Francine Prose's new novel, "Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932," plays out in a Paris of lovers, spies, artists and transvestites. Duplicity and deception underlie the gaudy surface variety of Parisian society. Even the city itself wears a disguise: "Paris was dressed, like a stolen child, in the kidnapper's clothes."
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The German occupation of Paris in 1940 was a kidnapping of sorts, but the city flirted with many fashions before it was dressed by the Nazis. In Prose's novel, Paris' most eccentrically garbed residents gather at the fictional Chameleon Club, a haven for cross-dressers, runaways, artists and eventually German soldiers eager to see lurid specimens of French depravity. The novel follows the club's patrons; each has something vital to conceal.
Hitler and Picasso both make memorable appearances, and the novel's title alludes to the Hungarian artist Brassaï's photograph "Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932." One of the women in this photo was Violette Morris, a French auto racer and athlete who dressed in men's suits and spied for the Germans during World War II.
Prose reinvents Morris as Lou Villars, an imposing but easily manipulated woman prone to spasms of fervid nationalism. Brassaï, in turn, is reimagined as Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer who rambles through nocturnal Paris with his camera, seeking "something hidden in the shadows." The American author Henry Miller was an acquaintance of Brassaï's, and Miller appears in wonderfully transfigured form as the writer Lionel Maine.
Maine is a comic monster of artistic solipsism; he believes in only three things: "my talent, my heart, and my cock." Each of these leads him into dubious escapades, and his preposterous self-justifications are among the book's great pleasures. The passages that Maine narrates are imbued with a hint of humor similar to that of Italo Svevo's "Confessions of Zeno." Tsenyi and Maine are friends and erotic rivals, and Prose uses each character as a lens on love, art and politics.
The most overtly political strand of the story involves Villars' transformation from an aspiring French athlete to a Nazi collaborator who extracts confessions by torture. Prose frames Villars' story as a fanciful biography written by a modern-day author strangely obsessed with her subject. The paucity of data and detail on Villars leads this biographer to embroider and imagine the many scenes and textures she can't reconstruct through research.
This creates sudden shifts between the techniques of biography and fiction; one moment the biographer reports the number of Jews deported from Paris in World War II, the next she slips inside Villars' consciousness in free indirect style. These lurches dramatize the difficulty facing any biographer, but such cavalier mingling of fact and fiction suggests something deeply unreliable in her method.
It's tempting to sympathize with Villars' hardships, but Prose repeatedly reminds us that what we are reading about Villars may be the fevered invention of a single mind. Fiction has the powers to humanize even an unsympathetic subject, but Prose makes us question this sort of narrative seduction even as we experience its effects.
The life of every member of the Nazi party could be rendered with the rich immediacy and narrative pull of a novel. Art can help us see the humanity latent in those considered moral monsters, but this same power can also exonerate and misrepresent those who deserve condemnation. The novel balances skillfully on the edge of this dangerous dual potential.
Prose inhabits the perspective of more than half a dozen characters throughout the book, and this polyphony of voices allows her to reveal how her characters deceive themselves and one another. At points there is a slightly awkward tension between the plot's demands and the plausibility of each particular voice. Nearly every character, for instance, tends to convey conveniently crucial information in vivid prose, and sometimes the perspectives seem insufficiently differentiated.
But the larger effect of this multiplicity of voices is both destabilizing and absorbing. One perception of events is often undercut by a later perspective, so skeptical and attentive reading is the only way to assess the story as a whole. At its best moments, the reader almost becomes another character in the novel, searching for meaning amid the menace and beauty of wartime Paris, surrounded by the city's many conflicting truths.
Nick Romeo has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and many other publications. His most recent book is "Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys."
"Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932"
By Francine Prose, Harper, 437 pages, $26.99Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun