Francine Prose has written more than 20 books, including the National Book Award finalist Blue Angel, so the term “breakout book” doesn’t really apply. But her new historical novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, is poised to become her biggest hit yet. Told from various perspectives, the novel pieces together the life of Lou Villars—auto racer, cross-dresser and eventual Nazi sympathizer—against the turbulent backdrop of Jazz Age Paris. We asked Prose a few questions about the new book. Read on to find out about her own double identity and why she writes for readers like herself.
One thing that makes this novel so compelling is the masterful way you blend fact with fiction—it’s not always clear exactly how much of the story is real and how much you have made up.
To be perfectly honest, by the time I got through writing the novel—five years—I was no longer precisely sure how much was “real” and how much I’d made up. Yes, history is a narrative, like fiction, but the one thing I wanted to avoid was what I mostly dislike about the sort of “historical fiction” that puts so much emphasis put on period details that it detracts from the characters—who, I hope, are central in this novel. I see the book as a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the past.
"I see the book as a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the past."
From the title alone, it’s made clear that sex and romance will play a large part in this story, but one of the really exciting things about this novel is its straightforward (and some might feel, quite modern) approach to sexuality and gender politics. Can you talk a about where your inspiration for the Chameleon Club and its little coterie of outcasts and lovers came from?
The inspiration came from a photo by the great Hungarian-French photographer, Brassai, and then a series of photos. Brassai took a lot of pictures at a club called Le Monocle in Paris. Most of its customers were cross-dressers, mostly women. Just lately, I was reading a biography of Jane Bowles, and I found out that during a trip to Paris she’d hung out at Le Monocle. That was very exciting to me: I hadn’t known.
Villain or not, Lou Villars is really the star—she’s complicated, confused, the antithesis of boring, and definitely an enigma. Perhaps most striking, in a book filled with so many voices, she’s also the one main character who doesn’t get to speak for herself. What was the motivation behind that decision?
Lou was by far the hardest character to write, and I tried writing her sections many different ways—first person, second person, in letters, etc., etc. And nothing quite worked. It wasn’t until I hit upon the device of the “biography” that I was able to do it, partly because I was able to pass my problems along: my problems with, and confusions about, such a deeply conflicted and complex character became the biographer’s problems. And her understanding of Lou helped me understand her.
As any book about World War II must, yours takes on the character of Hitler. What was it like to tackle such a prominent, infamous figure within the scope of fiction?
I can’t tell you how much fun it was to write a dinner party scene that included Hitler, and to capture something about the way people describe being in his presence. There’s a book called Hitler’s Table Talk—a transcription of his dinner table monologues—that was very helpful. Hannah Arendt created an enduring controversy when she wrote about the banality of evil, but Hitler was a living example: profoundly evil, shockingly banal.
"I can’t tell you how much fun it was to write a dinner party scene that included Hitler."
One particularly lovely passage is when Gabor, a photographer, talks about how he has cultivated his eye for detail by pounding the pavement and increasing his likelihood of observing the miraculous. Is there a writer’s corollary for those who attempt to capture the world through words rather than pictures?
Same process: pounding the pavement. You just keep looking at the world, overhearing, watching and trying to figure things out.
There’s something about the 1920s and '30s—and definitely about Paris—that people today find endlessly romantic, even with the knowledge of what will historically follow. Why do you think that is?
So much was happening then—in art, in music, in writing. Just to list the artists at work during that period in Paris is stunning. People were finally freeing themselves from the restraints of the 19th century and trying to lead lives that were creative, interesting, adventurous and rewarding.
If you could travel back in time to spend one decade in one city, when and where would you go and why?
Obviously, I’d like to have been in Paris in the 1920s and ‘30s—that’s partly why I had to write a novel in which I could imagine myself back there.
At one point in the novel, a character posits that each of us leads a double life. If this is indeed true, what two lives do you lead?
I’m a writer (being a novelist implies a certain amount of control) and a total slave to my beloved granddaughters.
One bookish tome you have written is entitled Reading Like a Writer. If we were to flip that title, what would you say it means to write like a reader?
Readers (I’m using myself as an example) want to read writing that’s original and persuasive and perhaps even beautiful, and to keep interested in what they’re reading. That’s the reader I write for: the one with the intense interest in prose style and the short attention span.
What resources did you draw upon to write this book? For readers who are interested in learning more about Paris leading up to and during World War II, are there any books you would recommend?
I read a great deal and then forgot almost all of it. There are many fascinating memoirs of the period such as John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse, as well as history books, especially about Paris between the wars and during the Occupation. Many heroes and heroines of French Resistance have written memoirs. I watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad for its footage of the Berlin Olympics, and Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity for its marvelous portrayal of France during the war: the collaborationists and the resistance. Two of the most helpful books were And the Show Went On by Alan Riding, and Bad Faith by Carmen Callil.
What are you currently working on?
I’m beginning to think about a new novel—and also writing a brief biography of Peggy Guggenheim, who knew many of the historical figures in my novel; I’m obviously not ready to let go of that time.
RELATED IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of this book.