Francine Prose’s new novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, is based on a real-life French cross-dressing lesbian and race-car driver, “an emotionally wounded misfit whose anger was exploited by the Nazis.”
Edmund White wrote a review for this book that appeared on the New York Times. His first line is “It’s a daring thing to write about an evil person.” Even though it can be fascinating to write about a villian, but it’s really hard to write well, because the writer needs to have compassion, like sympathy for the devil. Literature doesn’t care about “politically correct”, it cares about human beings.
But Prose managed to do it and she did so well. White wrote: “Prose is careful to show how a decent but under-loved girl becomes a monster. Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford referred frequently to the strategy known as progression d’effet. Prose has mastered this kind of narrative magic, revealing the gradual transformation of white to black through tiny gradations.”
What makes the tale so nuanced is that it is recounted by various alternating narrators. All these characters deliver overlapping but occasionally discordant accounts. Prose enjoys manipulating unreliable narrators, whose cabaret-night sexuality bears no relation to their workaday lives, and wealthy French aristocrats who believe, with some reason, that their privilege will protect them from harm but still feel the need to commit their thoughts to paper.
LOVERS AT THE CHAMELEON CLUB, PARIS 1932
By Francine Prose
436 pp. Harper. $26.99.