Something Absent–A Book Review

‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,’ by Francine Prose

By YVIE YAO      January 24, 2015

Francine Prose’s engrossing and thrilling novel ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’ is set in 1930s Paris. Its central character Lou Villars is crafted based on the Hungarian-born French photographer Brassai’s photograph ‘Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932’ in which the woman with short hair and a tuxedo is a professional athlete named Violette Morris. Prose’s male photographer character, Gabor Tsenyi, is modelled on Brassai.

Throughout the entire novel, Prose daringly leaves the main character Lou’s voice absent and tells the story of Lou through voices of other supporting characters, sometimes contradictory. Readers could be immersed in Lou’s biography The Devil Drives: The Life of Lou Villars by Nathalie Dunois, Lou’s photographer Gabor Tsenyi’s personal correspondence with his parents and Gabor’s American writer friend Lionel Maine’s books on the Chameleon Club. Prose also introduces to readers Gabor’s girlfriend Suzanne Dunois Tsenyi’s unpublished memoirs, Gabor’s sponsor, a baroness’s autobiography and the club’s owner Yvonne’s personal stories.

When readers assume the novel centers on Lou Villars, the woman in a man’s tuxedo in Gabor Tsenyi’s photograph ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’ and her devil-like characteristics, Prose actually focuses more on every nook and cranny of the Chameleon Club. All characters in this novel meet and form intricate relationships in the club. Readers could easily comprehend how they meet, but may not detect why their fates are bonded and intertwined so closely. While the Chameleon Club is the birthplace for everyone’s fabulous journey in Paris, it also magnifies everyone’s weaknesses and creates a grand funeral for everyone’s success. The 1930s Paris is tantalizing, but unfortunately, merely an ephemeral dream.

Since Lou was born, she constantly has to struggle with duality and cannot find a balance point within such duality. She was sent away by her parents when she was little and her hatred easily made home a synonym of alienation. Her youngster life with nuns and vices at the same time confused her vision of God and piety. Her real independent adulthood really starts with her performance for lesbian clientele in the Chameleon Club where she finds joy and pleasure. Yet, the betrayal from her first lover Arlette again buries her wish seeking for an identity for herself. When Lou becomes an auto racer and represents France on the world stage, she struggles with dualism of the sexes and cannot live with the masculine and feminine splitting realities. Since childhood, she thinks breasts are disgusting and demonstrates psychically strong admixtures of the other sex. While she starts to find salvation in auto racing and experiences surges in adrenaline, her dream is destroyed by the crime of cross-dressing, a cruel separation of humanity into male and female halves, leaving intermediaries like her no air to breathe. Then, she starts to rebel and overturns the fixated doctrines and guiding principles of sex that have crossed over into the flesh and blood of every person. She submits herself to fascism and completely loses her sense of belonging to her nation. Undoubtedly, the Chameleon Club opens a threshold for her new identity, but it also builds a tomb for her integrity. Francine Prose deliberately isolates readers from Lou’s voice in the novel, creating a sense of adrift aloofness in herself. Who is Lou? Prose leaves a mystery for readers.

Lou is not the only one of her species. The Chameleon Club is the crossroad for people like Lou to find consolation. Gabor is bestowed with artistic talents, walking his ladder up to the high echelon, yet deprived of basic human touch and sympathy. Lionel is genuine and ambitious, but is never willing to submit himself to the stark reality. The baroness has everything including wealth, beauty and power, nevertheless handicapped in her naked ability to express true emotions. Suzanne is the perfect and ideal woman that one can ask for, except for the fact that she drowns herself in the pursuit of love—willing to suffer and sacrifice her dignity for her lover’s inspiration of art. Yvonne is a smart and calculative woman, but feeds herself on the filth of money instead of patriotism and loyalty. Even for Chanac, he has a unique sense of righteousness, but defeated by his greed and ambition.

‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’ is a vivid and powerful miniature of the era. Prose starts her novel with Gabor Tsenyi’s letter instead of Lou’s biography, setting the tone for the entire novel. “Last night I visited a club in Montparnasse where the men dress as women and the women as men.” Despite its subtleness, Prose also explores sexology and cross-dressing in her novel, which dedicates multiple references to transvestites. While Prose’s details show her respect to the real political situations in France and Germany in 1930s regarding transvestites, she tactfully shows her support and approval for transvestites through her deftly crafted plots and her delicate use of language. Prose glorifies Gabor’s ambition in photographing transvestites in his personal letters with his parents and reveals her natural appreciation for the charm of Lou.

“From a distance, an ignorant stranger might mistake Mademoiselle Lou for a stocky, muscular fellow in a white blazer and flannel trousers. But on closer inspection, one sees the full red lips and dark curls that give this confident young woman’s face the saucy sparkle of feminine beauty.”

While the problem with intermediaries has already been discussed for more than a century and while these intermediaries still cannot find a sense of belonging and security in this country, Francine Prose’s novel on a group of sexually ambiguous lovers who have lost themselves in the Chameleon Club gives us an ominous reminder how destructive and devil-like one can be without identity.


By Francine Prose

436 pp. Harper. $26.99.


Mirschfeld, Magnus. Transvestites: The Erotic Drive to Cross Dress, translated by Michael A. Lombardi-Nash. Buffalo, New York: Promethueus Books, 1991.

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