Paris Hub




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.


Edmund White’s ‘Inside A Pearl: My Years In Paris’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Reading Edmund White’s fascinating, vital new memoir, which covers the fifteen years he spent in France in the 1980s and 90s, feels a little like attending the world’s most fabulous cocktail party. The pages are filled with impossibly glamorous people doing impossibly glamorous things, from literary lights like Susan Sontag and Julian Barnes and Alan Hollinghurst, to celebrities of a different stratosphere, like Lauren Bacall and Tina Turner and Yves Saint Laurent.

Inside a PearlAt the center of it all is White, who for four decades has been, in both fiction and nonfiction, our preeminent chronicler of gay life. When the period covered by Inside a Pearl begins, in 1983, White has just published his classic novel A Boy’s Own Story, and he arrives in Paris armed with that success, as well as high school French and sixteen thousand dollars from a Guggenheim Fellowship.

He’s wonderful at describing the disorientation of those first months, and especially at conveying linguistic struggles that will be familiar to anyone who has lived abroad: “After I’d present my own carefully displayed sentence like a diamond necklace on black velvet, the other speaker, the French person, would throw his sentence at me like a handful of wet sand. It would sting so badly that I’d wince, and an instant later I would wonder what had just happened to me.”

White quickly finds his feet in Paris, working for Vogue, learning the language, and writing his books, among them a brilliant biography of the gay novelist Jean Genet. Nor were all of his pursuits literary: as in all of his work, White speaks with breathtaking candor in these pages about his sexual life, including innumerable tricks and a number of longer affairs. He can be deliriously indiscreet, as when he talks of first meeting the great British novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin, when the two of them quickly found themselves “sniffing each other’s genitals like dogs.”

Inside a Pearl has a loose, associative structure, and you may find yourself frustrated if you read it looking for a clear narrative organizing the book. Instead, there are many small narratives, wonderful anecdotes and asides and ruminations. White refers to himself at one point as an “archaeologist of gossip,” and the book might best be approached as a collection of particularly inspired gossip: sometimes a bit scandalous, almost always good-hearted, and thoroughly entertaining.

This isn’t to say that the book lacks pathos or weight. White weathers the most intense period of the AIDS crisis in Paris, and while he writes that he hoped to find there “an AIDS holiday, a recess from the emergencies of the disease,” he instead finds that “Death was my constant shadow.” One of the founders of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, as well as its first president, White received his own diagnosis in Europe, when he and his lover at the time got tested together. His lover was negative, White was positive; the night after learning his status, he was “in anguish and couldn’t sleep, not because I was afraid of dying but because I knew my wonderful adult romance…was doomed.”

The book’s most moving sequence tells the story of White’s relationship with Hubert Sorin, whom he fictionalized in his novels The Farewell Symphony and The Married Man. When Hubert becomes ill, White cares for him through an agonizing decline. Not least among the torments of White’s long vigil over Hubert’s dying is the fear that he might himself have infected his lover. (Doctors eventually reassure White that this wasn't the case.) Though only a few pages long, White’s account of his final trip with Hubert to Morocco, during which Hubert collapses and eventually dies in a clinic where the hostile nurses are amused by his “pitiful state,” is a devastating portrait of grief.

While White writes both movingly and amusingly of his lovers, his real genius is for friendship, and it’s the portrait of a great friend that spans the book and gives it its greatest sense of coherence. White first met Marie-Claude de Brunhoff in 1975, and it’s her friendship that he credits with his discovery of France. Witty, insecure, elegant, Marie-Claude—“MC,” as White calls her—is a recurring presence in the memoir, as White helps her survive her abandonment by her husband (Laurent de Brunhoff, who continued the Babar books begun by his father) and remains at her side as she battles, at first successfully, the cancer that on its return would cause her death in 2008.

Edmund_white_0MC is an artist—she makes Joseph Cornell-like boxes—but it’s her person and her life that White admires as her greatest creation. In the book’s first paragraph, he says that on their first meeting she “gleamed like the inside of a nautilus shell,” an image that echoes the memoir’s title. It also echoes an idea of the French philosopher Michel Foucault, whom White knew: at the end of his life, White writes, Foucault came to believe that “the basis of morality after the death of God might be the ancient Greek aspiration to leave your life as a beautiful, burnished artifact.”

It’s an appealing idea to anyone who has spent his life, as White has, in the service of art. Inside a Pearl is a beautiful, hugely endearing, often brilliant book, a worthy record of White’s attempt to be true to what he sees as the several purposes of his life: “to teach, to trick, to write, to memorialize, to be a faithful scribe, to record the loss of my dead.”

Previous reviews...
Randall Mann’s ‘Straight Razor’
Janette Jenkins’ ‘Firefly’
Gengoroh Tagame’s ‘The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame’
Jason K. Friedman’s ‘Fire Year’

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. He is currently an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Paris Selected As Host of Gay Games X

Paris

Paris beat out Limerick, Ireland and London and will host the Gay Games X in 2018.

Organizers report via press release:

The international delegates and board of directors of the Federation of Gay Games voted at the end of a three-day meeting featuring site inspection reports, question-and-answer sessions, committee reviews and, a highlight of the event, the oral presentation by each bidding organization. This meeting was held in Cleveland, host with Akron, of the 2014 Gay Games, presented by the Cleveland Foundation next year from 9-16 August.

David Killian, co-chair of the FGG Site Selection Committee, noted some factors that may have influenced voters in their choice: “The vote is the result of dozens of individual choices, but some points stood out for many voters. Paris proposed a wide range of sports in quality venues, many of which offer good visibility for the event. French LGBT sport organizations already have a great deal of experience hosting international multisport tournaments, and their LGBT community presents outstanding cultural events. They are already well advanced in planning, for example, with the designation of a dedicated sports manager. They arrived with demonstrable political support, including Minister for Sport Valerie Fourneyron and five-time Olympic fencing medalist Laura Flessel, who were part of the presentation team. And of course Paris is a great destination to visit or revisit.”


Fish Known For Gobbling Man Parts Caught in the Seine in Paris

Pacu

A pacu, a South American fish known for its propensity to bite off male testicles, has been caught in the river Seine in Paris, The Local reports:

Friday’s discovery, reported in the Paris police’s weekly newsletter on Tuesday, might cause concern for Parisian men, especially after a piranha was fished out of the Canal Saint Martin in the capital, last summer.

After a 21 cm pacu was found lurking off the coast of Sweden last month, Danish fish expert Henrik Carl warned our colleagues at The Local Sweden about the species’ tendency toward testicles.

"The pacu is not normally dangerous to people but it has quite a serious bite. There have been incidents in other countries, such as Papua New Guinea where some men have had their testicles bitten off,” he said.

"They bite because they're hungry, and testicles sit nicely in their mouth," he explained.

Be forewarned.


Photographer Captures The Lives Of Transgender Parisians In 1950's Black-And-White Collection

Transparis

Christer Strömholm, a Swedish photographer living in Paris in the late 1950's, befriended and photographed the transgender communities of the place Pigalle and place Blanche neighborhoods, providing us with a glimpse at life on the margins.  

Transparis2Buzzfeed reports:

A little-known Swedish photographer, Christer Strömholm, visited Paris to experiment with a new style of night-time street photography. He immersed himself in the red-light district of Place Blanche where he beautifully captured through his lens the wide variety of young trans women struggling to make a living.

In 1983, Strömholm published his book, Les Amies de Place Blanche, with the photographs from his visit.

Inside he wrote a powerful introduction:

“This is a book about insecurity. A portrayal of those living a different life in the big city of Paris, of people who endured the roughness of the streets.”

“This is a book about humiliation, about the smell of whores and night life in cafés.”

“This is a book about the quest for self-identity, about the right to live, about the right to own and control one’s own body.”

...

“These are images of women—biologically born as men—that we call ‘transsexuals.’ As for me, I call them ‘my friends of place Blanche.’ This friendship started here, in the early 60s and it still continues.”

New attention has been brought to Strömholm's subjects as the photos have been released in a new version of the 1983 book, this time with stories and essays to accompany them.  

The complete collection of photographs can be found here.

Photos courtesy of Buzzfeed (Source:  © C.Strömholm/ Agence VU  /  via: messynessychic.com)


Eiffel Tower Celebrates Marriage Equality on Bastille Day: VIDEO

Eiffeltower

The Eiffel Tower was bathed in rainbow colors during yesterday's Bastille Day celebration in Paris to mark the legalization of same-sex marriage in France this year.

Check out a gorgeous video, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "Eiffel Tower Celebrates Marriage Equality on Bastille Day: VIDEO" »


Trending



Towleroad - Blogged