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

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Intrigued by a photograph of a lesbian couple in a nightclub by Hungarian-born French photographer Brassaï, Francine Prose investigated further and found a blockbuster story. She considered writing it as nonfiction, but chose instead to use it as the basis for a novel.

Like the tuxedo-clad Violette Morris in Brassaï’s photograph, Lou Villars is an Olympic-bound athlete and a race car driver in 1920s Paris. She’s also an habitué of the fictional Chameleon Club, a gaudy, anything-goes nightclub. As the next war looms, she is recruited to spy for Nazi Germany and goes on to become famous for rooting out and torturing members of the Resistance.

I felt immediately at home in the milieu of this book, which was a bit puzzling because I’ve never been to Paris, much less seen its streetlights gleaming on rainwet streets or enjoyed the burlesque shows—onstage and off—of its nightclubs. Then I realised my familiarity came from my obsessive reading forty-five years ago of Anais Nin’s diaries and novels, as well as books about Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney, and their circle. I also spent some time a few years ago studying poet Hope Mirrlees, particularly her spectacular 1920 poem “Paris”.

Villars’s story is told by multiple narrators. There are letters to his parents from Gabor Tsenyi, a Hungarian photographer like Brassaï. We have memoirs from Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne, his wealthy patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol, and his best friend, the American writer Lionel Maine, seemly based on Henry Miller with his preoccupation with drinking and womanising. Finally, and providing much of the structure of the story, there are excerpts from a self-published biography of Villars by Nathalie Dunois, a relative of Tsenyi’s lover Suzanne.

Interestingly, we never hear directly from Lou herself, raising questions of identity and historicity. Given that we only learn about her through others, whose own reliability is dubious, we cannot help but consider the fallibility of memory and self-interested testimony. As readers, we are left to judge for ourselves how much to trust each of these sources.

I struggled with the first part of the book, as I tried to sort out the narrators, get a handle on the large cast of characters, and figure out where and in whom the story lay. I abandoned it for a while, but am glad I came back because it picked up about two-thirds of the way through. And I think the multiple narrators lift this book above the ordinary.

What fascinates me most in this story is the trajectory between good and evil. If we were only presented with Lou Villars in her later incarnation as traitor and torturer, we would think her a monster. But here we start with her as a child, devoted to her mentally ill brother. I don’t know who said it first, but a now-common piece of advice for writers is that even the villain thinks he is the hero of his story. What this means is that if we are to present them as fully realised characters, we must dig deep into our villain and try to understand why he or she thinks what they are doing is right.

In my recent review of Julian Barnes’s novel about Shostakovich’s life under Stalin, I said that these days I am absorbed by the question of how to live a good life, how to negotiate the inevitable choices and compromises we face. I think often of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where the two courtiers wonder if there was a moment where they could have chosen differently and, if so, how could they have missed it? Is it ever too late to go back and choose differently?

Through her melange of voices, Prose helps us understand Villars’s choices and compromises. It is a story that never grows old for me. As the world seems more and more to be taken over by dishonest and greedy people who laugh at the harm they inflict on others, I look to stories such as this to help me understand how a good person turns to evil.

Have you read a novel with multiple narrators? What did you think of it?

Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War

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This new anthology comes in the middle of the centennial of the Great War, later called World War I. Usually when we think of centennials we think of celebrations, but this occasion is one for remembrance, with all the mixed emotions memory evokes.

I have written before about the reasons for my intense interest in this war. Poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon took me beyond the dry facts of schoolroom history. My fascination grew as I began to realise just how much those few years changed Western culture and influenced all that has happened since.

These stories all take place, at least in part, on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, when the war ended, not in victory or defeat so much as in exhaustion. They are love stories: romantic love, love between parent and child, love of a native or adopted country. They express on a personal level what that day meant.

The authors—Jessica Brockmole, Hazel Gaynor, Evangeline Holland, Marci Jefferson, Kate Kerrigan, Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, Beatriz Williams, and Lauren Willig—come to that day in different ways. Some stay firmly in that day while others start before or after. Stories are set in Paris, Brussels, Kenya, Dublin, the English village of Brimsworth, even Pelahatchie, Mississippi.

All are haunted by loss. The indescribable losses of those years, falling on a population accustomed to peace and plenty, left everyone terrified whenever the postman stopped at their door, as Hazel Gaynor describes in her story “Hush”. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British forces experienced 57,470 casualties, 19,240 of whom died. French and German forces also suffered huge numbers of casualties.

Yet even with the omnipresent losses, these are stories of unexpected connection. Evangeline Holland’s narrator in “After You’ve Gone”, Morven, is a woman of color from Scotland, without money or friends in Paris when she meets a man who has a surprising link with her past. In Kate Kerrigan’s “The Photograph” set in the present day, Bridie learns something new about her beloved great-aunt that helps her find a way forward in her current troubles. In “Hour of the Bells” Heather Webb’s heroine, Beatrix, the native German widow of a French clockmaker-turned-soldier, undertakes a journey out of despair that leads to surprising encounters.

If there is consolation to be found in contemplating these cruelly hard times, it is this: that in the midst of death, we are alive. Even in our great grief, we can be touched and at least a little healed by love.

What stories of World War I have you read?

The Opposing Shore, by Julien Gracq

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There’s an ongoing debate among book folks about literary versus genre fiction. Some people complain that literary fiction indulges a love of language at the expense of plot, leading to boring tomes with beautiful sentences and striking imagery but where nothing happens. Others complain that genre fiction is mindless entertainment, bound by strict genre rules, with little intelligent content.

Still others—people like me—really only want stories. Lists of books I’ve loved inevitably include both literary and genre fiction. I’ve loved books from most genres, primarily mystery, science fiction and fantasy. And I’ve loved plenty of literary novels, yes, even Henry James and William Faulkner with their sentences that go on forever.

My favorite books are set apart by their absorbing stories. What makes a story absorbing? As you can probably guess, the answer touches the basic elements of fiction: complex characters, good plot structure, a pleasing facility with language, and a well-integrated theme. I’ll abandon literary novels with gorgeous language but no plot just as fast as a genre novel with one-dimensional characters.

But there are exceptions.

Oh, there is a plot in Gracq’s award-winning novel. Aldo, scion of an elite family lives a life of heedless pleasure in the capital of the mythical island nation of Orsenna. The ancient culture has grown stale and tired, silted up with now-empty rituals. The aristocrats who run the nation are just going through the motions that previous generations have formalised. Years of peace and plenty mean that only the elderly attain posts in the government, leaving young people little to do once they finish school.

Aldo’s hedonistic lifestyle is interrupted by a call to do his military service. He is sent to the ancient outpost of Syrtes as an observer. He finds a rundown naval base where the handful of officers spend their days hunting and the soldiers are rented out to nearby farmers. Although Syrtes is the first defense against Farghestan, the country on the mainland with whom Orsenna has been at war for three hundred years, the war has been dormant for so long that it seems only a rumor from the past.

Plunged into this damp miasma of empty days where everyone goes through the ancient rituals without believing that they are needed anymore, Aldo catches glimpses of ancient glory. And, as the observer, he begins to hear whispers. Strange encounters start to build a sense of impending action, action that calls to the young Aldo, whose impatience to do something, anything, is growing.

Marino, who commands the base, tells him, “‘Like you, I used to think something extraordinary had to happen to me. I believed it was my fate. You’ll grow old, just as I have, Aldo, and you’ll understand. Extraordinary things don’t happen. Nothing happens.’”

It’s an unusual and intriguing theme: transgression, even destruction, as a way of breaking out of stasis, a way to finally feel alive and that your life has meaning.

I should have been dismayed by how slowly this story, told through Aldo’s consciousness, develops. The inertia confining him and his culture is reflected in the story’s pace. It only begins to disperse further in. Yet far from being bored, I was captivated. Why? Because of the language.

Gracq’s sentences are packed with fresh and startling images that made me gasp with recognition and pleasure. The sometimes dense paragraphs reward close attention by vividly bringing to life not just the physical environment, but the feel of the place, as well as the twists and turns of Aldo’s thoughts and emotions and understanding. I felt that I lived this story, with an intensity I’ve rarely experienced.

Although published in 1986, the story has much to say to our current Western culture, where entertainment has pushed aside information in much of our media, as well as in other present-day cultures where young people are pushing aside the shell of the past and struggling to remake their worlds, for better or worse.

What book are you ending the year with?