Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose (2014). A review by John Cook

Lovers at the Chameleon Club

I thoroughly enjoyed this confection. It read like an historical memoir but is a factional novel based loosely around some very real historical characters. The period from the mid twenties through to WWII time, the war itself and its aftermath in Paris is a well-mined source of artistic endeavour. In this case, several aspects have been cleverly derived, given a light feminist twist and then produce a very good read. We are told that one of the (several) primary narrators (Gabor Tsenyi) is based on Brassaï (Gyula Halász;) and his famous moody photography of the period. The central female character (Lou Villars) is likewise based around one Violette Morris who was a cross-dressing athletic racing car driver who became an infamous Nazi collaborator. A third strand lies with the theme of car racing with fond memories of such glorious beauties as the Delahaye and Delage and finally populist French nationalism, religious fanaticism, anti-semitism and Nazism. What draws them together (and a range of other associated characters) are nights at a seedy but lively night club called the Chameleon club favoured by cross-dressing and sexual diversity. Once again, this setting can be related to the historic Parisian Club Monocle.

 

Prose is highly skilled with a firm grasp of her background material (she toyed with an actual biography of Morris) but we can be grateful for this clever tale both in terms of the stories cleverly interwoven which attract and repel often with the same character and the use of several different voices developing the story line often in different formats and tones.

 

I wondered about one initially as I read much of what was happening in a light and enjoyable sense seeing the lives lived almost from the point of a then resident Hemingway or Henry Miller (even Picasso gets a Guernsey). However, moods and viewpoints begin to develop increasing shadows when love themes, jealousies, revenge and disappointments collide with ruthless ambition, religious mania, nationalism and fascism. There is quite a lot going on with a number of plot strands and early on there is a temptation to see things moving a little slowly. However, all is rewarded for the reader as things begin to focus and harden in the second half – it is a long read at 474 pages.

 

If there are two over-arching themes present in the read, they are the nature of love in its many forms as it impacts on so many lives and, given the different perspectives presented in the separate fragments, the nature and impact of memory and memories on the lives portrayed right through to the final (spoiler alert) torture scene.

 

Recommended for its evocation of a period and place in all its colours, its mostly wonderful characters (Oh, to have been at a Baroness Rossignol party! All that champagne! All those Swedish boys!) and its fine honed literary quality.

 

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