When I was a junior in college, I read a book called Hitler: The Pathology of Evil by George Victor. Essentially, it humanized Hitler – and by that I mean it told his story as a human, from his childhood onward. I don’t remember all of the details, but I remember the effect it had on me. I was utterly fascinated by the way Victor psychoanalyzed his life, on the premise that all of us, even the most monstrous, start out human. It’s what happens going forward that can distort and determine future action.
That is Francine Prose’s premise, too – and perhaps why I was drawn to this book. Prose’s Lou Villars is a fictionalized version of Violette Morris – a lesbian, cross-dressing race car driver, who worked as a spy and torturer for the Gestapo. In one of the book’s alternating sections, Lou’s biographer attempts to do for her what Victor’s book did for Hitler – pick apart her life, zero in on the warning signs and the impulses building over time. Other sections – excerpts from letters, articles, novels and memoirs being written by other characters – give shape and texture to the time period.
This is a kaleidoscope of a novel, chasing that ever-elusive chimera of whether we can locate and rationalize evil. We come to deeply know the villainess, but we also meet the heros and heroines – the brave men and women of the French Resistance. In this sense, Prose rounds out the spectrum of her colorful narrative.
Though this is a thick book – it took me over a week to get through – it is utterly immersive. Prose’s storytelling sucks you in and then challenges you with existential ideas and thought provoking questions. The voices of her secondary characters shine through, too – a writer, a photographer, a baroness – all become important.
I’m still puzzling over why this book – filled with such off-beat topics (its focal point is a transgender night club) – appealed to me so much. My first guess is that it was complicated. The alternating structure of the novel made it unpredictable, so that I constantly had to reshape my perception. And the fact that it was based on the life of a real person made it all the more fascinating. That’s the word for this novel, actually: fascinating.
Visit Paris of the 1930s and 40s – get to know the players in the drama – and decide for yourself whether its possible to vanquish evil.
Many thanks to HarperCollins Publishers for my review copy and to TLC book tours for having me as a host!