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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.


Two Frenchmen Jailed for Brutal Assault on Gay Man

Debruijn

This photo of Wilfred de Bruijn's bloodied face made international headlines in 2013 after he was assaulted while walking arm-in-arm with his boyfriend in Paris.

The two men who attacked him were finally jailed, Dutch News reports:

Two Frenchmen were sentenced to 2.5 years in jail, with 12 and 18 months suspended, in Paris on Tuesday for beating up a gay Dutch man.

Wilfred de Bruijn, who lives in the French capital city, was walking home with his friend one evening in April last year when the two Frenchmen jumped him. During the attack, which made international headlines, De Bruijn was kicked in the face, suffering a broken tooth and cracks in his jaw and skull.

A man who witnessed the attack but did not help the Dutchman was given a six-month suspended jail sentence.


Anti-Gay French Protestors Take Over Student Led Protest Against Sexism - VIDEO

Francesucks

Protestors from France’s anti-gay group Manif Pour Tous hijacked a student-led protest against sexism in the western town of Nantes this week.

The protest originally sought to show male support for gender equality, but Manif Pour Tous — a group that used violent rhetoric in opposing French marriage equality — used the protest as a way to highlight their own opposition to a number of gender equality measures recently passed in France, suggesting that the real goal of gender equality class lessons is to covert Socialist plot to teach children to become gay and transgender:

The notion that gender is socially constructed is a bugbear of France's anti-gay marriage movement, which has called for "the withdrawal of the concept of gender theory from all school manuals, decrees and draft laws”…

Vincent Peillon, the education minister, said the suggestion that "we teach little boys how to become little girls" was a "totally false rumour", adding: "Don't worry, this is about education on equality between girls and boys, respect between girls and boys, that's all."

… The controversy (over gender equity lessons in schools) erupted as France's parliament approved a sweeping gender equality law, whose measures include extending paternity leave in France to six months, increasing fines for failure to reach parity in politics and business and banning "mini-Miss" beauty pageants for under 13-year-olds.

France’s new gender equality laws include penalties for those who try to prevent female access to aborition information, banning companies with male-dominated boardrooms from bidding on public contracts and fining political parties and other political organizations for failing to nominate or appoint equal numbers of female candidates.

The student protests still went off without much incident. Earlier in the school year, France’s far-right and anti-gay organizations encouraged thousands of parents to keep their kids home from school to protest the gender equality lessons.

Watch video of the protests AFTER THE JUMP...

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Homophobic Attacks In France Up 78 Percent In 2013

Gayattacksfrance

SOS Homophobie has released a set of data regarding rising incidents of homophobic acts in France in 2013, including verbal, physical, and online assaults/bullying. The disturbing data, including a statistic that "reported acts of homophobia in France rose by 78 percent," can be correlated with intense vitriolic sentiments surrounding the legalization of same-sex marriage nearly a year ago. 

The Local reports:

“In the last twenty years the number of reports of incidents [of homophobia] received by our association have not stopped growing, but in 2013 they exploded,” the group's report read.

According to the watchdog the huge surge in the number of homophobic incidents was without doubt linked to the bitter row over the legalisation of gay marriage, which divided France and led to mass demonstrations that frequently ended in violent clashes between police and extremists.

LGBTQ people in France were no doubt pleased with the progressive legislation, but it did not come without a cost.

“There’s no doubt the rise in homophobic acts was linked to the context of the opposition against gay marriage,” Gregory Premon, from SOS Homophobie told The Local on Tuesday. “Homophobic words and statements became trivialised during this period and helped legitimize insults and homophobic violence.

“In recent months homophobic speech has become totally uninhibited in all spheres of society,” the organisation added in a statement.

The organization noted a marked rise in homophobic incidents online and at schools, two arenas that are largely populated by LGBTQ youth, as well as the prevalence of physically-harmful attacks. Last April alone, a Parisian couple (one person of which can be seen above left)and a young gay man in Nice (above right) were violently beaten. 

Let's hope this disturbing trend comes to an end in 2014, aided by an increase in knowledge about and action against these homophobic incidents.


French Lesbian Abducted By Fundamentalist Anti-Gay Family

Strasbourg to Vieuzos

An unnamed 22-year-old woman fled her devout Muslim family in Strasbourg, France to live with a friend in Vieuzos in order to escape the constant persecution and abuse by said family for being a lesbian and attempts to force her into an arranged marriage. However, her family was unwilling to let her go, so her mother, father, two uncles, brother-in-law and brother - who was armed - tracked her down across the country to try to drag her back home.

During the abduction the woman's friend called the police, and her family was apprehended that night in Toulouse. Four of the relatives are in custody, while another two are free and under judicial supervision. Prosecutor Jean-Christophe Muller says that the case is complicated, but took place in a "backdrop of homophobia and anti-feminism."


Moving Google+ Marriage Equality Ad Wins International Webby Award - VIDEO

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Almost a year ago, Google+, in participation with the same-sex marriage organization "Tous Unis Pour L'Egalite" (or “Together for equality”), released a web ad showing same-sex French couples finallying marry using the organization’s help in tandem with Google’s video-chatting system, Google Hangouts.

That powerful advertisement just won a 2014 Webby Award, an international award honoring excellence on the Internet:

“...presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences (IADAS) — a 1,000+ member judging body that includes Executive Members comprised of leading Web experts, business figures, luminaries, visionaries and creative celebrities, and Associate Members who are former Webby Award Winners and Nominees and other Internet professionals.”

The IADAS judging board also includes glass-closeted celeb Kevin Spacey, “closet heterosexual” musician David Bowie and pro-gay media empress Arianna Huffington.

If you haven’t seen the ad, watch it. One of the excellent point one of the newlywed spouses makes is, “In these debates we talk a lot about Equality. We talk a lot about Liberty, but not enough about Brotherhood.”

Watch the ad AFTER THE JUMP...

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