Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 – Francine Prose
This month’s Monthly Book is a novel set in the dark and somewhat seamy depths of Paris in the 1930s.
My interview with Francine Prose can be found here. The transcript appears below.
Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 was inspired by a black-and-white photograph the author saw in Washington, DC at the National Gallery of Art almost 15 years ago. The work of the famous Hungarian-born photographer Brassaï, it’s a portrait of two women in a club: one in an evening gown and the other, her lover, in drag in a suit. The latter is a famous professional athlete and racing driver, Violette Morris, who went on to collaborate with the Nazis. She spied for them, gave them intelligence that aided the German invasion of France and tortured French resistance fighters. She was assassinated by the French Resistance in 1942.
Prose’s question is: what made this former Catholic schoolgirl turn from a talented athlete into a woman capable of such monstrous acts?
To answer this, Prose created the character of Lou Villars and has written a novel that imagines Lou’s life as told from the point of view of other characters in the Paris of the time. Some of the characters are based on real artists and writers – Brassaï, the American writer Henry Miller, Pablo Picasso – and others are fictions of Prose’s imagination.
Prose’s chapters are a mix of letters from her Hungarian photographer to his parents at home, excerpts from a biography of Lou Villars being written by a neurotic woman who claims a family tie with the photographer, newspaper articles by the Henry Miller-esque writer (always on the lookout for a free drink and an easy woman) and a memoir by a baroness (married to a gay husband whose money funds the photographer’s work) plus contributions from other characters. Through these voices, Prose gives us an insight into a Paris in flux. We are right there in the Chameleon Club in Montparnasse, where the password is “Police! Open up!” and anything goes. Girls here are “dressed up as boys and vice versa. You needed a forensics expert to tell them apart.”
Here, as elsewhere in the Paris of the time, things are on the slide so that political tensions sneak up. First one thing is possible, then another, and then the formerly unthinkable is permitted to happen.
Prose writes evocative scenes, from the erotic burlesque on offer at the Chameleon Club to an elaborate dinner party given by Adolf Hitler, and her descriptions of Brassaï’s photographs take us into the way they were made (both restaged shadowy street scenes and candid shots) and the vision behind them.
Francine Prose is an American author well known for her fiction, such as Household Saints (1981), Blue Angel (2000) and A Changed Man (2005). She has also written literary criticism for the New York Times, art criticism for the Wall Street Journal, and children’s books. Her non-fiction works include The Lives of the Muses: Nine women and the artists they inspired (2002) and Anne Frank: The book, the life, the afterlife (2009).
Ramona Koval: Francine Prose, welcome to the Monthly Book.
Francine Prose: Thank you. Thank you very much.
RK: Well, your book starts with a famous photograph. Can you describe Brassaï’s famous photograph of lovers that is at the centre of this new novel?
FP: Well, the photograph is called Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932, and it’s a photograph of two women sitting in a bar. One of the women is wearing a kind of spangly evening dress, and sitting next to her is a woman, a cross-dresser in drag, wearing a tuxedo with a man’s haircut – very chunky. And the woman in the tuxedo is a woman whose name was Violette Morris, who was an auto racer, an athlete, a professional shot putter, javelin thrower, and who became a German spy.
RK: Your novel is a rich mix of different kinds of writing by the various protagonists who are telling the story of what happened in and around a club which you call the Chameleon Club in Paris from 1932. Girls dressed up as boys and vice versa, and I’m quoting you: “You need a forensic expert to tell them apart.” One of the strands is a biography written by a woman who says she’s a relative of the photographer – well, she’s a relative of the wife of the photographer who took the picture. Her name is Nathalie Dunois and she asks herself, “What brings a writer to her subject?” She says, “The chill lowered my defences and I caught a fever, a fever to understand.” So is that what happened to you when you saw this picture?
FP: (Laughs) Well, you know, I’d like to think I would’ve written it a little better. I mean, one of the things about Nathalie, who’s writing this quote unquote biography of Lou Villars, the character based on Violette Morris, she’s not a particularly great writer. So the chill, the fever and the chill, and the fever to understand, is (laughs) not exactly how I would have put it. But yes, when I saw the photo and I read the wall text – this was at the National Gallery [of Art] in Washington, DC – and it said that the woman in drag had been a torturer for the Gestapo, I was incredibly intrigued, and then I went and looked up as much as I could find out about her biography.
RK: This is the fascination of photography, isn’t it? Especially when we look at a date, say, 1932, and we know what happened after that time but the people in the photograph have no idea.
FP: Yeah. I mean, in the photograph they’re already… they’re still having a good time at the bar and it’s before everything horrible happens. I mean, eight years later, the Germans will have invaded Paris and a lot of that will be over. But in the meantime the real woman in the photograph will have had her licence to compete professionally as an athlete taken away by the French government because she is a cross-dresser and she will have gone to the Berlin Olympics, to which she’s been invited by Hitler as a special guest, and by the time she gets back to France, she is not only spying for the Germans but she is a person who tells them where the Maginot Line ends so they can invade France. And then after the invasion she goes to work as a torturer for the Gestapo, and she’s ultimately assassinated by the Resistance in 1944.
So those few facts that I was able to find out about her life were kind of the armature, the peg from which the novel hangs. And the rest was mostly invented, I mean, based loosely on some historical characters. There’s a character based on Henry Miller and on Brassaï, but most of it was imagined.
RK: Paris the city – let’s leave Lou Villars for a moment. Paris the city certainly is a character in the book, and Brassaï, of course, photographed Paris, and your Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi certainly made Paris in a particular way. Can you describe the kind of city he found and immortalised?
FP: Oh well, the Paris that Brassaï photographed was the kind of bright, louche Paris. He especially photographed gangsters and their molls, and the insides of brothels and nightclubs, and partygoers, and also it was the Paris in which electricity had really begun to replace, for example, gaslight. But there still were gas lamps. And he photographed people lighting the lamps and it was this simultaneously bright and dark Paris. Very, very joyous and exultant but at the same time there was something seedy about it. And he went out, he took very long exposures and he was still photographing with glass plates, so he would fill his pockets with as many glass plates as he could carry, and he would go out into the night and take these long exposures. Most of the photos he took at that time were of nighttime scenes, in Paris after dark. And the book that he published was called Paris By Night and then it came out in other countries as The Secret Paris.
RK: Well, we’re getting a rich mix here of darkness and perversity and politics, and you mentioned your character who channels Henry Miller, Lionel Maine, and part of the book is you writing in the style of Henry Miller. Was that fun to do?
FP: It was so much fun. It was shocking. And it was so easy. I mean, he was the easiest character in the novel to capture. There was something about his voice. I was really quite surprised to find out how easy it was for me to write in a voice like the voice of Henry Miller. But because he was such a life-loving, egomaniacal, wine-woman-sex-song American expatriate, and because I knew that voice so well, and because since reading Henry Miller I’d met so many people like that, it was, again, surprisingly easily to write in his voice.
RK: Let’s just talk about the Americans in Paris at the time, because he’s emblematic of that, your Lionel Main. And, of course, Henry Miller went to Paris not necessarily because it was the inspiration for romance and art but because it was economically sensible, wasn’t it, at the time.
FP: Well (laughs), yeah. The dollar was very strong against the French franc, so that was a big part of it. And all these artists and writers could live quite well and very cheaply in the way they couldn’t at home. The value of the franc was fluctuating, and then what happens in the novel is what happened in history, which is in 1929, when the stock market crashed in the United States and the worldwide Depression followed, a lot of people had to go home because Paris was in a terrible state financially and whatever money they’d been living on, sent from home, had pretty much disappeared. So the good times ended for a lot of people then.
RK: So we’re adding to the rich mix of this moment in time that you’re writing about, or some years before and during the Second World War. Let’s go back to Lou Villars, who’s the main protagonist. The main question is asked, really, of her: “What made her life as it was and what made her do what she did during the war?” How did you imagine her when you began to try and create your character? You’ve got a young woman who’s very good at sport; she’s not quite sure where she fits in the world. How did you imagine her as a young woman?
FP: Well, she wasn’t exactly madly loved by her family. I mean, she was an unloved child. But all she wanted as she gradually began to realise who she was and what she was good at and what she could do, she wanted to be loved like everyone, she wanted to dress in boys’ clothes and she wanted to play sport. Those were her three desires. And one by one, each one of those desires was thwarted and she, especially after her licence was taken away, she was made to feel like a failure.
So she got resentment, and that sense of having been betrayed by others made her very vulnerable and, like so many people at that time, an easy prey for fascism in general. And also once she went to Germany and she was treated suddenly like a very special person and a celebrity … In the novel she sat at Hitler’s right hand at a big dinner before the opening of the Berlin Olympics. So suddenly she went from feeling completely betrayed to feeling like a kind of heroine, and it made a kind of sense for her to go back [to France] and do the things she did.
And she was also persuaded – she wasn’t the brightest person in the world either. She was also persuaded that Germany was going to take France, and she was a great French patriot who was going to take France and clean it and restore it and take it from the hands of the enemies who had betrayed France from within and give it back to her as the France of Joan of Arc, the nationalistic, pure France that she had dreamed of.
RK: Yeah, I was just going to raise Joan of Arc because Joan of Arc is important to Lou. And I’m just wondering, is that what Lou ends up doing, the collaborating and torturing, how does that fit in with her idea of Joan of Arc saving France in some sort of cracked way? And I notice that Joan of Arc, she dies in 1431 but actually in 1920 she gets canonised so that’s within Lou’s lifetime, isn’t it?
FP: Well, it all fits in perfectly for Lou. Just for starters, the cross-dressing, the fact that Joan of Arc refused to wear a dress and insisted on wearing a suit of armour and when she was imprisoned was forced to wear a dress. And then the idea of her as a leader of soldiers, the leader of her nation, as the courageous heroine who transcended her role – her female role – and became a leader of men, that was very much how Lou wants to see herself.
RK: This idea of Lou sitting at Hitler’s hand in the big dinner. When we think of homosexuals being sent to camps only a few years later, how does that fit in with an idea of the Führer celebrating a cross-dressing athlete from France?
FP: (Laughs) Well, of course, it’s obvious common knowledge that he persecuted and imprisoned homosexual men. I don’t think he was quite clear about the fact that there were lesbians. I don’t think he quite understood that. But he was quite willing to overlook his distaste for Lou’s cross-dressing, for her sexual preferences because he understood that she had this huge network of contacts in France because she had been a celebrity athlete. And at that point there were many, many regional sports associations, especially regional women’s athletic associations, because it was still avant-garde for women to play sports. So all over the country there were these groups of women that she knew. So she was in an ideal position to help the Germans if there were troop movements or construction projects, if there were movements of materiel and so forth.
And so regardless of how she dressed and who she loved and how she looked, she was a very useful asset for them because she was ideally suited to being a spy.
RK: Is this something you’ve imagined for your character? Or is this what you have discovered when you’ve done the research behind the historical character she’s based on?
FP: Well, certain things were true. It is known that her licence was taken away. There’s a transcript of the trial in which she sued the government to get it given back. And it’s known she did go to the Berlin Olympics, and it’s known or pretty clearly posited that this was the reason that she was chosen to be a spy. There could be no other reason. I mean, it was because she had this vast network of contacts.
RK: The other thing is the interesting enmeshment between athletics and sport and the politics of the time. And, of course, the Berlin Olympics was very important to the Nazis and for them to have hosted that. Could you talk a little bit about the idea of politics and athletics at the time?
FP: Well, the National Socialists made a great big deal of the pure, strong German body. So one of the reasons that Hitler was so thrilled to have the Olympics in Berlin was that he thought it would be a way to show the world how Germany had not only reformed and glorified its own country but they’re producing this whole new race of tall, blond, healthy athletic men and women. I mean, there were men’s and women’s sports associations, there were plans, health programs in place, nutrition. And the idea was to create this breed of strong German woman who would produce the Aryan race. So sports was very much tied in at that point in Germany to the idea of fascism, and you could see it in Leni Riefenstahl’s film of Olympia, her film of the Olympics, which I watched over and over in preparation for writing the novel. And you see these gorgeous perfect bodies and German divers and German runners as opposed to, you know, that was the famous Olympics in which the black American athlete won the race, Jesse Owens, and it was horrifying to the Germans.
RK: So when you watch something over and over again in preparation for your book or while you’re writing your book, are you seeing something different each time? Are you picking up different kinds of images?
FP: Well, there were certain things that I needed to know if I was going to write it. For example, I needed to know what national costume the various teams wore as they paraded past every viewing stand, and what Hitler said when he opened the Games, and how he looked when he saw the German athletes. So those things are all recorded on film, and that was very, very helpful. There are books written about it, there have been quite a few books, but being able to see those images, being able to see him and see the athletes and see the preparation for the Games and the opening ceremonies and so forth, which are all on film, and again to see the German athletes and this ideal of the Aryan beauty was extraordinarily useful.
RK: The other thing that is quite unusual about this book is that it paints the French as collaborators, or not totally, of course, but it makes much more of French collaboration, which is something the French don’t really like to talk about themselves very much and is only become apparent in the last, say, 20–25 years, that people did collaborate, and the Vichy government was a collaborative government. How did you find the research for this? Did you see a kind of resistance in the French sense of themselves?
FP: Well, there are many books written, understandably, more written by resistance heroes and heroines than by collaborators, but there are no books by resistance figures that don’t feature collaborators because it was so much a part of their history. And then the other film that I watched, quite a few times, was Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity, in which he’s interviewing resistance people and collaborators. It’s a fascinating film, so incredibly moving and informative and beautiful. When he made it, quite a few people had survived. So there are interviews with resistance heroes and interviews with collaborators as well. So you could really see what these people looked like and how they talked and how they understood their experience and what they had to say about it.
RK: Let’s go back to the Chameleon Club then. You describe a political atmosphere kind of sneaking up on the culture. First one thing is possible, then the next, and then the formerly unthinkable happens. So is that something you wanted to do in this novel, to show how things change in a culture?
FP: Well, when I began writing the book, all I knew was that I was writing about a photographer and a photograph and a woman with a very sketchy, let’s say, history. But as I was writing, I was really constantly surprised by how much nationalism became a subject for the book. Because not just in Germany but in France as well, nationalistic fervour kind of gripped the people. So it was thrilling to me to be able to do it in terms of the club, because the songs that had been sung and the routines that had been done during that time grow more and more nationalistic. There’s a certain underwater routine, the floorshow at the club, and it starts out relatively innocently, and then I got to write all the music and the songs and the scenarios, and it becomes more and more about the drowning mermaid, who can only be saved by the French sailor, and all the other sailors from the other countries can’t do it for one reason or another.
RK: So where did you get the ideas for these kinds of routines? The way you’ve written them I can just see them happening. I can hear the music, I can hear the songs, which is fantastic, but what have you been watching for that?
FP: Well, it came from all over. A friend of mine sent me a clip, completely not related to this, of a group of contortionist sisters in the United States in the ‘50s, doing this insane song-and-dance routine. I was watching it over and over, so one of the routines early in the book is a group of contortionists. And then there’s one song in the novel that actually was a song. It’s a song about a woman, a marquise calling home, and her servants are saying, “Well, everything’s fine, your house has burned down, your stables burned down, your husband has killed himself, but everything’s fine, Madame Marquise.” And that was a real song, that was a satirical song about the mood of the moment – that is, the entire country is falling apart but everyone’s telling themselves that everything’s fine. That part, that song, was real. But the rest of the songs and the dances and so forth, I just made up. It was enormous fun to just do the choreography and write the songs for this semi-invented cross-dressers’ club in the ’30s.
RK: So take us into Francine Prose’s study when you’re creating these little pieces.
RK: Are you actually standing up and doing a few of the routines yourself?
FP: No (laughs).
RK: Come on, you can tell us.
FP: No (laughs), but I am seeing them. It was very cinematic for me. I was really seeing the movie play in my mind, of the people doing it. So I often felt as if I was watching it and just describing what I was seeing. It’s a really strange sensation. I was there in that club, in my mind, inventing these dance routines and hearing the music they were playing.
RK: You’re a very visual writer, obviously. You’re working from films, you’re working from photographs. You’re seeing it. What about the voices of the characters? You’ve talked about the voice of Lionel, the person who sounds a lot like Henry Miller. What about the voices of Lou? How did you imagine her?
FP: Her voice is the voice we don’t hear. Her voice has come to us through the bogus biographer, Nathalie Dunois, who’s making this all up, and in a way that was done of necessity. Lou was the hardest character to write, for obvious reasons, and I tried it in a series of different ways – I tried first person, third person narrators, and nothing really was working, and then I had the idea of doing it as a biography by a biographer who can’t stop talking about her own neurotic problems. And suddenly it all just clicked into place. I was able to do it.
RK: Why did you decide to use a biographer who couldn’t write and who was (laughs) terribly self-absorbed?
FP: Yeah, and wildly neurotic. But the thing is, my problem with the character became her problems. My difficulty in understanding the problem and the character became her difficulty. And then as the story gets darker and darker, and more and more difficult, really, to face, she’s having more and more difficulty facing it. So it was kind of great: I had this alter ego who, as I said at the beginning, can write quite well at certain points and not very well at other points, and it was just fun.
RK: Yeah, she says, “What masochistic impulse made me tell Lou’s story?” She talks about the biographer and sympathy and a certain amount of sympathy that one needs for the character one is writing. Is that how you felt, too? And I wondered what masochistic impulse did make you tell Lou’s story, because you knew from the beginning that she was going to be a torturer – you found that out very quickly. And I’m thinking also about your work with Anne Frank: The book, the life, the afterlife that you wrote, I think, in about 2009. So you have been in that territory for some years now.
FP: Yeah, well, it’s an attraction. I mean, the whole question of evil and how it’s worked itself out in the 20th century. It’s hard to know how to get past that or around that. But also I’ve always been attracted to writing about things that scare me because they’re so difficult or they’re so— you know, anyone can make a very nice character sympathetic. It’s not that hard. They’re like little puppy dogs that just jump up in your lap and lick your face. But the challenge of making a truly difficult and partly evil character sympathetic is much more tempting, and that’s what attracted me.
RK: So you talked at one point about the biographer having particular dreams. Did you have particular dreams while you were writing this book?
FP: I’m sure I did. You’d probably have to ask my husband about that, because I would tell him in the morning. Like most people not in five-day-a-week therapy, I can’t remember my dreams, but it really haunted them. It was there in my unconscious. And also the feeling, the strange feeling of channelling these characters, of hearing their voices, of knowing what they would do in certain situations or waiting until I figured out what they would do in situations, it was a very strange book to write. And then, of course, switching from one [character] to the other.
RK: I think you told the Paris Review at one point, I think when you were beginning to work on this book, “Fact checking is so boring compared to writing fiction. I don’t mind writing articles … I am working on a novel now that began as nonfiction. It takes place in France between 1924 and 1944, and a French person said to me, ‘You know you’re going to have to spend years in the Bibliothèque nationale checking all the facts?’ and I thought, ‘No I’m not.’ I decided to do it as a novel.” (Laughs) And what happened? You seemed to have a spent a long time in the pit of history, though?
FP: Oh, I mean, I didn’t have to worry. I mean, there were certain things I still had to get right. I still had to do a certain amount of research just to not make obvious howlers. And also at the end of the process I hired this young French woman, a graduate student at NYU, who I kept referring to as “the happy graduate student” because she was happy and a graduate student – a very rare combination. And I hired her just to go through it and make sure there were no factual mistakes. And there were still a few things that she caught. I mean, she said, you know, “As much as you would like the Waterloo Bridge to be in Paris for thematic reasons, bad news, it’s in London.” So, of course, I had to change it. I mean, she found some extraordinary errors I’d made. So I’m hoping they’re all out of there now. But I didn’t have to go after it with the same manic attention that I would have if it had been non-fiction.
RK: And did you have to hang out in Paris, too? Or is that not the Paris that you’re writing about? Has it changed so much that that wouldn’t have been useful?
FP: I was hoping to spend a lot more time in Paris than I did. But I did go for one long trip, and then you’re right, in a way it was more useful for me to look at Brassaï’s photographs than to go to Paris that had agnès b. and Louis Vuitton all over it.
RK: You’ve done a wonderful job in getting this sensual, political, dark moment into your book. It’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932. Francine Prose, thank you so much for speaking to me today for the Monthly Book.
FP: Thank you so much. It’s been a great pleasure.