- - Friday, July 25, 2014


By Francine Prose
Harper, $26.99, 436 pages

Paris in the 1930s was rife with “[u]nemployment, inflation, mass bankruptcy, immigration, a crushing national debt, an increasing tax roll, and a diminishing tax base, political scandal, poverty, a shrinking middle class — and the high jinks, over the border, of [its] neighbor, Mr. Hitler.” Yet there were plenty of people with the means to carouse at the Chameleon Club, where men dressed as women and women as men, and the entertainment was suitably risque.

The Club is an invention of author Francine Prose, but much of her new novel, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” is not. Miss Prose has taken the skeleton of the true story of Violette Morris, a professional French auto racer and a cross-dressing lesbian, who became a Nazi spy and later an interrogator for the Gestapo during the occupation of Paris in World War II, and added fictitious flesh to the bare bones of Violette’s life.

Like her real-life prototype, Lou Villars was an ardent patriot whose role model was Joan of Arc. She was not pretty, nor particularly intellectually gifted, but she excelled at sports. She was educated in a convent, where one of the nuns, together with her doctor brother, took young Lou and turned her into a successful runner and possible Olympic contender until the not-so-good doctor had her fight a male boxer and then tried to seduce her. Lou ran away and sought sanctuary at the notorious Chameleon Club.

While working at the club as a dancer, Lou successfully began racing cars for the Rossignol company under the tutelage of its ultraconservative co-owner, Armand, until her license was revoked for wearing men’s clothes in public.

After meeting and falling in love with German auto racer Inge Wallser, Lou was invited by Hitler to the 1936 summer Olympics. She was mesmerized by the fuehrer. “Lou had never seen a man exude such simple modesty combined with such charisma. He was like a temple idol!” She soon found herself spying on her fellow Frenchmen for the Germans, including revealing the terminus of the Maginot line. She believed that what she was doing was ultimately in the best interests of France. After the occupation of Paris, she became an interrogator for the Gestapo. She met her end on a deserted country road at the hands of the Resistance.

Lou’s story is told in the voices of the people around her, such as Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, whose photograph of Lou and her partner at the club gives the novel its title; Gabor’s Parisian girlfriend and later wife, Suzanne; Lily, who left a failing career in Hollywood (she “was pretty enough, but not something enough to fight the riptide pulling [her] out to the sea in which the pretty extras drowned”) to become the baroness de Rossignol; and Lionel Maine, a foul-mouthed American writer, eking out a meager living while writing a book about Paris. These voices, each unique in style and tone, shed different cultural, emotional and political angles on the events as they unfolded. Lou’s voice is never heard.

The first part of the book is fascinating as Miss Prose introduces Paris through her characters. Gabor writes sentimental letters to his parents, through which we learn of his insomnia, his nocturnal wanderings through the streets and alleys of Paris, and his ability to catch just the exact moment that makes a great photograph. Like the real photographer, Brassai, whose beautiful, haunting images of Paris were taken during those years, Gabor “photographed a gutter: a cobblestone cobra winding between two trees. The shadow of a buttress underneath a bridge became the silhouette of a fat man in a crooked top hat. He caught the fireworks showering the welders fixing a tram … A taxi paused long enough for him to catch the wink of its passenger’s diamond bracelets.”

Besides capturing the essence of Paris in the 1930s, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club” is about love — love of country, of a city, of beauty, and love in all its aspects for an individual.

Miss Prose, however, never takes her readers into Lou’s psyche. The attempt through a biographer writing Lou’s story many years later is feeble and ambivalent. The reader knows from the beginning what happens and is left to speculate how Lou’s betrayal becomes truly evil.

Despite this lacuna and the unanswered questions it raises, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club” is a fascinating story and an exhilarating trip into the past. Miss Prose has a wonderfully mordant wit. Her Paris is rich in detail. Her characters are varied and interesting. Like Lionel, readers will leave Paris “as it will remain: gorgeous, unattainable, going on without you as if you’d never existed. What pain and longing the lover feels as he bids farewell to a tendril of ivy, a flower stall, the local butcher. The charming cafe where he meant to have coffee but never did.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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