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Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932

By Francine Prose

HarperCollins

436 pages, $26.99

By Karen Brady

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Francine Prose considers evil in her compelling new novel “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.”

She revives, as one of her several narrators aptly puts it, “the spirit of a woman buried by a society determined that stories like hers go untold.” She troubles, then disturbs, then horrifies us with the tale of Louisianne “Lou” Villars – a French athlete and race car driver who becomes a Nazi collaborator, then a torturer for the Gestapo, in time betraying nearly everyone she was ever close to.

It is impossible to like this book but equally impossible to put it down – for Prose, a master of character, instance and place, is not explaining or excusing Villars’ malignant actions. She is asking how Villars, a woman she depicts from childhood on, could become so sinister then unspeakable a human being. And, in doing so, she re-creates the Paris demimonde of the late 1920s to the mid-1940s, years at first of liberty, then threat, then war.

Incredibly (but, then, Prose is incredible) she does all this with a certain, subtle wit, starting with the Chameleon Club so central to the book, a lively, counterculture nightclub that a young Hungarian photographer (and opportunist) named Gabor describes, in a letter to his parents, as “a few steps down from the street. You need a password to get in. The password is: Police! Open up! The customers find it amusing.”

Another Hungarian, Yvonne, who has a husky voice and “a weakness for sailors,” owns the club – whose name not only comes from Yvonne’s fondness for that lizard-able-to-change-colors but will become a metaphor for the behavior of several of the characters in this mesmerizing book.

Lou Villars, its center, is a physically strong and enigmatic woman – a lesbian who, from childhood, prefers male garb and work and who Prose has said she based on the real Violette Morris, a decorated French athlete of the same era who became a Nazi operative after attending the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin as the personal guest of Adolf Hitler.

We first meet Lou through a “biography” compiled years after her death by a woman who calls herself Nathalie Dunois and also includes a “memoir” here by her great-aunt, Suzanne Dunois, who was Gabor’s girlfriend, and later his wife:

“For many years, all I knew was that Lou Villars was the woman in a man’s tuxedo in Gabor Tsenyi’s photograph, ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.’ Doubtless my readers are familiar with the portrait of the lesbian couple, the pretty girl in the sparkly gown sitting beside her broad-shouldered lover with pomaded hair and a man’s pinky ring on her finger…”

Like the Chameleon, this photograph – based on actual French photographer Georges Brassai’s 1932 classic “Lesbian Couple at Le Monacle, Paris” – will inform the whole of Prose’s novel (for good and ill), all the time underscoring the fragility and changeability of the times.

For what is at first a sort of “Moveable Feast” – of young artists and writers who have made their way to Paris with (in the words of one American author, the self-absorbed but talented Lionel Maine) “nothing but a good pair of walking shoes and the will to survive on cigarette smoke, wine, sex, music, poetry, and moonlight on the Seine” – soon becomes a darker and darker “Cabaret.”

“After the Austrian chancellor was murdered, one disaster followed another,” Suzanne Dunois’ memoir has it. “Hitler, always Hitler. The Abyssinian crisis. Every morning we woke up and thought, How much worse will it get today? At home we had labor demonstrations, strikes, riots, right against left, each side afraid that the other would seize power and take revenge. Cracked skulls, sirens, ambulances, murders, a police force instructed to make sure we were as frightened as possible.”

Each of the “narrators” here has a somewhat different style, point of view, even level of comprehension. But the unrest is palpable and Prose’s characters must all make choices. Two – Suzanne and, later, Gabor’s patron, the Baroness Lily de Rossignol – will mature and become “heroines of the Resistance.” Everyone will be changed, Lou Villars most of all.

In Prose’s telling, Villars is a woman whose ghastly childhood is eclipsed only by her (ill-chosen) lovers – first the pretty Arlette who will abandon her for the bad-news police prefect Clovis Chanac (think Claude Rains), and later the exotic but dangerous German auto driver Inge Wallser.

When Lou herself is banned from competing (against Wallser) in a Women’s International auto race, she sues the French government and the French Women’s National Athletic Association in a bid to have her professional license to compete reinstated.

Maine, in a dispatch to the Jersey City Herald in the States, will write of the trial: “This morning the judges heard from the defense, arguing that Villars sets an unhealthy example for young woman athletes – and all French women. She smokes three packs of cigarettes a day, swears like a sailor, drinks whiskey to excess, punches referees, and corrupts innocent girls. (Could I say this in the paper? Let the editors decide.) In addition she dresses in trousers, an offense to public decency, and has gone to the extraordinary length of surgically altering her body to look more like a man.”

Let down by her country, Lou is, in time, wooed not only by Inge but by Hitler himself. The man dazzles her. When she is asked to spy (with Inge) on her own people, she tells herself at first that it is for their own good, that she is keeping them safe from themselves, that nothing will probably come of her actions … But her colors are changing to those of the company she now keeps …“the fiend inside” has been released.

At the same time, Gabor is writing his parents, “The world is approaching a precipice. In the pit are snakes, twisted corpses, bloodshed and death, and meanwhile I am thinking, It’s fabulous for my art! Is it my fault that desperation looks so stunning through a camera lens?”

Baroness de Rossignol, whose (gay) husband is the luxury auto titan Didi de Rossignol, finds a strange peace within the Occupation, discovering “what it meant to have a long and, in our own way, happy marriage … For a while, I am embarrassed to say, the war was good for my marriage.”

Humanness is at the heart of this disquieting and riveting novel – until it comes to Lou’s escalating behavior. “At what point does a monster cease being human?” asks Nathalie Dunois in her biography of Villars (herein titled “The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars”).

Suffice it to say that, while we admire Prose for this fascinating and terrible feat, we shudder at the sound Nathalie Dunois hears each time she sits down to write about Villars. It is, she says, “a sound such as one hears in the background of early Kurosawa films…the sound of my subject’s soul falling down a well.”

Karen Brady is a former Buffalo News columnist.