by Daniel Brown
Francine Prose’s newest novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, is both her finest to date as well as the best novel of 2014 to date. The book is written from several different points of view, and by several different narrators/protagonists. Prose takes us to Paris in the late 20’s, and the novel runs through World War II and briefly afterwards. Hers is a complex and sophisticated review of one of the world’s most elegant and naughty cities; an important theme in the book is her obvious contempt for the behavior of French collaborators in WW II.
The book’s title refers to a photograph taken by a character based on André Kertész, with, perhaps some of Cartier-Bresson tossed in, as well. The Chameleon Club is Prose’s invented nightclub for gay and lesbian people who are allowed to come as they wish, often in drag, although such cross-dressing was illegal in France at that time. The club is run by a once Hungarian woman named Yvonne, and our photographer is also Hungarian born. Prose constantly emphasizes their not being French born, which is a lead up to what the French willingly and happily did to their Jewish population under the Vichy government. France had been xenophobically anti-Semitic since the Dreyfus Case. Prose interweaves some real history with some inventions, and it’s often difficult to tell the difference.
The main characters in the novel are the above mention Yvonne, the photographer, Gabor Tsenyi and his girlfriend Suzanne, an American expatriote writer clearly based on Henry Miller, a French baroness who basically serves as Gabor’s patroness, and the lesbian cross-dressing Lou, who is the actual subject of the book. Lou is the face of evil, and the alleged writer of the novel, Suzanne’s great niece, is trying to attempt to figure out what in Lou’s childhood and character would later make her a torturer for the German Gestapo in France. It’s a rather brilliant analysis; Lou will work in Yvonne’s Chameleon Club, be photographed with her girlfriend by Gabor (that photograph is the title of the book), be a race driver/chauffeur for the baroness and her husband, and later is seduced by a German (female) race driver into becoming a spy for Germany. We Americans would say that Lou suffers from an extreme lack of self-esteem, caused by her “otherness”, and the book reminds us that our tendency to excuse people because they have been victimized used to be called choices between good and evil: Americans like to psychologize evil away, while Prose does not.
The interactions of these characters in the nightlife of Paris in the 20’s and The Depression form the bedrock of this book. If there is a real hero in the book, it is the much misunderstood baroness, who has a successful marriage blanche, another coup for Prose. As in the movie Cabaret, we see the revues at The Chameleon Club devolve into real sleaze. Throughout it all, Gabor continues to take unbelievable photographs of Paris at night, as he befriends clochards, gangsters, prostitutes and the like, photographs which we can see today in the work of Kertész and Cartier-Bresson. As the Germans finally invade France, and Lou continually chooses evil over anything good, while basking in self-pity, she becomes a symbol of all those French who collaborated with the Germans. Suzanne and the baroness will become members of the French Resistance, an unlikely pair who never like each other. Prose truly indicts the French, as we watch Jews rounded up on the streets, deported to concentration camps, while people turn the other way (she reminds us, correctly, that Coco Chanel was a German collaborator).
The plot is so riveting, and the characters so brilliantly depicted, that it’s easy to lose oneself in it, but Prose never lets us lose sight of the larger picture, of a country which either loses or sells its soul. But her descriptions of Paris at night, when The Chameleon Club is at its height, are spectacularly beautiful. Prose has chosen a fascinating time in contemporary history to write about gay, lesbian, and transgender people, as understand what it is like to have to hide one’s identity and only be able to express oneself in a nightclub: Yvonne herself is one of the great heroes of the novel.
This is not a docudrama or one of those annoying novels where the reader doesn’t know the difference between fact and fiction, which E.L. Doctorow has made so famous (and confusing). Prose’s understanding of Paris during those years is so dead right that the book leaves us feeling dazzled, enlightened, and proud of those few who choose goodness over evil.