Will readers ever get enough of the debauched, smoke-filled nightclubs of wartime Europe? The warbles of Edith Piaf and Pierre Bernac? The tuxedoed Marlene Dietrich? Hitler’s golden girl Leni Riefenstahl? It seems the answer is no—World War II and its surrounding events continue to be a gold mine for writers and filmmakers. Francine Prose, in a testament to her talents, has managed to create a wartime saga that is both original and epic. And yes, it’s based on a true story.
Violette Morris was a French athlete who was born in 1893, raised in a convent, and served as a military nurse during World War I. Prose had initially planned to write a work of non-fiction about Morris, but decided she would have more fun with fiction. The result is Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, a 400-plus-page novel told from the point of view of five central narrators—the photographer Gabor Tsenyi, Baroness Lily de Rossignol, Gabor’s girlfriend and eventual wife Suzanne Dunois, the Hemingway-esque writer Lionel Maine, and Nathalie Dunois, the biographer of Lou Villars, the fictional version of Violette Morris.
The intention here is to make a comment about the shifting truths of history. Before she became a Nazi sympathizer, Lou was a performer at the Chameleon Club, a place where “the men dress as women and the women as men,” Gabor writes his parents. She and her girlfriend Arlette pose for Gabor in a photograph that eventually becomes world famous—and the title of the novel. The entire cast of narrators is eager to tell us their versions of how they met and knew the infamous Lou Villars. Gabor is a kind of Man Ray, Lily a mélange of Lady Diana Cooper and Nancy Cunard. The narrative comes from their memoirs of the time period, Gabor’s letters to his parents back in Hungary, and Nathatlie’s biography in progress, The Devil Drives.
Nathalie posits that when the French government revoked Lou’s driving license (because they did not approve of her lesbianism and her cross-dressing) they made an enemy of the state. In one breathless chapter, she recounts Lou’s journey to the Berlin Olympics as a special guest of Hitler. As Nathalie describes Lou’s thoughts, we realize her interest in Lou may go beyond the academic. “Could some German scientist have found a way to install a high-wattage light bulb inside the Führer’s head? He emitted ten times the radiance of a normal human being … he was like a temple idol!”
The novel is a bit long and indulges a few too many historical and celebrity cameos: “It’s the Hindenburg!” There’s Picasso, talking about Guernica. Let’s go meet Man Ray at the café. But the end result is inventive, compelling, and will delight those interested in the period. One passage, “Minutes from a Meeting,” is a terrifyingly matter-of-fact recounting of Nazi officials discussing how to implement Hitler’s Final Solution. Another tells of Suzanne’s realization of the importance of a look or glance during the Occupation: “Even the teenagers were afraid … Instead of being focused on themselves … all they saw, all the rest of us saw, were the German soldiers smoking.” Prose has created an entire world populated with characters that jump off the page. The fact that most of it is true is icing on the cake.