It’s just as well that one of the rules I set for myself when reading is to give a book at least 100 pages before I give up on it. I didn’t know anything about this book and for the first fifty or so pages I was just confused.
There are multiple narrators here, speaking through different genres. Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer, writes long letters home to his parents that do not quite conceal his incessant asking for money. Lionel Maine is an American novelist of the big, baggy, gossipy type who has written a memoir of his time in Paris pre-WWII called ‘Make Yourself New’. Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi, who becomes Gabor’s wife, writes an unpublished memoir of the events, with the instruction that the memoir be burnt at her death. Wealthy art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, who has married into an auto company, writes her own jauntily named memoir ‘A Baroness By Night’. The sections titled ‘Yvonne’ are written in the third person by an unnamed omniscient narrator. The heft of the book appears in the fictional biography of athlete and motor racer ‘The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars’ by Natalie Dunois.
Told from these varying voices and agendas, these characters are drawn to the Chameleon club, a Parisian nightclub which attracts gays, lesbians, cross-dressers and artists. As Hitler’s politics begin to filter beyond Germany’s borders, the club increasingly falls under scrutiny, and adapts to fit the political milieu. The main interest of the book is a regular cross-dressing customer of the club, Lou Villars. A former athlete and motor racer, she is spurned by her girlfriend Arlette and becomes drawn into National Socialism, becoming a notorious Nazi informant and interrogator.
I only gradually realized that this book is based in fact, albeit with fictional names and imaged events. The photograph around which much of the action revolves was taken by Brassai entitled ‘Fat Claude and her girlfriend at Le Monocle’ (see here) and Lou Villars is a barely disguised Violette Morris, (see also here) who gave the Germans information about the Maginot Line and members of the French Resistance.
I was conscious that my approach to the book changed dramatically once I realized that it was based on fact. I resisted the temptation to start googling the characters, and instead let the fictional book take me where it wanted me to go. There is a ‘Cabaret’-style artifice to the book, which became increasingly dark as the narrative went on. By having multiple narrators, the author is not bound to ‘explaining’ her Lou Villars character, or her seduction into National Socialism, although the multiple narrators give her scope to speculate. I’m glad that I didn’t give up at 100 pages in, but I do wonder if my response to the book would have been different had I realized what the author was doing, earlier on.
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library
Read because: I had heard of Francine Prose
My rating: 8