Tag Archives: Hotel life

The Hotel: Elizabeth Bowen (1927)

“An hotel, you know, is a great place for friendships.” 

It’s 1920, WWI is over, and a motley assortment of British travelers find themselves in a hotel on the Italian Riviera. With each new arrival, the guests shift into different formation, adding and subtracting people into various groups. There’s Mrs Kerr whose languid presence and “vague smile” dominate a certain set. She’s always perfectly calm, and young Sydney Warren, who travels with her cousin Tessa Bellamy, spends far more time with Mrs Kerr, observing Mrs Kerr or looking for Mrs. Kerr, than attending her cousin. There’s Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald who travel together, room together, and have spats. Then there’s Dr. Lawrence and his three boisterous daughters, a widow the Honourable Mrs Pinkerton and her sister-in-law, Miss Pinkerton, Colonel and Mrs Duperrier, and the Lee-Mittisons. “Nearly everybody here was English.” 

The Hotel

The glamorous Mrs Kerr is an enigma to the other guests. She “took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.”  She spends her days doing very little: sitting on her balcony enjoying the view for hours on end (much to the disgust of the other English ladies who keep themselves busy with a range of hobbies). Mrs Kerr will occasionally, languidly stroll to the tennis courts to watch the physical activities of others. Nothing ruffles her, and while she seems to expend very little energy on living, she manages to fluster most of the other women who speculate on her marital staus. Sydney is possessive of Mrs Kerr and rather upset when she learns that Mrs Kerr’s only child, Ronald will join her.

Most of the guests are couples or families, but there’s another solo guest, the lonely middle-aged clergyman, Milton who, upon arrival, makes the horrible faux pas of using a hotel bathroom that has been sequestered for the exclusive use of Mrs and Miss Pinkerton. Both of the ladies are horrified by his (inadvertent) effrontery and Miss Pinkerton is “prostrated” by the knowledge that some rogue male is using her bathroom (and seeing her underthings). This early uproar underscores the divisions of the male-female world: “The best type of man is no companion.” Poor Milton’s arrival and departure are both marked with ignominy. Unmoored from his usual position he stumbles into one mess after another. There are more young women in the novel than young men–after all it’s 1920 so just a few years post WWI. One of the guests is Victor who is “unable to find a job since the War” and is “said to be suffering from nervous depression.”

While Colonel Duperrier finds himself plagued with vague longings and fancies, his wife keeps an eye on him from afar. The Lee-Mittisons are a rather bizarre couple who are horribly boring. Sydney certainly finds them tedious, but scratch the surface here and you find Mr Lee-Mittison who marches, literally, all the attractive young girls into his ‘expeditions’ while his wife, rather like a trained sheepdog herds them. “He did not care for young married women, while widows depressed him–poor little souls.” Mrs Lee-Mittison’s job is to be amazed, repeatedly, at all of her husband’s well-worn tales. as he “tell[s] graphically of life in the East, bearing his descriptions out with photograph albums.”  She’s his biggest fan and if any of the young girls try to skip out of the hikes, she pimps for him. She’s “at pains to waylay anybody in whom Herbert might be interested.”

After the underwhelming The Little Girls  which seemed rather pointless in the end, I thoroughly enjoyed The Hotel. While there’s no solid plot, the book follows the shifting relationships of the hotel guests who find themselves thrown together and thus select relationships–sometimes yes by who’d they rather be with but also by who they’d rather avoid.

There are some wonderful descriptions here. One of a trip to a now deserted villa owned by Russians (probably now dead) and another of a cemetery. Both of course underscore the transient nature of life.

The cemetery seemed quite deserted. Gashes of over-charged daylight pressed in through the cypresses on to the graves: a hard light bestowing no grace and exacting such detail. In the shade of the pillared vaults round the walls what already seemed like the dusk of evening had begun to thicken, but the rank and file of small crosses staggered arms wide in the arraignment of sunshine. In spite of the brooding repose of the trees a hundred little shrill draughts came between them, and spurting across the graves made the decorations beloved of Cordelia creak and glitter. A wreath of black tin pansies swung from the arm of a cross with a clatter of petals, trailing colourless ribbons; a beaded garland had slipped down slantwise across the foot of a grave. Candles for the peculiar glory of the lately dead had stuck in the unhealed earth; here and there a flame in a glass shade writhed, opaque in the sunshine.

The opaque quality of The Little Girls is also found in The Hotel, and when I finished the book, I pondered the toxic undercurrents of Sydney’s relationship with Mrs Kerr. One of the many things I carried away from this brilliant book is the letter writing which takes place within the novel. It’s a long lost art these days. Will there one day be a book ‘The Collected texts of  … ‘(fill in the name of a famous author). A bizarre thought.

 

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Hôtel Splendid: Marie Redonnet

No one ever had the idea of building a hotel so near the swamp.”

In French author Marie Redonnet’s novel, Hôtel Splendid, the narrator, who inherited the property from her grandmother, is one of three spinster sisters. The grandmother, it seems, was a woman with a vision. She built the hotel with her inheritance on the edge of a swamp, and while we’re told that the hotel was once magnificent, as the novel continues, that claim comes into question. The hotel is plagued with issues: the roof is falling apart, the furniture is riddled with woodworm, there’s a swarm of dead flies, a legion of cockroaches, an overwhelming, pervasive stench, foul water, but the biggest problem: the toilets.

Splendid

The only men in the book are the anonymous guests who come and go. The hotel has been the home of three generations of women. The narrator’s mother ran off with two of her three daughters one day, but now, after the death of their mother, the two long-absent sisters, Adel and Ada have returned. “They chose to come and live at the hotel instead of taking the allowance.” Unfortunately, Adel and Ada think that their sister “who never left” is entirely responsible for them, and the narrator picks up that role, but then again, it seems that she’s cursed with the burden of responsibility.

The Hôtel Splendid must keep lighting up the darkness, despite the cold and the lack of guests.

Ada is a perpetual invalid and seems to rotting from within. “She has spent her life going from clinic to clinic” but nothing helps. Her room smells so awful, the narrator has to open the windows.  In spite of her invalid status, Ada’s spry enough she has the energy, and malice, to sabotage the already over-burdened toilets. Then there’s Adel: a woman who must now be well into middle age, an actress who continually writes to “theater directors to ask about parts.” And while there are no parts for Adel (well there’s one pathetic role later in the book,) she wastes no time whatsoever entertaining the male guests. She “wears low-cut dresses,” sings for the male guests (a trapped audience) and then invites them, in a steady stream, back to her room for even more ‘entertainment.’ There’s a lot of black humour here as the narrator doesn’t grasp her sisters’ machinations. At one point she “wonder[s] if Adel is working seriously on her acting. It looks to me like she is only pretending. She’s always going and prowling around the work site. Maybe the future of the railway interests her more than the theater.”

It’s clear that man-hungry Adel can’t resist the proximity of the male guests:

It’s lucky for her the workmen like to listen to her perform.

While this is a tale of these three decaying, aging sisters, the swamp also plays a role in the plot. As age gnaws at the sisters, the swamp which represents untamed nature, devours all.  The hotel is built next to the swamp, so mosquitoes plague the guests and while various enterprises are attracted to the swamp for several insane schemes, the swamp will not be contained or conquered. Even the gravestones sink into the swamp.

Only a few of the gravestones are still above water, and soon they will disappear as well.

Railway workers, geologists, prospectors, all pass through the Hotel. But since “Grandmother thought big,” the hotel’s neon lights still lure guests. Just as time decimates the sisters, the swamp decimates man’s ambitions. It simply wears them out. And yet there’s also more to the swamp than even its ability to devour all change: it becomes Ada’s excuse for her chronic bad health and Adel’s excuse for her non-existent failed career:

Adel has cramps. She has stopped rehearsing. She says she will never go back to the stage, she is finished, she should never have come to the Splendid, it was fatal to her.

While the novel’s neurotic, rambling narration is at times repetitive (the lavatories, the lavatories), the misery of existence combined with the human strength of possibly misguided endurance make this an unusual, and weird, read.

There are pipes of all different sizes running along the walls. No wonder there are problems. The pipes make a real labyrinth. Even the plumber has a hard time finding his way. He says he doesn’t understand how anyone could have installed them that way.

Translated by Jordan Stump

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Hotel Iris: Yoko Ogawa

In Yoko Ogawa’s novel, The Hotel Iris, run by a mother-and-daughter team, is a third-rate hotel in a dull seaside town. The mother manages the shabby hotel which has been in the family for over 100 years with a rod of iron and more than a streak of mercenary nastiness. Daughter Mari, upon the death of her grandfather, was forced to leave school and begin working at the hotel. With long hours and the nonstop demands of the hotel guests, Mari is almost a slave to her domineering mother.

The Iris came into being when my great-grandfather fixed up an old inn and turned it into a hotel. That was more than a hundred years ago, In that part of town, a restaurant or hotel was either supposed to have an ocean view or to be right on the beach. The Iris didn’t qualify on either count: it took more than half an hour to walk to the sea, and only two of the rooms had views. The rest looked out over the fish-processing plant. 

Hotel Iris

There are corners of darkness in Mari’s life: a kleptomaniac cleaner who can be blackmailed, the excruciating death of her grandfather whose agonising groans heard by the guests were explained as caused by cats “in heat,” and a pedophile sculptor who “nearly raped” her. There’s no life beyond the hotel for Mari, so perhaps that partially explains why she’s fascinated when a scene occurs at the hotel involving a prostitute and a male guest “past middle age, on the verge of being old.” There’s something about his voice, “giving an order,” which strikes her as beautiful, and the ugly scene provides Mari with a memory she can’t get out of her head. Months later, she spots the man again, follows him, and they strike up a relationship. …

The man, a widower, who later becomes known as ‘the translator’ translates commercial material for a living, and is translating a Russian meganovel in his spare time. He lives alone on an island, and it’s rumoured that he murdered his wife. The translator represents many things to Mari: perhaps he’s a father figure, perhaps the air of mystery which surrounds him intrigues her, perhaps his tenderness towards Mari fills a need, but whatever the reasons behind the attraction, before long the translator and Mari, who sneaks away from the hotel with various excuses, engage in a relationship that begins with a little B&D and then morphs into the very dangerous territory of S&M.

For those interested, there are some B&D/S&M details here, and while the story is told through Mari’s eyes, the details are precise but not overly salacious. The hours Mari and the translator spend together are catalogued so that it’s easy for the reader to see a steady progression of pain and humiliation told with almost clinical care. What’s so interesting here is that while Mari is definitely under the spell of the translator, she never loses sight of his aging body, the wrinkles, the sagging, and his ears “no more than a limp sliver of dark flesh.”

This is a deeply disturbing, yet fascinating novella about obsession and a twisted relationship that, with its escalating violence, can only end one way. It’s fascinating that Mari, who at 17 could be in the power seat here, instead abdicates that power to a much older man on the teetering point of frailty. And yet…  does Mari abdicate that power or does she subtly remain in control?

For readers and animal lovers: a warning about the fate of an unfortunate mouse who inadvertently becomes a witness to one of the more unpleasant scenes between Mari and the translator.

Translated by Stephen Snyder

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