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Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 22, 2014
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"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
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From the Publisher
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 When her license to compete as an athlete was revoked by the French government, as punishment for being a public cross-dresser, Hitler somehow got wind of it, and invited Morris to be his special guest at the 1936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.
*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
“A reading experience like none other-a shimmering library of possible truths and forking pathways…Readers of this extraordinary novel become Villars’ co-biographers, piecing through ‘official’ and underground accounts as ample (and as unreliable) as the human library of memory. I was addicted to this book.” (Karen Russell, author of SWAMPLANDIA)
“Prose’s latest book goes further in destroying the concept of a single truth than ‘Rashomon.’ It’s also an uproarious portrait of Paris from the mid-twenties to the Second World War. Prose has always been adept at slaying sacred cows; in this book, she pretty much machine-guns them.” (Gary Shteyngart, author of LITTLE FAILURE, A Memoir)
“An engrossing literary mystery…Refracting the vivid, villainous life of Louisianne Villars through letters, memoirs, and the recreations of a biographer, Prose coaxes into kaleidoscopic view both a tortured human being and bohemian Paris before and during the Nazi occupation… she cleverly exploits the vain, self-serving nature of memory itself.” (Jennifer Egan, Pulitzer Prize winning author of A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD)
“A pitch perfect pastiche that interrogates the meaning of art and the limits of loyalty. With a style that is beautiful, strong, modest and absolutely authoritative Prose directs the light of her immense talent on the horrors of fascism and the puzzling, sometimes punishing nature of love. A great novel.” (Scott Spencer, author of MAN IN THE WOODS and A SHIP MADE OF PAPER)
“Significant writers are rare. A writer like Prose, who is not only significant but capable of writing brilliantly about pretty much anything-from obsessive love to religious ecstasy to life in Paris in the twenties and beyond-is not only rare. She is, essentially, the Hope Diamond of literature.” (Michael Cunningham)
“Brilliant and wicked and funny and right on-never has Europe been done with such savage precision…Every bit funny and appalling, at the end especially, of course. There’s not a French affectation, hypocrisy or depravity left untouched. I love it!” (Diane Johnson, author of LE MARIAGE and L'AFFAIRE)
“Prose is the real chameleon here, blending effortlessly into half a dozen disparate voices…The result is a perfect stunner, the novel-as-a Picasso, or a kaleidoscope-vivid, fractured, and spellbinding…Prose is one of our sharpest critics and our most daring novelists, and this is her best book.” (Joshua Ferris, author of AND THEN WE CAME TO THE END)
“The breadth, nerve and intricacy of Francine Prose’s big new novel should surprise even her most regular readers. A bona fide page turner…” (The New York Times)
“A novel of great reach and power, a portrait of an entire era.” (The New York Times Book Review)
“So dazzlingly does Francine Prose re-create this seamy chapter of mid-century Paris that it’s tempting to think of her as not a novelist but an editor who corralled all these people into a raucous work of history...C’est magnifique!” (The Washington Post)
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I highly recommend looking up the photographs of Brassai who is also fictionalized in the book. His black and white photos of Paris at night in the 30s are haunting.
The writer's ability to draw the reader into each character's life, and her genius at defining and describing and breathing life into the populations of her stories is mesmerizing. It is hard to put this book down, even overnight,
Read this remarkable work as soon as you can.