The spark that becomes the source of a novel is often a mystery to readers, but it's not difficult to discover the inspiration for Francine Prose's new novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. The inspiration for this roman a clef about the City of Light before and during World War II can be found in a single artful photograph.
Lesbian Couple at the Monocle 1932 is just one of the many moodily elegant black-and-white photographs of Parisian nightlife that helped make the Hungarian photographer known as Brassai famous in the mid 20th century. Many of his subjects were anonymous, but not so the woman dressed in mannish clothing on the right in this photo. Her name was Violette Morris, and she gained fame as a race car driver — and then notoriety as a Nazi collaborator and Gestapo interrogator.
Prose, a critic and nonfiction author as well as a novelist, has said in interviews that she first considered writing a biography of Morris. Instead she has transmuted Morris' singular life story into this novel, which becomes in turn an intriguing exploration of the nature of biography and of memory itself.
It's no accident that one of the few historical figures to appear under his own name in this novel is Pablo Picasso — he might as well be the patron saint of the book's fractured, faceted literary cubism, as well as its characters' lust-driven lives.
The character Prose based on Morris is called Lou Villars, and she is central to the plot of Lovers at the Chameleon Club — but despite the array of vivid individual voices that tell the tale, her voice is not one of them.
Gabor Tsenyi, the intense young Hungarian who photographs Lou and her girlfriend after seeing them perform at the Chameleon Club, is Brassai's double, and his emotional letters to his parents back in Hungary form one thread of the narrative.
Another is a series of wry, insightful chapters from a postwar memoir, A Baroness by Night, by Gabor's patron, the baroness Lily de Rossignol. The glamorous, bright wife of a wealthy auto manufacturer, she is connected to Lou through Lou's stint as a race driver of the family's cars — a sport in which Lou is so competitive she has a double mastectomy in order to fit more easily behind the wheel of a race car (as Violette Morris really did).
Yet another version of the story comes from Suzanne Dunois, Gabor's lover and later his wife. She's commonsensical, often funny and fiercely supportive of those she loves; her sections of the book are from an unpublished memoir, "to be destroyed on the occasion of its author's death."
And then there are the chapters from various books by Lionel Maine, Suzanne's former lover, Gabor's best friend and an exuberant avatar for American writer Henry Miller. He's a lech, a mooch and a keen observer. When Lou is put on trial for violating a section of the Napoleonic Code that forbids women to wear more than five pieces of male clothing at a time, he covers the trial for a U.S. newspaper, "so the good citizens of New Jersey can be distracted from their catastrophic unemployment rate by the story of how the supposedly permissive and sexed-up but actually snooty and prudish French are keeping Lou Villars out of professional racing because she wears pants."
Also chiming in occasionally is Yvonne, the husky-voiced, statuesque proprietor of the Chameleon Club, which welcomes cross-dressers and all manner of other unusual folks: "Every kid who knocked on her door imagined that he or she was the first. The first one who'd been born into the wrong body, the first to love the wrong person, the first to have been beaten up, the first to have washed up on the safe shore of Montparnasse." Among the strays she takes in is Lou.
But for sheer numbers of pages, the dominant voice in the book is that of Nathalie Dunois, a great-niece of Suzanne. A French schoolteacher living in the present, she is writing The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars, and her chapters cover Lou's life from her chilly childhood through various broken love affairs to her moment of glory, seated next to Adolf Hitler at a dinner party on the eve of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin — and beyond.
The first part of Lovers at the Chameleon Club is full of bohemian charm, but the undercurrent of dread soon takes over. All of its characters have their secrets, but the emphasis shifts from who is sliding between the sheets with whom to how one makes moral choices in wartime, when far more is at stake than broken hearts.
Prose does an impressive job crafting a plot in which each version of the story takes on its own dimensions and echoes — and the biggest question may be just which one of those narrators is the most outrageously unreliable.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.