MAY 3, 2014
IS THERE ANY UNDERTAKING more presumptuous than biographical writing? And yet the lives of very important people are sent through the meaning-making machine not once, but multiple times over the years, the operator at the lever changing with each go. Simple mathematics — one life begetting a dozen versions — suggests that the biographer assures his own failure as soon as pen hits paper. But the hubris — that is, the impossibility — of his project is a necessary condition of the work. The life recreated on the page will never fully replicate the life lived. The biographer can only skirt its glowing center, warming his hands on the heat that manages to reach him.
Francine Prose’s novel Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 is not a biography, but a novel that concerns itself with an essential feature of the biographical pursuit — that it is doomed to a kind of failure. Prose’s work uses an elliptical and atomized narrative structure, approaching the main character with, quite curiously, little hope of capturing her essence. The person of interest is Lou Villars, a cross-dressing French lesbian based on the real-life Violette Morris, an accomplished athlete and eventual Nazi collaborator. Nearly every chapter of Lovers presents an excerpt from texts written by people who know Lou: letters, diary entries, autobiographical accounts — the latter printed and released in the fictional universe of the novel, under precious titles like Paris in My Rearview Mirror. But the real centerpiece of Prose’s novel — and the only text plainly presented in its entirety (it is not so clear with the others) — is a published biography about Lou, called The Devil Drives. The work is broken up into its chapters, which are scattered among the other texts.
Of so unfixed an identity, Lou seems to have been concocted deliberately to fray the sanity of a historian. Against the backdrop of the early century’s social and political upheaval, she undergoes extraordinary transformations of her own: javelin thrower, nightclub performer, racecar driver, spy, and, finally, torturer for the Gestapo. Lou might be the “Joan of Arc of the racing world,” an uncompromising gender bender of “big, healthy, muscular” proportions. But she is also desperate to be loved and needed, open to every professional revamp as a means of self-escape, willing to become the person that she thinks her lover or her Svengali of the moment wants her to be. Espionage and athletics suit her: through mask or new muscle, she believes that “an alien, stronger self was being born inside her.” How does one chronicle the life of a woman of such shaky selfhood? Disintegrate it further, Prose suggests, refract it through several lenses at once.
Despite being the shared pivot of the various texts, Lou has no voice of her own, a muting thrown into sharp relief by the first-person accounts of the other characters. What’s more, we don’t hear from the people who know her best, the lovers and colluders through whom she exorcises her codependency, but from social acquaintances — the Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, his patroness Lily de Rossignol, his wife Suzanne Dunois, the American writer Lionel Maine — who hover at the rim of her world. “Strange, how certain individuals keep appearing in our lives,” Gabor says, “though not necessarily the people whom we would have chosen” — and neither those whom the biographer of serious designs would have chosen.
The two circles intersect at the Chameleon Club, where the men of Paris’s political elite totter about in heels, and where mustachioed women walk arm-in-arm with female companions. (The owner of the club keeps the eponymous reptile as a pet. Her first had been placed on a paisley shawl and died from “the strain of turning all those colors.”) Gabor is enthralled by this underground world and its photographic potential; Lou finds a haven that proves that “each of us leads a double life,” as another visitor to the club says. Gabor is a genius manipulator of reality: not only does he create artificial scenes to be photographed, but the scenes create themselves for him, too. His insomnia sends him out onto the streets of Paris, which “transformed itself into whatever he desired,” “truth and beauty flinging themselves” before him. If Lou also has the artist’s instinct for transformation, she turns the scalpel onto herself (literally, too: she has her breasts removed to fit better into her racecar) — and to devastating effect.
Gabor is based on Brassaï (born Gyula Halász), and the story takes as its muse one of his most famous photographs, “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle,” showing two women — one in a tuxedo, the other an evening gown — sitting in a Paris nightclub. Lou is based on the more masculine of the pair, Violette Morris, shown here a few years before the Nazis recruited her to work against the French Resistance. In Prose’s story, the name of the photo, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” is a lie; Gabor recreates the club in his studio. The suggestion of romantic harmony between the women is also a put-on. The characters in Lovers — some of them expatriates lured by the creative promise of early-century Paris — are constantly negotiating the line between art as truth and art as deception, between reinvention’s exhilarating possibilities and its threat of asphyxiation. (Prose herself, in closely adapting history for fiction, is no exception.) “Everyone,” one character observes, “was lying, fantasizing, inventing, spouting improbable theories.”
This atmosphere of heady proliferation is conveyed by the novel’s scattershot structure, in which a pack of arrows fly in an unsteady and loosely coordinated arc. An invisible authorial hand has cherry-picked the excerpts from the characters’ books and personal writings and ordered them according to the chronology of the events described. One notices, between narrators, the repetition of details as well as the subtle differences — who’s lying? — when relating the same event. This isn’t Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness polyphony. This is writing of editorial self-consciousness, underscored by the characters’ retrospective (and solipsistic) exertion; one can almost feel the muscular strain of their heads twisted back to look over their shoulders. Not only is the perspective far removed from the event that it considers, but it is explicitly elided. The reader is deprived of the larger work that he knows to exist beyond the excerpts. The novel hangs in interstitial space, ejecting the reader from one island of calculated narrative to another.
And we swim the currents in vain search for Lou. The Devil Drives, the biography-within-the novel, is not much help. Written by a French schoolteacher who claims distant relations to Gabor’s wife, Suzanne, its prose is amateurish and embraces the hackneyed formulas of the genre. The inclusion of certain personal details (“…I will probably have to at least partly finance the publication of this book with the help of a modest legacy from my bachelor uncle Emile, who owned a small bank in Auxerre…”) reveals a loopiness that outmeasures her scholarly intentions. The “biographer” admits that she had to “fill in gaps, invent dialogue, make an occasional imaginative leap or informed guess about what my subject would have thought.” Sadistically, but gently so, the biography establishes itself — in genre, in content — as our best access to Lou. And despite the red flags, we find ourselves reluctantly engaged in the story.
When Lou comes to the attention of and meets Hitler himself, she finds her higher cause. As an interrogator for the French Gestapo, Lou — infamous for the lighter with which she tortures her victims — finally enjoys the power and control that have been denied her as a subject in the narrative projects of others:
Lou had been feeling an almost maternal tenderness for the victims and for the almost childlike trust with which they entrusted themselves to her. It had come to seem so intimate, the work they did together, this ritual transaction of denial and surrender, almost like a religious ceremony, a series of sacraments culminating in confession and absolution. It wasn’t hatred Lou felt but love for the souls she was saving.
Described this way, the relationship between interrogator and victim almost resembles that between biographer and subject, or novelist and protagonist. “The less you say the better. The less you say about the other people,” writes Suzanne in her unpublished memoirs. “Let them tell their own stories.” But her warning would go unheeded in a time when you could tell your own story, only to see it perverted in the hands of another. The rise of National Socialism lurks at the edges of Lovers, providing historical grounding to the notion of narratives stripped of single ownership and turned into vacant lots for seizure.
Prose’s novel is a compilation of untruths and half-truths — miscalculations about Lou, “improbable theories” hardened by repetition into fact — that make a precarious whole. The stuff of uncertainty has been whipped into something that holds up, with stiff peaks. Lou is the passing reflection in a mirror, the spectral figure under a streetlamp at night — barely there, in half-hearted flesh. In taking its name from Gabor’s work, perhaps Prose’s novel suggests itself as an alternative — oblique, informed by absence and inaccuracy — to the visual precision and narrative enclosure of a photograph of Lou. Prose gives us a “biographical” novel of antithetical intent. It throws aside truth, regarded as an impossibility, and takes up falsity as procedure. It colors in the shadowy realm of the is not to delimit the white space of is.
This is the novel’s strange feat: its purported project is to illuminate the character of Lou Villars, and yet everything it does serves to distance the reader from her. The concentric circles walked around Lou appear to grow smaller but never quite manage to reach her. This asymptotic journey — in which the promise of enlightenment is not denied outright but instead gradually eroded, like Kafka’s castle — is perhaps more common than we think. The profoundest mystery belongs not to the unknown. It is against the velvet backdrop of the familiar — the people we know best, the passions and interests we pursue with the hunger of a conqueror — that the pricks of mystery are most distinctly felt.
Esther Yi is a writer and a journalist in Berlin.