Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, captures the city between the wars

I’ve always been fascinated with Paris in the 1920s and 30s. The inter-war period. The tensions of those years add pizzaz to any book. So many writers lived and worked there. A sojourn to Paris was almost mandatory. Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce. Artists, too, notably Picasso. Discovered some others as I read “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” a 2014 novel by Francine Prose. The author tells her story of the 1930s and wartime occupation through the pages of imagined letters, memoirs, and journals by the book’s principals. The two main characters were inspired by real people. Gabor Tsenyi is a Hungary-born photographer who hones the craft of low-light nighttime photography as he prowls Paris streets, brothels, and bars. Lou Villars is a French woman athlete who ends up torturing prisoners for the Gestapo. Gabor is based on the famous photographer Bressai. He is best known for his pics of the demimonde who hung out at Le Monocle, the “Cabaret”–like club that attracted the city’s artists and LGBTQ crowd that dared to be cross-dressing club regulars in the thirties but risked danger when the war came. Villars is based on Violette Morris, a lesbian athlete who came under Hitler’s spell at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

The era is an attractive one for writers. Many of those who fled to Paris were survivors of the Great War and facing Great War Part 2 in 1939-45. Some 70 million residents of Planet Earth died in the Great War. It was, as historian Barbara Tuchman and others have written, the war that changed everything. Four-plus years of horror were embedded into the conscience of a generation that was tagged with the term “lost generation.” Survivors may have been lost but not as lost as the millions of ghosts who roam Ypres and Verdun and forever inhabit Europe’s psyche. An entire generation of young people was almost wiped off the planet. Small villages in England, France, and Germany lost every one of its young men. The world never got over it, nor should it.

This showed up in the work of the era’s creatives. Bressai’s famous photo, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle 1932,” shows a hefty woman in a man’s suit sitting next to a thin woman in a sparkly dress. The look on their faces can be interpreted many ways. To me, they look to the future with a mixture of dread and hope. It attracted the book’s author, was even the catalyst for years of research and writing. Did they stay together? Were they rounded up like other “undesirables” by the Nazis? Prose wondered too, as a similar photo by her fictional photographer is crucial to the arc of the novel. As I read the novel, I decided to look up this photographer and found his work all over the web. He captured a Paris that was both romantic and squalid.

It took awhile for me to get into the novel’s rhythm. It seemed a bit contrived at first. And then I got into the flow of the intermittent narratives. I was both a reader and a writer studying the technique as I went along. Most of the samples picked up where the other left off. But not always. The reader has to do some work to tie together the narrative threads. After a hundred pages, that became part of the book’s charm. Who is speaking, and when, and can this narrator be trusted? Don’t we always wonder if the teller of a tale is trustworthy or not?

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