First, a word about Francine Prose. She is one of our more formidable and respectable literary citizens: past president of PEN American Center, member of the American Academy of Letters, author of 20 works of fiction and some notable nonfiction, including the wise volume “Reading Like a Writer,” a stalwart supporter of her fellow writers and a generous critic (reviewed my first novel, in fact). And, in this spirit, she helpfully supplies readers of her new novel with an introductory letter outlining its background, evolution and historical coordinates.
To wit: One of the subjects of a photograph by Hungarian artist Brassai, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932,” turned out to be an athlete and auto racer who, when the French government revoked her racing license, was taken up by Hitler, became a spy for the Germans, served the Gestapo during the occupation and was killed by the Resistance in 1944.
This in turn became the scaffolding of Prose’s novel, a big baggy book full of historical curiosities, philosophical drama and literary pleasures. Violette Morris, the masculine-attired woman in the photograph, is now Lou Villars, a pitiful creature whose crimes against humanity the book’s various narrators struggle mightily to explain. Brassai becomes Gabor, who is taken up by a baroness, a patron, whose homosexual husband, a maker of luxury automobiles, employs Lou to race his vehicles. Gabor, in his letters to his parents in Hungary, is one of the novel’s voices, as is his sweetheart and eventual wife Suzanne, in a diary; the baroness, in a memoir; Suzanne’s great-niece, in a suspect biography; Lionel, Gabor’s American friend, a writer who seems to be little more than a sexual ego; and one anonymous narrator who tells the story of Yvonne, the owner of the Chameleon Club (which has taken on the role of Le Monocle).
For a novel so jam-packed with people, events and historical details (who knew it was illegal for women to wear more than five items of men’s clothing in 1930s France?), “Lovers at the Chameleon Club” is peculiarly leisurely in the way it unfolds, with the first half largely devoted to putting the characters in place and creating a milieu, punctuated by suspenseful allusions to what is to come, and the second half playing out what the first has alluded to, now oddly anti-climactic.
But the book is not so much about one story as it is about all the intimate and often conflicting stories that make up history. One of the more charming stories of all is, instructively, that of a counterfeiter whose exploits Gabor describes to his parents, then claims to have fabricated, only to have the old counterfeiter play an instrumental role in what happens. What, or which version, are we to believe? This, finally, is Prose’s subject here — the elastic, perhaps cubist, nature of historical “truth,” which, once recognized, frees us to — even forces us to — appreciate every story, line by wonderful line.
Ellen Akins teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University http://www.writingfdu.org. She lives in northern Wisconsin.