Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel

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9780061713781: Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel

A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, exploring the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself.

Paris in the 1920s shimmers with excitement, dissipation, and freedom. It is a place of intoxicating ambition, passion, art, and discontent, where louche jazz venues like the Chameleon Club draw expats, artists, libertines, and parvenus looking to indulge their true selves. It is at the Chameleon where the striking Lou Villars, an extraordinary athlete and scandalous cross-dressing lesbian, finds refuge among the club’s loyal denizens, including the rising Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, the socialite and art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol; and the caustic American writer Lionel Maine.

As the years pass, their fortunes—and the world itself—evolve. Lou falls desperately in love and finds success as a race car driver. Gabor builds his reputation with startlingly vivid and imaginative photographs, including a haunting portrait of Lou and her lover, which will resonate through all their lives. As the exuberant twenties give way to darker times, Lou experiences another metamorphosis—sparked by tumultuous events—that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more.

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Review:

Francine Prose

Francine Prose Explains the Genesis of Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 began with a Brassai photograph I saw at a museum show in Washington. I was familiar with the photo, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932”: a portrait of two women sitting at a table in a bar, one in a sparkly evening gown, the other in drag, with short hair and a tuxedo. But the wall text said something I hadn’t known, which was that the woman in the tuxedo, a professional athlete named Violette Morris, had worked for the Gestapo during the German occupation of Paris and later been assassinated by the French Resistance.

A little research turned up an even more interesting story. Morris was an Olympic hopeful and a professional auto racer. When her license to compete as an athlete was revoked by the French government, as punishment for being a public cross-dresser, Hitler somehow got wind of it, and invited Morris to be his special guest at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. By the time she got back to France, she was not only spying for the Germans, but she was the person who told them where the Maginot Line ended: where they could breach the French defenses. During the Occupation, she did indeed work for the Nazis, and was killed by the Resistance in 1944.

It was such an amazing story that I considered writing it as nonfiction, but I soon decided that I would have more liberty, and that I and my readers would have a lot more fun, if I wrote it as a novel. As the process went on, the novel became less linear, and about all sorts of things besides Violette Morris (in the novel named Lou Villars). Moving back twenty years from the date of her death, I found myself writing about Paris in the ‘20s, and using several different voices. Gabor, the photographer, is writing letters home to his parents in Hungary, as did Brassai. An American, Lionel Maine, is writing a novel/memoir about expatriate life, a little like Henry Miller. There are several other faux-memoirs, some “published,” some not, one by a baroness, one by Gabor’s wife. And Lou’s story comes to us in the form of a life history by her “biographer,” Nathalie Dunois, a teacher at a regional high school, who cannot seem to separate her own life and her own problems from her subject’s. Hitler and Picasso make cameo appearances.

Each person has his or her version of the truth about the bright and glorious days of Paris in the ‘20s, the theatrical spectacle and intrigue of Berlin in the ‘30s, and the darker era that began when those two worlds came together. As always, the novel ended in a very different place from where it began. I started off writing about a woman in a tuxedo and wound up writing about art, love, evil, money, auto racing, espionage, insomnia, seduction and betrayal—and the way that history changes, depending on who tells it.


From the Back Cover:

A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, exploring the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself

Paris in the 1920s. It is a city of intoxicating ambition, passion, art, and discontent, where louche jazz venues like the Chameleon Club draw expats, artists, libertines, and parvenus looking to indulge their true selves. It is at the Chameleon where the striking Lou Villars, an extraordinary athlete and scandalous cross-dressing lesbian, finds refuge among the club's loyal denizens, including the rising photographer Gabor Tsenyi, the socialite and art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, and the caustic American writer Lionel Maine.

As the years pass, their fortunes—and the world itself—evolve. Lou falls in love and finds success as a race car driver. Gabor builds his reputation with vivid and imaginative photographs, including a haunting portrait of Lou and her lover, which will resonate through all their lives. As the exuberant twenties give way to darker times, Lou experiences another metamorphosis that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more sinister: collaboration with the Nazis.

Told in a kaleidoscope of voices, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 evokes this incandescent city with brio, humor, and intimacy. A brilliant work of fiction and a mesmerizing read, it is Francine Prose's finest novel yet.

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