Historical fiction carries with it an inherent tension. How accurately can we truly imagine the past? In her new novel, prolific author Francine Prose welcomes this tension.
“Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” is both a life story “based on true events” and an impressionistic portrait of Paris in the early 20th century. The book is structured as a compilation of memoirs, books and letters written by and about the novel’s characters. The backbone of the novel is a “biography,” narrated by a contemporary French author, of the character around whom the entire book revolves.
Louisianne Villars, based on a real-life woman named Violette Morris, is sent to a boarding school where her strength and dedication to sports wins her a role as a traveling demonstration of women’s athletics.
Louisianne runs away from her managers in Paris and takes refuge at the Chameleon Club, a meeting place for the novel’s web of characters that is known for its gender-bending stage shows and patrons.
Here, Lou lands a role in one of the acts and falls in love with her co-star, Arlette. Lou and Arlette pose in their evening wear for a struggling Hungarian photographer named Gabor Tsenyi. This photo, which lends its title to the novel, is also the book’s turning point.
After Arlette breaks Lou’s heart, Lou gets a job racing cars for Rossignol Motors, owned by the husband and brother-in-law of Gabor’s friend and benefactor, the baroness Lily de Rossignol.
Lou is poised to win victory for France when she’s stripped of her competitor’s license for the crime of dressing like a man. Gabor’s photograph becomes a key piece of evidence in her trial.
The loss of her racing career is a heavy blow for Lou, but then she is invited to attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics with one of her former competitors. Lou’s visit to Berlin is one of the book’s best moments, a sequence where the narrative layering recedes and the reader experiences the glitter and dazzle of Nazi Germany through Lou’s eyes.
Prose gets us to buy into Lou’s naïve pro-Nazi sentiment — laughing along with her new lover’s inside jokes about Hitler and believing that this is truly the highlight of her life so far — not an easy feat, considering the darkness we know lurks just below the surface.
The difference in atmosphere between giddy, confident Berlin and tense, dread-filled Paris in the late ’30s is the most memorable scene-setting of the book.
What becomes of Lou is known from the beginning, and thus her story doesn’t hold much suspense. The pleasure of the novel, then, comes from reading the memoirs and reminiscences of the other people who circle around the Chameleon Club: Gabor and his girlfriend, the baroness and their American writer friend Lionel.
The group coalesces in the idealistic ’20s and lasts through the Depression and the Occupation. With all of these different perspectives, we get to see certain scenes from two or three points of view. Sometimes this reveals new insights, but at other times it just feels repetitive. This may be “Chameleon Club’s” biggest letdown.
The most interesting parts come when the narrative threads flat-out contradict each other, but sadly these instances are few.
Lou and Gabor, the two stars of the novel, remain mysterious. Despite her mix of experiences, Lou feels oddly passive, easily influenced by others. And although the novel presents us with the letters Gabor writes to his parents, he hides and exaggerates many things about his life.
On the other hand, we get to hear from Lily de Rossignol and Gabor’s girlfriend Suzanne in their own words. These two women, who spend the war working for the Resistance, end up the book’s true heroines.
All the history-making in Prose’s book is anecdotal. There are no primary sources (even fictional, in-universe ones) aside from the documents that make up the book, and those tell mostly personal stories of love, regret and survival. In the end, with all her layering of perspective and narrative, this seems to be Prose’s goal — to put front and center the subjectivity of history itself.