The liberation of France began here June 6, 1944.
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book. I mean, just look at that cover. So hard to resist for a lover of all things Paris.
But I have to admit, the charms of the story resisted me for nearly 200 pages. While the structure of the book makes it feel as if it was enormously fun to write, it makes it quite a challenge for a reader to slip into. It is the story of a band of friends, acquaintances, enemies and lovers in Paris in the 30s and 40s. Their story doesn’t unfold, it demands that you piece it together for yourself, like a 2,000 piece jigsaw puzzle of a Picasso painting.
You hear the discordant voices of a number of strange and lively characters, from a Hungarian photographer named Gabor (modeled after the true-life Brassai ), an American expat writer (à la Henry Miller), a French baroness married into the Rossignol car dynasty, a French language teacher named Suzanne who works for the Resistance, and then most bizarrely of all, the alleged great-niece of a character named Lou Villars, a lesbian race-car driver, German spy and agent of the French Gestapo (a stand-in for the real-life Violet Morris). Yes, there’s a lot on the plate.
The characters are all drawn to a fictional Chameleon Club in Paris, a free-wheeling 1920s-40s era nightclub with singing acts by cross-dressing sailors and mermaids, men in drag, women in tuxedos, and an owner named Yvonne who parades around with a pet chameleon on her shoulder. When Gabor takes a photo of Lou Villars and her lover Arlette at the club, it is a clear shout-out to Brassai’s Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle, 1932 (Cleveland Museum of Art Collection).
The fictional Chameleon Club is the perfect setting and a revealing title for a book about people who cross all sorts of lines in all sorts of ways. Especially when war comes.
That’s when the narrative shifts into a faster, more sinister gear. Lou Villars takes up professional race car driving on behalf of the Rossignols and becomes a public relations sensation. She dresses like a man and gets a double mastectomy to fit behind the wheel. But soon, enemies in France take away her license on the grounds that she is a threat to morality. Smelling opportunity, the Germans invite her to the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and to dinner with Hitler. Lou is easily seduced into becoming a German spy, and agrees to travel through France seeking out intelligence such as the weakness in the Maginot Line. (Believe it or not, nearly all of this is a true story about the real Violet Morris.)
The stories about Lou Villars continue, and by now, you don’t care who’s narrating or why. You’re hooked into hearing about how the good people of the Chameleon Club endured and resisted the horrors of the Occupation, and how people like Villars could possibly rationalize the evils they perpetrated. We learn that Lou Villars (and in turn, the real Violet Morris) may have been involved in the Vel d’Hiv’ Round-up of 1942, and then became an agent of the French Gestapo, known for her violent interrogations of French resistance workers. Which would all be terrific fiction, but is actually based on the true story of Violet Morris.
Lou Villars becomes a notorious interrogator with the 93 rue Lauriston Gang, a group of French Gestapo gangsters who have been the subject of many books and films, including Louis Malle’s 1974 film, Lacombe Lucien and the 2004 television movie 93, rue Lauriston. The gang’s headquarters were located on a quiet little street in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Lou Villars conducted her interrogations in the cellar of their building.
I first spotted the plaques for 93 rue Lauriston on my frequent walks through my old neighborhood in the 16th. In fact, the address was just across the street from one of my favorite boulangeries. I took photos of the plaques and went back to learn more about the horrible history of this neighborhood.
The book ends without clear resolution, offering different versions about what might have happened to all of the friends and enemies from the Chameleon Club. To me, that was the most satisfying ending of all. Because if there is one thing that historians have learned about the aftermath of the Paris Occupation, is that truth and virtue are very slippery things. Kind of like a chameleon.
Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 by Francine Prose: Highly recommended.
Related posts on this blog about World War II Reads:
Sarah’s Key Paris Sites: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/pictures-at-an-exhibition-art-war-and-memory-in-paris/
In this blog post I share my own photographs of the plaques and memorials near the site of the old Paris Velodrome (Vel’ d’Hiv’), along with directions on where to find them.
Some V-E Day Reading – Paris During the Occupation: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/05/08/some-v-e-day-reading-recommendations/
Coco Chanel: Sleeping with the Enemy: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/coco-chanel-sleeping-with-the-enemy/
Wine & War in France: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2012/10/01/wine-and-war-in-france/
Crossing the Borders of Time: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2013/01/28/crossing-the-borders-of-time/
Art, Books, Paris – The Hare with Amber Eyes: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2011/11/30/art-books-paris-the-hare-with-amber-eyes/
Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War and Memory in Paris: https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2011/12/09/pictures-at-an-exhibition-art-war-and-memory-in-paris/
Whether you’ve learned about Marie-Antoinette in history books, novels or movies, you don’t want to miss a trip out to Marie-Antoinette’s Hamlet in Versailles. It deserves its own day on your itinerary. After numerous trips to the main palace of Versailles with friends and family, I finally scheduled an entire day to explore nothing but the grounds of Le Petit Trianon and the Hamlet. Hopefully you can manage to do the same sometime.
Before you head out, you ought to immerse yourself in Marie’s world through one of these most interesting books:
You’ll find plenty of information about the grounds of Le Petit Trianon and the Queen’s Hamlet once you get to Versailles (excellent resources available on the “Marie-Antoinette’s Estate” tab of the Chateau de Versailles website) but it’s fun to know a little scoop ahead of time.
Marie received Le Petit Trianon as a gift from her husband in 1774, when she was only 18 years old, had just been crowned Queen of France, and apparently had yet to consummate the marriage. It was a sweet gift, considering it had been built for her father-in-law’s mistress Madame du Pompadour, and then passed along at her death to his next mistress, Madame du Barry.
And what does an 18 year-old do with a palace all her own? She calls in the royal architects to polish it up a bit. She started with Le Petit Trianon, which was lovely and private, but apparently lacking.
Architect Richard Mique designed Trianon gardens that included paths, hills, streams, a neo-classical Tea Room and Temple of Love, along with a faux farming village called Le Petit Hameau.
And yet, despite this entire beautiful day in the Queen’s Hamlet, I still managed to miss a few things, including the Queen’s Theater and Jussieu’s Orangerie. So I guess I’ve got to go back. Some things aren’t meant to be just once in a lifetime.
Suggested reading: My previous post about Marie-Anoinette’s portraitist, Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun. https://americangirlsartclubinparis.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/elisabeth-vigee-le-brun-a-novel/
I don’t know how I do it, but it seems that every book I pick up these days has at least a touch of Paris in it. The latest is Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf 2014), which I highly recommend.
You might have heard of this book by now. Even Oprah’s touting it. It’s a steamy story of love and ambition in the competitive world of professional ballet. It is the story of Joan, an American ballet dancer who is starstruck (why not just say “astonished?”) by a famous star of the Russian Kirov Ballet. Picture Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1975.
While Joan is spending a year as a quadrille, a junior member of the Paris Opéra Ballet, she watches Arslan Rusakov rehearse from one of the dark crimson red loge boxes at the Palais Garnier. Joan manages to evade the Kirov Ballet security men and enters the star’s dressing room, where she makes an unforgettable impression on him. Their encounter kicks off a clandestine Cold War love affair, fueled by secret love letters delivered through helpful intermediaries. Joan agrees to help Rusakov defect to the United States during one of his ballet tours to Toronto. Together, they are front-page news. But only for a time. The love affair dies and Joan moves forward with a life as a wife, mother and owner of her own ballet school in Southern California.
The whole book is good, from New York to Paris to California, but I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed the passages set in Paris. No wonder, then, when I read the Acknowledgments at the back of the book (yes, I always read those, don’t you?) where Maggie Shipstead says: “Much of this book was written while I was in residence at the Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris.” You can tell.
Here is a passage from the book, which honest to God is one of the best paragraphs about visiting Paris I’ve ever read (and readers of this blog know I’ve read a lot):
For Joan, Paris has the feeling of waiting. All the elegance, the light and water and stone and refined bits of greenery, must be for something, something more than simple habitation and aggressive driving of Renaults and exuberant besmearing with dog shit. The city seems like an offering that has not been claimed. Its beauty is suspenseful. Joan has walked the boulevards and bridges and embankments, sat in the uncomfortable green metal chairs in the Tuileries, puttered down the Seine on a tourist barge, been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, stared politely at countless paintings, been leered at and kissed at by so many men, stood in patches of harlequin light in a dozen chilly naves, bought a scarf she couldn’t afford, surreptitiously stroked the neatly stacked skulls in the catacombs, listened to jazz, gotten drunk on wine, ridden on the back of scooters, done everything she thinks she should in Paris, and still there has always been the feeling of something still to come, a purpose as yet unmet, an expectation.
In particular, I loved Shipstead’s scene in the Opéra Garnier, which captures the beautiful excess better than a camera ever could:
The houselights are down, but the glow from the stage picks out a profusion of gilded plasterwork: serene deities, trumpeting angels, lyres, garlands, flowers, oak leaves, masks, Corinthian columns, all deeply shadowed, piling up around the proscenium and among the boxes like the walls of a craggy old cave, climbing to Chagall’s painted round ceiling of naked angels and volumptuous ballerinas and goats and chickens and lovers and blue Eiffel Tower and red-splotched rendering of the Palais itself. From the center of thing hangs the great sleeping chandelier: an enormous gold and glass thistle hung upside down to dry, darkly gleaming.
Speaking of cameras, here are some of my own photographs of the Opéra Garnier, which aren’t the best quality, but you get the idea:
So whether you read Astonish Me for the ballet, the love story or the lovely Paris passages, I think you’ll be delighted.
If you’re in Paris or plan to visit, don’t miss a visit to Palais Garnier, whether it’s for a ballet performance or a public tour. Click here to go to their website, which has more beautiful photographs, a lot of history and information about your visit.
Suggested reading: Check out my previous post The Painted Girls: Degas and the Dancers featuring Cathy Marie Buchanan’s book The Painted Girls, historical fiction about young French ballet dancers set in Belle Epoque Paris.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead: Highly Recommended.
Ayelet Waldman’s new book, Love & Treasure, is a perfect treasure of an art novel. It begins where The Monuments Men leaves off, daring to face the difficult questions about Nazi-plundered Jewish treasures. How do you ever figure out to whom the objects once belonged? Did the owner survive the war? If not, did any of their relatives survive? To whom should the treasure be returned?
Maybe you’d like to check out the book trailer here, which beautifully conveys the historical mood of the novel. The story is based on the Hungarian Gold Train, which American servicemen recovered in Salzburg, Austria at the end of WWII. The train was full of home goods, jewelry and personal artifacts plundered from Hungarian Jews, most of whom were executed in the Holocaust.
The story begins when an American serviceman helps himself to an unusual locket that he found on the Hungarian Gold Train. Before his death many years later, he hands the locket to his grandaughter and begs her to return it to its rightful owner. The grandaughter teams up with an art dealer of questionable morals who specializes in Nazi-era art, and together they set off to Hungary and Israel on a quest to solve the mystery.
In an unusual twist, the third part of the novel is humorously narrated by a Freud-era psychoanalyst who offers a report on a patient he believes to be suffering from “female hysteria.” It turns out that his report tells the true story of the locket’s owner, a young Jewish woman who is turns out was a turn-of-the-century feminist who had dreamed of going to medical school. It is a story we never could have imagined, a life we never would have known.
And isn’t that the greatest loss of all? Not the objects or the treasures the Nazis took away, but the story of the lives behind the treasures. How beautiful then, that by offering us this one imagined life, Ayelet honors the lives of the many others whose stories we will never know.
Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: Highly recommended.
For further reading: The Gold Train: The Destruction of the Jews and the Looting of Hungary by Ronald W. Zweig
May 8th is a National Holiday in France in honor of Victory in Europe Day, the day the Allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II. It brings to mind all of the good literature, both fiction and nonfiction, that has been written about this time period in Paris. Just a few recommendations to share with you.
Americans In Paris: Life and Death Under Nazi Occupation by Charles Glass is an excellent and highly readable account of the Americans who stayed behind after France declared war on Germany, and even after the United States entered the war. Just like the French who stayed in Paris, many of the Americans who stayed lived in the grey area between resistance, collaboration and survival.
Except of course, Sylvia Beach, the owner of the original Shakespeare & Co. She stood her ground and refused to sell the last copy of Finnegan’s Wake to a German soldier, insisting on saving it for an English-speaking customer. Beach knew she had infuriated the German officer, so within hours, she packed up all of the books in the bookshop and moved them a few doors down to her apartment on rue Odéon. She never re-opened her shop again.
Another excellent nonfiction account of the Occupation era is And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris by Alan Riding. A thoroughly researched book, this one focuses on the ways that the Parisian culture – from the opera and the nightclubs – continued to thrive under the Nazis, although with considerable censorship and control. Sylvia Beach again merits attention, as does the Rose Valland, the surprising heroine of the Jeu de Paume who kept meticulous records of the artwork plundered by Hitler, Goring and their associates, so that it could be tracked down after the war. Again, there are the complicated issues of collaboration and resistance, which Americans seem to find so difficult to comprehend. Fascinating.
I am also recommending a book that it completely new to me; in fact, I have just ordered it thanks to the folks at Paris Walks, who read a powerful excerpt during my recent Left Bank During The Occupation tour. It is called The Journal of Helene Berr, and it sounds like Diary of Anne Frank, except written by a mature, college-educated Parisian. Like Anne Frank, she was Jewish, she was deported and she was killed just before the war was over, but her diary has survived. Although this book was originally published in French, it is also available in English.
Finally, I must mention Suite Française by Irene Nemirovsky. It has received many well-deserved accolades, and was very well received by many book clubs when it was released, so it should be no surprise. But if you haven’t read it, I urge you to read it now. This is powerful fiction. Much of it is based on Nemirovsky’s own experiences as a Jewish woman who escaped Paris with her family to live out most of the war in Issy-l’Évêque, a small town in Burgundy. Like Helene Berr, Nemirovsky was eventually deported and killed, but her daughters kept her manuscripts hidden in a suitcase. I really, really loved this book.
In previous posts I have written about two other World War II era works of fiction set in Paris: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, and Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Hoghtelling. Check out my earlier posts for a photo tour of some of the scenes from these books.
I would love to hear any World War II era books you might recommend, especially those set in France.
I can’t say enough about Rosecrans Baldwin’s new book, Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). This memoir is witty, charming and laugh-out-loud funny (make that snort-out-loud, while I was reading in a Paris restaurant, no less), based on the eighteen months Baldwin and his wife spent in Paris a couple-few years ago.
It’s a perfect romantic comedy, like a cross between The Office (Paris Edition) and Midnight in Paris (without the time travel). I’m already doing the casting in my head.
Baldwin tells his Paris story with a smart and fresh spin. He worked crazy hours at a Champs Élysée advertising agency, writing copy and making sales pitches to luxury clients like Luis Vuitton, while she attended immersion French language classes, played the part of a femme au foyer and tried to write screenplays in a dark and dismal apartment surrounded on five sides by construction. Americans have no simple love affair with Paris. But that revelation isn’t enough to make this book unique. It’s the complexity of Baldwin’s voice: he’s tender, wise, and smitten, but also droll and irreverent. Who knew the French were so darn funny?
Baldwin’s tales from the office sound more like the reports of an American mole secretly planted in a Parisian workplace. Baldwin’s primary source is a rough-around-the-edges colleague, a “stocky and morose” Parisian who loves nothing more than his cigarettes and his Yamaha scooter. It’s a point of view most Americans never get to see, a bit like having a disgruntled French Danny De Vito as your tour guide.
Baldwin’s riffs on French anti-P.C. office politics are hilarious:
Either Murphy Brown never aired in France, or Paris was stuck in the early nineties. . . . In meetings, if someone called your idea P.C., pay-say, there was no possible recovery. The label was nuclear. Anyone accused of pay-say during un brainstorming would be shouted down – Don’t be so American! . . .
Baldwin’s inside knowledge leads to surprising discoveries, like the French affection for McDonald’s: a French colleague, confused, “You don’t go to McDonald’s in the United States?” Baldwin can deal the scoop on their Frenchified Mac-attacks (a multi-course meal, starting with McNuggets as an appetizer, a sandwich, then a salad and finally dessert). Who knew? And now that we know, won’t it be a fun fact to remember the next time a stuffy French waiter gives you the stink-eye?
Baldwin already spoke some French when he arrived, thanks to his beloved seventh grade French teacher Madame Fleuriot, from whom he learned how to pronounce kir royale. Madame would say it dreamily, fondly: “just the word ‘Paris,’ she was undone a bit.” About the same time, Baldwin’s family took a one-week vacation to Paris, where he watched his mother swoon over her café au lait, tres noir. Says Baldwin, “‘French’ became an umbrella term for me, describing things I liked before I knew why I liked them.”
So when Baldwin and his wife Rachel had the chance, off they went to Paris. Like all good expats, they felt humbled by their inadequate French, and worked hard to improve it. Nevertheless, their language faux-pas (is there a plural for faux pas?) make for absolutely delightful stories. We’ve all been there, but never quite like this.
One time Rachel was picking out some champagne to celebrate the sale of Baldwin’s first novel, un roman in French (You Lost Me There, Riverhead Books 2010). The Frenchman gave her a strange look. He thought she said her husband had sold his first “Roman,” like some kind of Italian slave trader. Yah, that’s right, monsieur, you know us crazy Americans – we always pop the champagne for our first slave trade.
Like many Americans, the Baldwins had a love-hate list for Paris (love: walking across the Alexandre III Bridge, food from Picard, men who read in public; hate: long grey winters, the bureaucracy, construction noise, stores that close on Sundays). And inevitably comes the question, “so how long do you want to stay here in Paris?” And no matter how idyllic it can be to take a nap in a field of tulips on a daytrip to Giverny, they realize that they are ready to go home.
Ah, yes, home.
So obviously, I loved this book. I think you will too, whether you love or hate Paris, or maybe a little of both. You can read an excerpt here.
I wanted to join in this Expat Blog Hop to share my love for exploring the literary and artistic side of Paris. I’ve been following in the footsteps of Hemingway, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir and Coco Chanel, just to name a few.
I am an avid reader and an artist so I see the world through a literary and artistic lens. When my husband first got his assignment in Paris, the first thing I did was go to my own bookshelves and my local bookstore to gather up as many books about Paris and Paris artists as I could. I used to have to imagine the characters walking down the streets of Paris, wondering, is that Left Bank or Right? Shabby or chic? I wonder if that café or art studio is still there?
Now that I live in Paris I don’t need to wonder anymore. I just go exploring with my books and my camera and my sketchbook. I search out the sites from my favorite books and paintings, and I discover the most lovely places. Quiet cobblestone alleys, busy boulevards, majestic old hôtels particulieur, north-facing art studios with walls of windows, the parks and gardens and bridges of Paris . . . and I feel like I’ve known them all my life. Now that I’m here in Paris ( I’m here, I’m really here!) it feels like a reunion with good friends.
I hope you’ll enjoy sharing my discoveries. . . my reunions.
If you leave a comment below, you’ll be eligible to win a copy of one of the books that I have blogged about.
Check out the other blogs participating in this Expat Blog Hop at http://www.bloginfrance.com.
No matter how many times I go to the D’Orsay, this painting makes me stop and gawk. I just saw it again recently with my husband in tow. He encourages my painting and puts up with my “I-wish-I-could-do-that” kind of commentary. Standing in front of Dance at le Moulin de la Galette, I was awash in admiration: “look at the pink dapples of light on her dress!”
I forget, until I see the real thing and get to admire the brush strokes up close, how many colors Renoir uses for sunlight, and how effortless he makes it look. Was the light really reflecting pink that day, or was he just playing with his palette? My own art teachers are always urging me to see the light as it truly is, and not what my brain thinks it is. There is color all around us and we don’t even know it. There is purple in a tree trunk, pink in a skirt, blue under a chin. And Renoir seems to know this best of all.
So I’ve been thinking of Renoir lately, with spring in all of its soft pastel colors breaking out in Paris. I decided to go visit the very place where Renoir painted this scene back in 1876, at the Moulin de la Galette in Montmartre. The windmill was relocated from the original site further up the hill where the real dance hall was located. The Moulin de la Galette is now a restaurant at 83 rue Lepic, with a lovely quiet outdoor terrace and an English menu board.
Renoir painted en plein air at the Moulin de la Galette on Sundays, when he had a little help from his his friends. Because it would be impossible to capture real people who were so busy moving and dancing, he asked his friends pose for him in small groups. Renoir had to drag the extra large canvas back and forth to his studio, which was located up the hill and a couple of blocks away from Moulin de la Galette. He had to grapple with the wet canvas – a future masterpiece – in the heavy winds on the butte.
Renoir’s former studio is now Musee de Montmartre, 12-14 rue Cortot in Montmartre. The museum has a beautiful outdoor garden and courtyard, which happened to be in the earliest spring bloom when I was there. From the gardens, you can look up the hill toward Sacre Coeur, or downhill toward the Montmartre cemetery, the vineyards and Au Lapin Agile. The perfect place for an artist to live and create.
For more about Renoir, I recommend the book Luncheon of the Boating Party by Susan Vreeland, which tells the story behind another one of my favorite Renoir paintings. Maybe later this spring I will plan a day trip out to La Maison Fournaise in Chatou on the Seine, where Luncheon of the Boating Party was painted. Care to join me?