Lovers at the Chameleon Club: A Novel Based on a True Story
A novel based on stranger-than-fiction facts
What could be more romantic, artistic and just a little decadent than life in Paris in the nineteen thirties?
And what could be more terrifying than living in Paris in the 1940s under the Nazi occupation?
This book is set in both decades as we travel from naughty nightclubs, private parties and enthralling evenings to the realities of living under a harsh regime where food is short, people are persecuted and former friends are in bed with the enemy - sometimes literally as well as figuratively - we meet characters who are largely based on real people.
Lou Villars - in reality, Violette Morris
Lou is the central character and is based largely on Violette Morris, the French lesbian racing driving who is best known today for having her large breasts removed to help her in sports activities (and presumably her cross-dressing) and for collaborating with the Nazi occupiers with disastrous results for those who crossed the regime and ultimately herself.
Inspired by a photograph
There is well-known photograph of Violette Morris entitled Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932 and this partly inspired Francine Prose. the author of this book. The photograph is in the possession of the Cleveland Museum of Art and shows Violette, dressed in men's clothing, with her lover.
Copyright restrictions prevent me from posting it here but you can click here to see the original.
This book would be fascinating if written directly by the author but what gives it extra verisimilitude is the fact that we have four narrators - each chapter is an extract from their imaginary book, journal, memoirs and letters. Two of these are largely based on two real people. They are:
- Gabor Tsenyi. He is a young Hungarian photographer who takes a famous photograph of Lou and her lover at the Chameleon Club. This character is largely based on the life and works of Gyula Halasz, known as Brassai, who took the original, real photograph mentioned above.
- Other chapters are supplied by Lionel Maine, a close friend of Gabor's. This character is an American writer, living in Paris. In reality, Gabor was a friend of Henry Miller's (and Maine's life largely mirrors Miller's)
- Nathalie Dunois. Nathalie is the 'official author' of the book, writing in present day about her great-aunt, Suzanne. Suzanne is introduced as a Maine's girlfriend. But she soon starts an affair with his best friend, Gabor. She lives the party life before the occupation but then her life is overturned. (There are also chapters which are Suzanne's 'memoirs'.)
- Baroness Lily de Rossignol.I don't want to write too much because the last thing you need is a spoiler but here's a little about Lily for you to untangle. Rich and beautiful, she is a rather decadent society hostess before the war. In love with Gabor, she is married to an incredibly wealthy, homosexual luxury car manufacturer who employs Lou to race his cars.
I hope your appetite has been whetted and that you'll read this fascinating - and largely true - book. The fact that it is fiction, yet so close to the truth, is mesmerizing.
Of course,it's difficult to tell with great accuracy when fiction definitely takes over from fact but I have been studying the life of Violette Morris for a long time.
It seems to me that this fictional account of her life is most probably amazingly accurate. I highly recommend this book.
You might also like these recommended books.
There's something about Paris ... songs and poems have been written about it, people long to go there and it's described as The City of Light and the City for Lovers.
But when the Nazis occupied France during the Second World War, things took a dramatic turn. Find out more from this book.
I admit that I get a little grumpy when people talk about today's racing drivers, and imply that women in the sport is something new. What total piffle.If either of my granddaughters become racing drivers it won't just be because of their motorsport great-grandad (my dad, Eric Jackson). It will also have something to do with the genes from their great-great-great (possibly more) aunt who raced in the South African Grand Prix in 1936. She, Violette Morris and other drivers of the day are included in this book.
See the real Lou Villars
This short video is in French (and therefore I can only understand one word in every four or five) but it shows photographs of Violette, the real Lou.
More about this book
Above you see Violette Morris;the model for the character of Lou Villars. I have explained above how other characters, especially Gabor and Lionel, are largely based on real people.
I have written at greater length about Violette. If you'd like to read it, click here.
The author, Francine Prose, necessarily had to invent part of Violette's history - and her thought and motivations. Some historical issues were ignored because they wouldn't form a coherent part of the plot, such as Violette working as an ambulance driver in the First World War or the fact that she had an early and unsuccessful marriage.
However, I can understand why the author chose to write about the events of these twenty years as fiction. There is so little known about Violette that this is inevitable - anything other than fiction would have been spurious speculation.
Other real characters appear in the book, the most notable being Hitler of course. Others, such as Oswald Mosley are referred to and there are oblique references too.
For example, when Lou is summoned to Germany to meet Hitler and attend the 1936 Olympic Games, she meets two blonde English sisters, statuesque and over-lipsticked - an obvious reference to Unity and Diana Mitford. (Don't worry if you're not familiar with WW2 history and these characters - they just add an extra zing for those who do).
Despite the question that the author makes us ask ourselves in the closing pages of the book, I believe that she was too sympathetic to Lou. You see, Violette .... ah, but the story wasn't about Violette. Or was it?
© 2014 Jackie Jackson