LYNN NEARY, HOST:
Francine Prose's new novel "Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932" was inspired by a picture taken by the famous Hungarian photographer Brassai. It shows a lesbian couple at a club in Paris before World War II. One of the women in the photo is dressed in a tuxedo. Her hair is short and slicked back like a man. She was Violette Morris, an athlete and racecar driver whose career was cut short because she was a cross-dresser.
In the novel, she is Lou Villars, who worked in a nightclub which is a favorite hangout of a photographer known as Gabor. Francine Prose says she wanted to create a fictional version of Violette Morris's life when she learned that she had been a Nazi spy.
FRANCINE PROSE: And then I went and did research and found out the incredible story of her life. I mean, she was an athlete. She was a professional auto racer. And then when the French government took away her license to compete professionally, Hitler somehow found out about this and invited her to be his guest at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. So she'd gone from being this complete, she felt, failure who had been punished by the government for being a cross-dresser to, suddenly, a celebrity in Berlin.
And by the time she came back to Paris, she was not only spying, but she was a torturer for the Gestapo. She was known as the Hyena of the Gestapo. And then she was assassinated by the French Resistance in 1944.
NEARY: And it's so strange that Hitler would somehow be interested in this woman who was a lesbian and a cross-dresser because what we know from history about the Nazis is that they were not very kind at all to gay people.
PROSE: They understood that she had this huge network of connections all over France because, at that time, it was still so unusual for women to participate in athletics. And when she was an auto racer, she would go around all over France and lecture to these groups.
So she knew people all over, particularly women. And she was in an ideal position to tell the Germans where there were new construction projects, where there were movements of troops and military material because women in the groups had husbands, boyfriends, lovers, friends who knew where these things were happening. So Hitler, I think, was willing to overlook his distaste for who she was because of her utility.
NEARY: Well, I'd love for you to read a description of the photo as you describe it in the book. Now of course, this is a work of fiction, but you follow this story pretty closely. And even the description of the photograph in the book is very close to the actual photograph, I think. I wonder if you could read that description on page 153.
PROSE: Sure. And actually, the woman in the Brassai photograph is unidentified, but in the novel, she's known as Arlette.
(Reading) "In the photo, Lou and Arlette are anything but entranced. They've been drinking, but not enough. Motionless, unblinking, they looked like two nervous wrecks who'd been ordered to relax. Maybe they are sorry they agreed to sit for their portrait. Maybe only one of them thought it was a good idea. They're as stiff as newlyweds in a wedding photo, instructed to look brave. To make the best of what they both already know is a disaster."
NEARY: And Lou, of course, is the character based on Violette. We sort of get her perspective on things from this biographer who we later find out is not a particularly reliable narrator. But she kind of presents her as - almost wants the reader to be sympathetic to her at times, it seems.
PROSE: That was another one of the things that drew me to it because it was so difficult. I mean, to take someone who finally became so evil, really, and make her, if not exactly sympathetic, then make her a human being - I mean, a suffering human being. That was the challenge.
And inventing the character of the biographer who's writing Lou's biography was enormously helpful because all my problems with Lou became the biographer's problems. So if I ultimately didn't understand why she did what she did, then that became the biographer's confusion.
NEARY: Well, Lou, of course, is surrounded by people who are more glamorous, more interesting than herself. And it's through them that we really get this glimpse of prewar Paris that is in everybody's fantasy. You use these people to tell the story from different perspectives. Why did you want to use so many voices to tell the story?
PROSE: Because I was writing about the photograph, I knew only that there would be two characters. There would be a photographer and there would be the subject of the photograph. And then, as I began to write, two things happened. One was I realized that there were big chunks of this story that neither of those people would know that I needed other characters to fill in the gaps in the details.
Part of the fun and part of the challenge was the fact that they each have their own different and variant versions of the story. So it became a book as much about the unreliability of history and memory and biography as it was about anything else.
NEARY: And initially, most of these characters meet each other at the Chameleon Club. Tell us a little bit more about the Chameleon Club. What was this place like?
PROSE: Well, it's a cross-dressers' club in Paris that started in the twenties and lasted through the thirties and forties. And it's loosely based on a real club that was called Le Monocle, the monocle.
NEARY: Now you explore a lot of different things in this book - the nature of evil, what it means to be an artist. But you also do a lot of exploration of the nature of gender. And of course, that is through these characters that we meet in the Chameleon Club, you know, what it means to be a woman or to choose not to be the gender you're born into.
PROSE: While I was writing the book, I went to a lot of drag performances and I watched a lot of films and documentaries. And I rewatched that amazing film "Paris is Burning" about the cross-dressing, vogueing dancers. And you know, if I'm talking about the mystery of evil, the mystery of gender is yet another mystery. I mean, what is it that makes us male or female? Or what makes a person like a Lou decide that she was born the wrong gender and wants to be something else?
NEARY: Did you have sympathy for Lou?
PROSE: I had great sympathy for her. Again, a feeling that she was a human being, in no way could I condone what she did. But the amount of suffering that she underwent and the fact that she was so unhappy and so - I mean, she wasn't the brightest person around either. So she was made to feel like a failure.
Her own government treated her badly. And she was taken some place where they treated her very well, and she was made to feel important. And I think that people are very vulnerable in those situations. I mean, when I was writing the book, I read a great deal about the origins of fascism and the beginnings of totalitarianism.
And when you take people who feel a great deal of personal resentment and you add to that poverty and privation, which she underwent, and then you add a demagogue to that, in this case, Hitler, it's a very volatile combination. And people have to be very strong to resist it. And Lou wasn't.
NEARY: Francine Prose. Her latest novel is "Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932." Thanks so much for being with us.
PROSE: Thank you very much.
NEARY: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Rachel Martin returns next week. I'm Lynn Neary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.