Why do period novels attract such poor writers? The period piece has an inherent gimmick, a novelty to attract the reader, and so if such a work fails on the level of art, it can at least succeed on the level of spectacle. If a writer is aware of the fact that he cannot transcend spectacle, he or she may at least devote himself to it without distraction and so produce a work of significant entertainment value. It is when such a writer essays forth to say Deep Things About the Universe that serious problems arise; such is the case in Francine Prose’s “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.”
Prose has written her novel around the Bohemian scene of pre-war Paris, particularly on the figure of Louisianne “Lou” Villars, a transvestite singer and athlete who becomes a spy for the Germans in World War II. Although one mark of the mediocre historical fiction author is a penchant for characters with absurdly diverse skills and talents, Prose has actually based her character off a historical figure: Violette Morris, who discovered and relayed the plans of the Maginot Line to the Nazis. In her introduction, Prose dwells on the fascinating aspects of this person, a reflection that raises the question of why Prose is not satisfied with writing a biography of Morris. She nevertheless dismisses this possibility and presumes to improve on history, stating, “I soon decided that I would have more liberty, and that I and my readers would have a lot more fun, if I wrote [Morris’s life] as a novel.”
This decision, although questionable, could have been vindicated in execution, especially in the structuring of the novel. However, Prose does not seem to have the capacities to deliver on her promise of fun. She embraces one of the most precious and hackneyed devices in literature, the nonlinear narrative. The story is dripped to the reader in poorly strung-together lumps, variously from sources contemporary with Villars/Morris—for example, letters written by the fictional Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi—and from different faux-memoirs and biographies written after her death. Prose’s use of this device is unsuccessful. Other novels that showcase it effectively, the classic example being Stoker’s “Dracula,” do so by ensuring the clarity of temporal and thematic links between individual “sources.”
The intolerably pretentious scope of Prose’s ambitions especially aggravate this structural weakness. In addition to the stereotypical exploration of gender issues one would expect from a book about a transvestite written for a middle-brow bourgeois audience, she claims to write truths about human nature. In her introduction, Prose states, “I started off writing about a woman in a tuxedo and wound up writing about art, love, evil, money, auto racing, espionage, insomnia, seduction, and betrayal—and the way that history changes, depending on who tells it.” In one place in the book proper, one of Villars’s/Morris’s biographers states, “Without claiming too much for my little book, I will only say that I have tried to make my humble contribution to the literature of the mystery of evil.” This sentence is without the clear context that would cast this as irony; the reader is led to believe that Prose takes the claim seriously and at face-value, that her character is actually saying something profound—an inexcusable bit of embedded self-flattery. As are shallow appeals to cultural and moral relativism: in her introduction, Prose states that “each person has his or her version of the truth in the bright and glorious days of Paris in the ’20s, the theatrical spectacle and intrigue of Berlin in the ’30s, and the darker era that began when those two worlds came together.”
This sort of silliness might be forgivable if Prose could summon up a style that would rise to the standard set by her name. Unfortunately, the overwrought oozing that is the signature of the popular fiction of this era, and which will certainly earn this literary generation a reputation for the rankest sort of decadence in the eyes of posterity, permeates practically every sentence of the book. One of Villars’s/Morris’s biographers, after reading about her betrayal of France to the Nazis, describes her reaction in true soap-opera fashion: “I shivered, just as I used to in my great-aunt’s apartment. The chill lowered my defenses, and I caught a fever. A fever to understand. And so was planted the mutant seed that has grown into [the biography] ‘The Devil Drives,’ my message in a bottle.” The reader will note that, like most of the book, these lines become infinitely more bearable when read in the voice of Christopher Walken, which is a special sort of indictment.
In short, “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932” is memorable only as an exemplar of the particular aesthetic badness that plagues so many novels produced today, even by decorated and commercially successful writers. In spite of her awards and the comic coincidence of her name, Prose cannot progress beyond the blandeur in which she becomes entrapped.
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