many reasons, then I think they'd have been better with the kind of cover they do for Alan Furst. I saw the entire novel in black, white, and many shades of grey (fifty, perhaps?) from beginning to end, with not a hint of color.

Nobody has challenged my on my dismissal of the RASHOMON parallel (though I liked the way you modified it, Bug). So here's another: Why Lionel Maine? I would be hard put to say how essentially he intersects with the plot, though I can see some advantage in having a more distanced viewpoint. But why channel Henry Miller if your character, apart from a few f-words, is not going to write with anything like Miller's verve? I just could not believe that his memoirs could even get published, let alone get themselves banned as obscene. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2014 2:47:28 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 24, 2014 2:47:59 PM PDT
To be honest, I see your point on Maine. Perhaps he was more of a straw man to create tension and highlight the different approaches toward women (certainly different than Gabor). Or a set piece to illuminate the times (a reminder of Miller, and even of Hemingway, to the extent of machismo). He provided a narrative tension, most of all. Bug

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2014 2:51:28 PM PDT
Yes, he was a bit of an a-h, wasn't he?
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