Author Francine prose has written seven nonfiction books, three short story collections, and 17 novels. But she says her most recent book, Lovers at the Chameleon Club Paris 1932, was one of the most difficult stories she's ever written.
“The book really began when I saw a photograph by the great Hungarian French photographer Brassai," Prose said. "It was a picture of two women in a bar. I had seen this photo before-- it’s an iconic photo, but I had never known anything about it.”
The portrait is called Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932. Alongside it was a description: Violette Morris, the larger, more masculine woman in the photo, worked for the Nazis during the German occupation in Paris.
Prose was fascinated. So she looked into it.
“And sure enough, it turned out that she had been a professional athlete and a race car driver, and right there I thought, 'Oh my God, a race car driver.'”
A race car driver. In the 30’s. In Paris. It was too good to be true.
In 1935, the French government took away Morris’ license because she wore too many articles of men's clothing.
Her athleticism got the attention of Adolf Hitler, and she attended the Berlin Olympics in 1936 as his special guest.
By the time she got back to Paris, she was a spy for the Germans.
“She was the one who told the Germans where they could invade France. And then she went to work for the Gestapo and then she was assassinated by the French Resistance in 1944."
At first, Prose said, she wanted the book to be nonfiction, an account of Morris and her varied--and controversial--career paths.
"Because if I did it as fiction, no one would believe it was even plausible." But the most she thought about it, Prose said, the more she knew she had to create a fictional account of a character based on Morris.
"I thought, 'Boy, it’d be so much more fun for everybody, especially me, if I did it as a novel.'"
The story is told not from the crossdressing driver-turned-spy’s perspective, but from the points of view of half a dozen other characters. Prose said it was difficult even for her to keep track of all the different voices.
“There’s the voice of the photographer writing home to his parents; there’s the voice of this life-loving American novelist kind of like Henry Miller; there’s the voice of a baroness who’s an art collector and a patron of the photographer; there’s the voice of his girlfriend who becomes a resistance heroine; there’s the voice of a woman who’s writing a biography of the athlete slash spy."
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 revels in glittering Paris in the 20’s, explores the tenuous, fearful 30’s and exposes the occupied 40’s. It’s narrative is as fractured as pre-war Europe, mingling moral ambiguity with grace, exploring the fallibility of memory and the nature of history itself.
Francine Prose will read from, and sign copies of, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 tonight at 7 at Malaprop's bookstore in downtown Ashevillle.