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Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers At The Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

LoversClub hc cIn Brassaï’s famous photograph, Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932, two women sit together at a shabby café table in Paris. One wears a dress, its thin strap twisted on her bare shoulder; the other, her hair in a short, masculine cut, is in a suit and tie, the collar of her shirt in disarray. They lean into each other and stare, seemingly engrossed, at something outside the frame, the fingers of the suited woman resting on her companion’s elbow.

Francine Prose’s engrossing, virtuosic new novel uses a fictional version of Brassaï’s photograph to create a moving narrative of a group of friends and associates over two decades, as Paris devolves from the 1920s bohemian paradise of expatriate artists to the nightmare of rising fascism and Nazi occupation.

In Prose’s version, the suited woman of the photograph is Lou Villars, a desperately unhappy former athlete who will become, thanks to the people she meets over the course of the novel, a nightclub performer, a racecar driver, a Nazi spy, a torturer. More than anything, she will be a tool, forever shaping herself to what she thinks are others’ wishes, manipulated in ways she never fully sees.

Prose tells her story through a cast of revolving narrators, each of them connected somehow to that photograph: Gabor Tsenyi, the photographer who staged it; Lily de Rossignol, his patroness; Lionel Maine, an American novelist and his best friend; Suzanne Dunois, who will become Gabor’s wife; and Yvonne, who owns the club where they all meet.

That club—the Chameleon Club of the title, named after the lizards Yvonne keeps as pets—serves as a barometer for political tensions in France. When we first see it, it’s a place of remarkable tolerance, where men dress as women and women as men, where names are assumed and cast away, where sex and nationality are often uncertain; it’s a place that calls into question the whole idea of fixed identity. Lily marvels at the performers Yvonne hires: “The beauty and style of those dancers! Watching them, I’d ponder what it meant, really meant, to be a man or a woman. Is it our clothes, our sexual parts, our bodies and brains and souls?”

Lou finds herself among those performers, after fleeing an abusive coach and, more importantly, a world that won’t let her live as she wishes. She’s one of the “strays” that Yvonne takes in, lost men and women “who found their way to the club after hearing that it was a refuge where you would be taken in and not asked any questions.” For a time she seems happy, falling in love with a fellow performer, Arlette, the first of several women who will break her heart.

Soon, however, the songs that Lou and Arlette perform take on a darker cast, bringing the audience to laughter with jokes about impotent immigrants and bumbling Jews. Yvonne and her dancers are harassed by the police. Lou becomes a target of the proto-Fascist police chief Clovis Chanac, Arlette’s new beau, who is humiliated that his girlfriend once took Lou as her lover. The revenge Chanac takes—not least for the already famous, unerasable photograph Gabor took of Lou and the woman Chanac claims for his own—becomes part of the chain of indignities and resentments that will transform Lou from a Joan of Arc-worshipping nationalist to a traitor.

This ambitious novel paints a wide canvas, and doesn’t shy away from the familiar figures and events of the Second World War—there’s even a wonderful scene, at once chilling and ridiculous, with Hitler himself, who infects Lou with his crazed messianic fervor. But the real achievement of the book is that the intimate dramas of its characters’ lives remain our chief concern, the medium through which we understand the horrors of war.

Francine-proseThe book presents those dramas through a shifting set of documents in the characters’ voices—letters, excerpts from memoirs and novels, newspaper articles—that often allow us to see the same event through multiple narrators’ eyes. What might seem like a gimmick is instead consistently exciting, and offers the reader a fuller perspective on the complexity of events than any of the individual characters can have. At the same time, though, because there is no authoritative narrative voice—no third-person stand-in for the author—we’re left finally in a morally compelling state of uncertainty.

That uncertainty is most intense concerning the only character who doesn’t get to speak in her own voice. Lou’s story is told by a second-rate, present-day biographer, whose account is called radically into question by the novel’s end. This is a canny move on Prose’s part, since it allows her to put forth various theories about Lou’s descent into what can only be called evil—her early family life, her disappointments in love, her public humiliations—while also insisting that such a descent finally escapes explanation. 

Denying us direct access to Lou only makes her a more powerful presence in the narrative, while also ensuring that our primary attention and compassion remains with those who, bravely and foolishly, in ways insignificant or profound, stand against the tide of inhumanity by which she is swept up. Prose is among our most distinguished writers, and this may be her finest book. It’s rare to find a novel that is at once so entertaining, so smart, and so serious in its moral scope.

Previous reviews...
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Lambda Literary Awards Handed Out for Best LGBT Books

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The 26th annual Lambda Literary Awards were handed out last night at Cooper Union College in NYC. The Lammys, which recognize LGBT books, were in 25 categories and are awarded by the Lambda Literary Foundation.

For the first time this year, an award was handed out in the category of LGBT Graphic Novel.

The winner in that category, and all the others, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Lambda Literary Awards Handed Out for Best LGBT Books" »


Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost And Found In Johannesburg’: A Memoir: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Mark Gevisser’s extraordinary new book takes on several projects at once: It’s a memoir of his own and his family’s history; an exploration of the geography of Johannesburg, both human and natural; and an ambitious portrait of LGBT South Africans of all races both during and after the apartheid era. It's also the most exciting book of nonfiction I've read in a very long time. 

Gevisser-lost-and-foundIt begins with a childhood game. In the 1970s, whiling away the hours of a privileged childhood, Gevisser would choose a name at random from the Johannesburg Telephone Directory, and then use his parents’ street atlas to plot a route from his home to the stranger’s address. But when he happened upon an African name in the directory, Gevisser found that his atlas provided no route between their neighborhoods, no way to plot a course from his bucolic suburb to the townships “where the black people who worked for us would go to church or to visit family on their days off.”

And so Gevisser’s game became a kind of political education, giving rise to a lifelong fascination with borders—how they are constituted and how they are crossed. What’s most powerful in this very powerful book are the leaps it makes across its own boundaries, the connections Gevisser makes between his different projects of memoir and reportage. He finds “links between my own sense of alienation because of an illicit sexuality and the subordinate position of the majority of my compatriots,” and he tracks these connections through his personal history and the history and geography of his city.

As he pores over old maps, newspapers, and photographs, Gevisser realizes that “apartheid was embedded in the development of Johannesburg from the very start.” The very topography of the city—marked by hills formed by gold mining and sinkholes where the honeycombed terrain caves in—inscribes a social structure in which the subterranean many work for the obscene benefit of the few. In its carefully enforced boundaries, Johannesburg was “a world…defined by what it had been walled against, dammed against: I was safe in direct relation to the insecurity of those outside.”

Much of Gevisser’s work as a journalist has focused on collecting the stories of LGBT people in South Africa, and he finds that it was often in queer communities that the lines so carefully policed in the larger society were crossed. White gay men hosted parties in their homes where men of all colors could congregate past curfew; at a beach popular among gay men, “white and colored or Malay men cruised across the color bar.” Hillbrow, a gay area, became “Johannesburg’s first deracialized neighborhood in the 1980s.”

But Gevisser is careful not to romanticize this history: many gay whites fled Hillbrow once blacks moved in, and he makes clear how privilege, including protections for LGBT people, continues to be distributed with wild inequity. “You can rape me, rob me, what am I going to do when you attack me? Wave the Constitution in your face?” one black drag queen says to him in a moving passage about LGBT protections written into the South African constitution. “I’m just a nobody black queen.” But even in this case things are more complicated still: “She paused,” Gevisser goes on, “and then her face lost its mask of bravado and bitterness. ‘But you know what? Ever since I heard about that Constitution, I feel free inside.’”

Gevisser doesn’t minimize the risks LGBT people still face in South Africa, especially the many LGBT immigrants who flee their own countries in hope of greater freedom. Instead, they find both that they are denied the protections offered to LGBT citizens, and that in addition to homophobia they face growing hatred of immigrants.

Mark-GevisserIf the crossing of borders is often a liberating, even exhilarating prospect in these pages, it is also fraught with danger. Shortly before finishing this book, while he was visiting friends, Gevisser was the victim of a brutal, terrifying home invasion. This experience, which he alludes to in the book’s first pages, hovers over everything he recounts. He is typically complex as he narrates it, terrified and enraged but also unwilling to dehumanize his assailants. “These were well-brought-up boys, once, before they became monsters, emasculated by poverty, by unemployment, by the culture of entitlement, by the AIDS epidemic, by the degradation of traditional life and the failure of urbanism to provide any sane alternative.”

Gevisser’s account of the remarkably varied shapes LGBT lives take in South Africa finally focuses less on the hardships they face than on the remarkable ways they manage, despite those hardships, to find whatever joy they can. It’s impossible to do justice either to the scope of Gevisser’s book or to my admiration of it in a short review. It accomplishes what I take to be the work of serious literature: it leaves me with a greater sense of marvel and compassion for the lives of others, a richer and more complex understanding of the world.

Previous reviews...
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Lessons from the Jo Becker Gay Marriage Book, Part 1: Driving Rosa Parks

BY LISA KEEN

Now that the great public gnashing of teeth has subsided over New York Times reporter Jo Becker’s history of the Proposition 8 litigation, Forcing the Spring, there’s an opportunity to chew on some of the book’s useful disclosures.

Parks_griffinFor all the consternation it has caused, Becker’s trespass in portraying American Foundation for Equal Rights founder Chad Griffin as the Rosa Parks in the fight for marriage equality is not much worse than all the many times newspapers, magazines, and even knowledgeable people in the LGBT community have casually pronounced Stonewall as the start of the gay civil rights movement and rioting drag queens as the pioneers. The movement started decades earlier, and its pioneers were people who pushed back against discrimination in many different ways.

It also appears that Becker’s idea for dubbing Griffin, now president of the Human Rights Campaign, as a Rosa Parks type hero came from a National Archives development official. On page 381 of Forcing the Spring, Becker recounts how Jesika Jennings was showing Griffin and the plaintiffs around the Archives’ “Courting Freedom” exhibit. According to the Archives website, the exhibit “explores the evolution of American civil liberties with highlights from the evidence and judgments in important court cases, including documentation from the police report on the arrest of Rosa Parks.” While showing the group through that room, wrote Becker, Jennings told the plaintiffs that she was honored to show them around and that their own records “will be here in twenty to twenty-five years.”

“It’s like having the opportunity to give Rosa Parks a tour of the Declaration and the Constitution,” Jennings said, according to Becker. And Jennings, who now works elsewhere, confirmed the Rosa Parks quote as “quite accurate.”

SmithIt’s also worth noting that much-respected gay legal activist Paul Smith (right) called the Proposition 8 litigation “hugely significant,” according to a quote on page 387. Smith is the attorney who successfully argued the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down sodomy laws in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case. He was also, according to what Olson told Becker, the first co-counsel Olson sought to work with on the Prop 8 case, but Smith turned him down. According to Becker’s account, which she said she got from an interview with Smith, Smith had “entertained the idea of bringing a federal challenge to same-sex marriage bans” in the wake of his 2003 victory in Lawrence. He had just joined the board of Lambda Legal when Olson approached him about filing such a challenge in 2009. But Smith declined, telling Olson that he decided against filing a challenge to the marriage bans “after talking to a number of former Supreme Court clerks.” The clerks had convinced Smith that it would not be easy to win Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote to strike down state laws banning marriage for same-sex couples.

SullivanBecker said Olson “considered” asking another respected openly gay attorney for his co-counsel: Kathleen Sullivan. Sullivan had been co-counsel on one of LGBT legal history’s biggest losses: Bowers v. Hardwick. That 1986 decision at the Supreme Court, upholding the right of states to prohibit private sexual relations between people of the same sex, was used to the detriment of gays for years, by courts far and wide on a range of issues –from employment, military, adoption, and custody of one’s own biological child. It essentially labeled all gays as law-breakers and, in some states, as felons. And the hostility and disregard for gay people in the language of the Hardwick decision affected public discourse for years to come.

Olson never asked Sullivan, concluding that, because her name was mentioned in the press as a potential nominee for President Obama to name to the Supreme Court, it wasn’t a good idea.

“If she joined the [Olson] team and then was nominated and confirmed,” wrote Becker of Olson’s thinking, “she would have to recuse herself in the event the case reached the Supreme Court, which would make the odds of winning much steeper.” (Left unsaid was what working on the Prop 8 legal team might have done to Sullivan’s chances of being nominated.)

Becker also famously paints a dramatic scene in which two well-respected legal activists from Lambda Legal and two of their allies from the ACLU storm out of a meeting early on with Griffin, several of his associates, and attorney Ted Boutrous from the Olson team. Becker wasn’t at that meeting, which took place on May 14, 2009. It was a meeting at which Griffin and his team were reportedly trying to seek support for their lawsuit from the LGBT legal establishment groups.

This was eight days before Olson’s team filed the lawsuit and arguably not the best time to make a sincere solicitation of input from lawyers who have been in the trenches representing the LGBT community’s legal rights for decades. It may have felt a little like, “Rosa Parks, we’re taking over this bus and driving all the way to the Supreme Court!” LGBT legal activists knew they were heading to the Supreme Court over marriage equality eventually, but they had been working meticulously on building the correct vehicle for the journey to maximize their chances for victory and avoid another Hardwick setback.

According to Becker’s account of the meeting where the AFER-Olson lawsuit was unveiled to LGBT legal groups, Hollywood producer Rob Reiner, who hosted the meeting at his home and was helping raise the money to fund the litigation, gave the four invited attorneys a synopsis of the plan, and Olson colleague Boutrous noted, “Someone is going to bring a federal marriage lawsuit and you won’t find a better advocate than Ted Olson.”

Next week: The big blow-up revisited: When Hollywood met the LGBT movement’s hired guns.

© 2014 Keen News Service. All rights reserved.


Oxford University Press To Release 672-Page Book On Trans Issues

Following five years of writing and editing, Oxford University Press will release a 672-page book entitled, Trans Bodies, Trans Selves in the middle of May.

TransbodiesTo ensure a wide range of experiences, the book includes contributions from over 200 transgender and/or genderqueer writers from across North America, as well as quotes and findings from an online survey of over 3,000 people.

The book’s description states:

“Each chapter takes the reader through an important transgender issue, such as race, religion, employment, medical and surgical transition, mental health topics, relationships, sexuality, parenthood, arts and culture, and many more.”

The book’s title also pays homage to the 1973 feminist health book Our Bodies, Ourselves which featured women and female health experts discussing women’s health issues to a female audience.

Wendy Sanford, a co-founder of the collective that published Our Bodies, Ourselves, wrote in her afterword of Trans Bodies, Trans Selves:

"a community of people who are the best experts on themselves has come together to create a resource of information, mutual support, and political advocacy that will strengthen many. The revolutionary point is that we can name our gender identity for ourselves and rightfully expect respect and recognition."


Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

On September 14, 1876, as San Francisco suffered under the twin plagues of record-breaking heat and an epidemic of smallpox, a young woman was shot dead through the window of a rented room at a railway station just outside of the city. Her name was Jenny Bonnet, well-known to the police for the crime of wearing men’s clothes, a predilection for which she was arrested numerous times. With her was a 24-year-old French burlesque performer and prostitute, Blanche Beunon.

Frog MusicEmma Donohue’s new novel, her first since her international bestseller, Room, takes these facts as the basis for an historical fiction that is less a mystery—Blanche is convinced through most of the book that she knows who killed her friend—than a portrait of these two characters and, even more successfully, of the time and city in which they live.

Jenny Bonnet is a wonderful creation, seemingly determined to live life on her own terms, with a recklessness that looks very much like freedom. “Jenny’s an odd kind of woman,” Blanche thinks, “part boy, part clown, part animal. An original, accountable to no one, bound by no ties, who cocks her hat as she pleases….” In her self-reliance and refusal to be bound, as well as in her flashes of compassion, she could almost be a fully grown, female Huckleberry Finn.

Blanche, Donohue’s protagonist and our guide through the world of the book, is somewhat less easy to love. She’s famous for her shows at the House of Mirrors, the bordello where she’s known as “The Lively Flea” for a particularly popular routine, and she’s wonderfully unapologetic for her appetite for sex: even if her partner is a paying client, “Men are tools Blanche uses for her satisfaction.” She lives with her lover and pimp, Arthur Deneve, a man whose apparent charm gives way, over the course of the book, to shocking brutality.

Blanche is also a mother, though not a particularly good one. She and Arthur have arranged for their child’s care at what they believe to be a farm outside the city, where the country air will be good for his health; instead, as Blanche discovers to her horror, he has been kept in a terrible, dank home for unwanted children. Blanche’s desire to find her child, and guilt over what she has done—she knows that she was relieved to be free of the burden of an infant, and that she was blithely unconcerned about his fate—are the primary motivations for her actions after Jenny’s death.

Killing off your most appealing character is a remarkable risk for a novelist. But Jenny doesn’t disappear from the book after her murder; instead, the book adopts an odd, occasionally cumbersome strategy, dividing into two interwoven strands. The first follows Blanche through the days immediately following the shooting; the second tells the story of her friendship with Jenny, beginning a month before the opening scene and moving toward what we know to be the friendship’s inevitable end.

The novel becomes enormously poignant as it nears its end, when we see the friendship between Blanche and Jenny blossoming in unexpected ways even as we know Jenny’s death is nearing. And Blanche becomes an ever-more appealing character as we see how she has been changed by that friendship, moving toward a future more open to possibility because of the ways in which Jenny challenged Blanche’s assumptions about her own life. Though Blanche claims to have no talent for friendship, she comes to realize that Jenny “is the friend Blanche has been waiting a quarter of a century for without even knowing it.”

DonoghueFor all its human drama, the real protagonist of Frog Music is the city that enlivens every page. Donoghue’s San Francisco of the 1870s is a rich, vibrant, unpredictable place, equal parts Wild West and cosmopolitan city, full of casinos and saloons and immigrants of all kinds, many of them transient. “As if the City’s just a mouth, swallowing them whole,” Jenny observes, “and the rest of America’s the belly where they end up.” It’s also a place of music, and the book is full of songs, many of them from Blanche’s native France—one meaning of Donoghue’s title—but others distinctly American, whether the minstrel songs of Stephen Foster or Black spirituals.

Donoghue’s San Francisco is finally a frontier town, a place where boundaries are at once starkly drawn and constantly shifting: lines of race, class, gender, sexuality, all are fiercely asserted and yet repeatedly crossed. As we learn more about her past in the book’s final chapters, it’s clear that in Jenny Bonnet, Donoghue has created a thoroughly human embodiment of our impulse to cross all lines.

Previous reviews...
Tatamkhulu Afrika’s ‘Bitter Eden’
Rabih Alameddine’s ‘An Unnecessary Woman’
Edmund White’s ‘Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris’
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in May 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


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