Dangerous moments: An interview with Francine Prose

By Ari Braverman

I was late telephoning Francine Prose. Thrilled by (and not a little nervous about) our impending conversation, I forgot that New York operates one full hour ahead of New Orleans. Thus I returned home from the store to a missed call from a 212 area code. Francine Prose had called—and left a message! I was mortified as I dialed her number. But, even after a crazy spring of interviews and reviews, she sounded genuinely glad to hear from me. As we talked about her new book, Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, I was struck time and again by the range of her grace and empathy, characteristics that inform every facet of her work.

The book, inspired by a real-life photograph of Violette Morris—an accomplished French athlete turned Nazi collaborator—is a multilayered portrait of Paris before and during the Occupation. Each of the book’s many narrators has a different perspective on what happened to Lou Villars (Prose’s fictional Morris), how and why she becomes the brutal figure she does. Ultimately, Lovers at the Chameleon Club is an excursion through the middle territory between history and remembrance, good and evil, love and betrayal, and a reminder of the importance of art in history’s dangerous moments.

Room 220 will host Prose to celebrate the launch of her new novel with a Happy Hour Salon from 6 – 9 p.m. on Monday, May 19, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.). Prose will be joined by local author Michael Jeffrey Lee, whose book of short stories, Something in My Eye, she selected for the 2010 Mary McCarthy Prize in Fiction.

Room 220: Tell me about your initial reaction to the photograph that started it all, “Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, 1932” by Brassai.

Francine Prose: I’m a huge fan of Brassai’s and I know his work—I have about five of his broadside books, so I’ve known the photograph for a long time. It’s very beautiful. But it was only when I found out in the wall text at a museum show that the woman in the tuxedo had worked for the Gestapo that I became even more interested, because I knew nothing about the people in the photograph. When I did some research, I found out she had led this very complicated life. She had, in fact, been a spy and a professional athlete, and she was assassinated by the French resistance. That’s really where the book started.

That club, which I called the Chameleon Club, really existed. It was called Le Monocle, and there are all these Brassai photos of it. Recently, I was reading a biography about Jane Bowles, and she went there in the 50s. It was still around! That was amazing to me.

“Lesbian couple at Le Monocle, 1932” by Brassai, featuring Violette Morris (right), the athlete-turned-Nazi-collaborator who inspired Prose’s book

Rm220: What was it about Violette Morris—someone who’s not necessarily a huge historical figure but who does exist in history—that drew you to her?

FP: Partly it was just her story, but there’s also something about the photograph, something about her, that gives off the aura of something disturbing. I can’t describe it any more than that. And the longer you look at it, the more her lover looks to be in some sort of drug haze. At first she just seems to be a pretty girl, but if you look a little closer, there’s more than that going on. There’s a lot about the photo that not only draws you in, but sets you on edge. And I think it’s meant to.

Rm220: There’s something grotesque about it.

FP: I mean, Morris’ ring, her fashion choices. She’s not just your normal cross-dresser. There’s something else going on there.

Rm220: Is this the first piece you’ve written that’s relied so heavily on looking at photographs?

FP: I’ve written a lot about photography. I’ve written a lot of catalogue essays for photography books. I wrote a long piece about Diane Arbus. I’m very interested in photography. I look at it all the time and I write about it quite a lot, but typically nonfiction. The thing about photography, everybody knows, is that it just captures a moment. With writing, you need to expand that moment to do anything with it.

I looked at the Brassai books over and over and over, but I used films, too. There are a lot of film clips on YouTube from that time that you can see that really helped. Images are like portals. They help you imagine your way back into that time. Little kids, when they look at a picture, imagine they can get inside it—at least I can remember imagining that. In a way, writing provides some of that, too. You look at the picture and suddenly you’re in the picture. That’s sort of what this process was like.

Rm220: There are many different narrators in this piece, so the story doesn’t progress along a typical narrative track. Did you find that writing about a photograph lent itself to writing the book as constellation of perspectives, as opposed to a linear structure?

FP: It wasn’t planned. When I realized the book wasn’t going to be nonfiction, I had to find another way to do it. I started with what’s at the beginning of the novel, the photographer writing home to his parents in Hungary—Brassai wrote many letters that were like the ones in my novel. I realized that for obvious reasons he couldn’t tell the whole story, that in fact there was no one who could tell the whole story, because each person only knew a part of it. The minute that happened I realized I needed to use a number of different narrators. The question, then, had to do with how I was going to do their voices. Again, it wasn’t planned, but it wound up that except for Yvonne the nightclub owner, all the narratives come from written documents of a certain kind. There’s the Henry Miller character, the two women who are writing their opposing memoirs. There are a lot of books that have multiple narrators, but I couldn’t think of another novel in which the narrators are all writing something, so I was kind of on my own.

Writing that way made the process a great deal easier. The “biographer” of Lou, for example, isn’t the greatest writer in the world. She has these lapses into writing quite badly. So far, I’ve been really fortunate—the novel has gotten a lot of really wonderful, intelligent reviews. But the few that have been not so intelligent don’t seem to notice that I wrote those sections that way on purpose. It’s not that I didn’t know that Natalie, Lou’s biographer in the novel, was given to hyperbole and purple writing. I meant to do that! I meant it to be a bogus biography written by a neurotic who can’t seem to stop talking about herself.

Rm220: Writing memoir-as-history seems to be very popular right now. What do you think about that? Your book trades on some of those tropes but is very clearly a work of fiction.

FP: Many of those books are works of fiction and don’t declare themselves works of fiction. There have always been books like that. The book I drew on a lot was this awful French “biography” of Violette Morris that was written, I think, in the 70s. The biographer didn’t bother telling you what was true and what was invented. I was thinking about all the biographies that tell you what the character was thinking when the biographer could have had no way of knowing. But more than that, there’s so much bad writing in these books. I was very conscious of that, too. I didn’t want to do too much of it because it’s off-putting, but I wanted it to be clear that I was introducing an element of parody.

Rm220: Your characters make a lot of social commentary, particularly about Paris’ climate of economic depression and fear of immigration. Was that an intentional correlation to our current cultural climate?

FP: Yes. While researching the book, I read all these books about Paris between the wars. I found this paragraph listing all these problems: fear of immigration, heavy taxation, fear that you can’t raise your kids to lead a better life that you did, economic problems, and so on. I read it to my friend over the phone and she asked, “Is that about the present moment?” I said, “No. Actually, it’s about the 30s in Paris.” Which is very scary to me, because similar things could have been written about Germany in the 20s and 30s. I thought a lot about the rise of fascism, what leads people to be vulnerable to totalitarianism. It’s a novel, not a historical book, but all those things were in my mind as I was writing. There’s no moment in history that’s not a dangerous moment.

Rm220: As I was reading the book, I had a strange feeling that was like, “God, I hope this novel isn’t prophetic!” And then I had to dial myself back because this is a book about things that have already happened!

FP: I had the same feeling myself. Absolutely.

Rm220: How did you deal with writing about queer identities in a text that’s contemporary but also set in the 1930s?

FP: The one thing I really don’t want to be misunderstood—although there have been some slight indications that it’s not clear enough—is that Lou’s cross-dressing and gender identity are not causative factors in her becoming a fascist. She was denied the ability to be the person she actually wanted to be. The only things she wants, which are to be loved and to be an athlete, are taken away from her. Then she goes someplace where, after being treated horribly, she’s treated like a star. Regardless of one’s sexual orientation, that’s very seductive. Resentment makes people vulnerable to totalitarianism. The Germans, for example, were told they had been stabbed in the back.

Rm220: Has there been any criticism of making the “villain” of the book a homosexual person?

FP: No, but I’m sort of nervous about it. My German editor said, oddly, that he wasn’t concerned about the reaction of the German readership to the book but that he was concerned about the reaction of the gay community in Germany to the book. I said, “Really?!” The thing is, as we all know, sexual preference and one’s moral nature are not connected. Within the gay community, the straight community, this community, that community, the range of saintly to demonic is the same. Just because you’re one way or another doesn’t give you a leg up on morality, one way or the other.

Also, the book has been described as talking about a period of decadence, but I don’t myself particularly see cross-dressing as decadent. I was confused about what that means. I just see Lou as a figure who was born at the wrong time.

Rm220: Speaking of the timeframe, I wanted to know about your decision to end the book in the 2000s, particularly with a video still of that hand from Carrie.

FP: People like Lou or like Hitler—you think they’re safely under the ground and then they just pop up again. We can’t rid ourselves of that. Somehow it seems to be part of the species. Just when you think it’s over, it turns out not to be over. I wanted to bring it into the present because, unfortunately, it exists in the present. Carrie, if you look at her story, is just a normal girl—except that she has some telekinetic powers—who’s tormented until she becomes a mass murderer. It’s a story that just keeps happening.