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Originally published April 27, 2014 at 3:03 AM | Page modified April 27, 2014 at 10:01 AM

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‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club’: darkness in 1932 Paris

Francine Prose’s impressive new novel, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” is based on a real-life cross-dressing lesbian and French race-car driver, an emotionally wounded misfit whose anger was exploited by the Nazis.


Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’

by Francine Prose

Harper, 436 pp., $26.99

In the four decades that have spanned her writing career, Francine Prose has volleyed from fiction to nonfiction and back with remarkable seamlessness. Her latest book, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” is based on facts so captivating that Prose thought about telling them straight. Instead, she ended up with a historical novel that illuminates some timely themes — sexual identity and ambiguity, love’s delusions and the anger that builds around emotional wounds.

It is instructive to look at how she does this. Instead of jumping directly into the life of Violette Morris, a French race-car driver and cross-dressing lesbian who spied for the Nazis, Prose creates a cast of fictional characters who observe the times and the person from a distance. “Lovers at the Chameleon Club” is a set of fractured images — letters, reminisces, dispatches from the front — that come together to form a composite whole.

The City of Light is almost its own character, a place inflicted with “moral contagion ... a snake pit of sin.” Prose impressively captures its cynical and degenerate side, showing us amputee veterans who lunge at passers-by, cats wearing straw boaters who power a Ferris wheel, and a watering hole on the Left Bank that features the same kinky entertainment and louche patrons we remember from the movie “Cabaret.”

So let’s start with the Chameleon Club, where in 1932 an ambitious Hungarian photographer takes a picture of Morris, now renamed Lou Villars, wearing a tuxedo and posing with her lover. (Such a photograph by the French photographer Brassaï inspired Prose to write the novel and explains its title.) Having arrived from the provinces several years before, the young Villars bested her male opponent in a boxing match and then cold-cocked her coach when he tried to sexually assault her. She found refuge at the club, where she briefly takes a role in the club’s elaborate shows. Then she discovers auto racing, her true calling.

At the club, she brushes shoulders with the photographer and other free-floating souls — the expat American writer, the bored baroness, the French teacher — who help tell the story. But the smoke-filled nightclub is a cliché (re: “Cabaret”). Villars (aka Morris) is the vehicle for exploring how personal pain evolves into allegiances with evil.

She has a double mastectomy because her large breasts crowd the steering wheel. She falls in love with women who eventually spurn her. Small wounds, but then: When the French government denies her the opportunity to compete because she is a woman, the “corrosive acid” of resentment sets in. First she fights the verdict, then bitterly settles for working as a car mechanic.

The Nazis see an opening: Hitler invites her to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where she is literally wooed to their cause.

By that time, of course, the fate of the Jews loomed on the horizon. Prose introduces real historical figures — Picasso, for one, who is shown being concerned but only because his art dealers are Jewish. Villars, meanwhile, hitches her wagon to the Germans, a true believer whose first traitorous act is to give them the location of the ill-fated Maginot Line. Later, during the occupation, she graduates from telling secrets to eliciting them, using her cigarette lighter to encourage those she questions.

“Lou’s unhappiness,” the baroness observes, “ran like a vein of coal through the dangerous mine of her soul.” The circumstances that foster such unhappiness are always elusive, but they can be explored. That’s the task of a good novel, and Prose has done the job.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.



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