“Not to explain further, the Mayor began to do a striptease in order to dance an apache dance with Lola, although Lola told him over and over, and I believe this, that the male apache does not have to be naked to dance. She does a strip-tease at the club and ends her dance in nothing but a few beads, as my father used to say.”
Loitering over on Whispering Gums, I became inspired to try a Christina Stead novel, and for the occasion I selected The Little Hotel–mostly because I have a soft spot for stories set in sleazy boarding houses or hotels. These types of settings always throw diverse characters together in interesting ways, and that is certainly true in the very amusing novel, The Little Hotel, and while it’s not considered Christina Stead’s best work, it certainly convinced me to read more of this author.
The setting is a seedy Swiss pension post WWII, and various people have washed up at the Hotel Swiss-Touring which is ostensibly run by a husband and wife team. The husband’s real interest, however, may be a striptease dancer at the Zig-Zag club; he stays mostly in the background while all of the work is left to his patient, tolerant and long-suffering wife. The Hotel Swiss-Touring is almost the cheapest place to stay in the area and is priced only just above various lodgings for workmen. This alone dictates the type of guests and the attitudes of the staff, and that leaves the proprietor stuck in the middle negotiating as she tries to convince the guests to be more reasonable and the staff to not be quite so peevish and vindictive. The opening immediately illustrates how the proprietor becomes dragged in to the personal lives of the hotel guests:
If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens. Yesterday afternoon a woman rang me up from Geneva and told me her daughter-in-law died. The woman stayed here twice. We became very friendly, though I always felt there was something she was keeping to herself. I never knew whether she was divorced, widowed or separated. The first time, she talked about her son Gerard. Later, Gerard married. There was something; for she used to telephone from Geneva, crying and saying she had to talk to a friend. I was looking for a friend too.
The narrative goes back and forth from the proprietor’s first person narration to the third person as the novel follows the various relationships established between the guests who come and go. Given that the Hotel Swiss-Touring attracts a certain clientele, some of the guests are questionable, but there are also those living on a budget, and also some who’ve seen better days. Our sympathies are with the proprietor who has to juggle all the complaints, the pettiness, the quibbling, the eccentricities, and must wrestle with those who don’t want to pay their bills. If anyone who picks up this book had any romantic notions of starting a dreamy little B&B on the coast, then this book will probably annihilate that idea.
Since the guests of the hotel are out of their natural habitats, we can only suspect what their circumstances and positions in life really are. Some appear to be down on their luck, while others, putting on airs, express loudly that they are used to better accommodations. Most of the guests treat the hotel staff like servants. Miss Abbey-Chillard demands “invalid dishes” but expects them to be cheaper since she’s a vegetarian, while the Admiral, a particularly peevish elderly Englishwoman who is very cheap with the staff, makes peevish demands. This makes her unpopular and because she brings out the worst in the staff, they get their revenge in very subtle ways.
She was poor, yet she complained. She did not like it that the same woman who cleaned her room put her soup in front of her.
Much of the book’s focus is on the bad behaviour of the guests, and how that bad behaviour impacts the other guests and also the proprietor and her husband, Roger, who resorts to “spying,” using hotel maintenance as an excuse for loitering outside doors and eavesdropping on guests. Many of the hotel guests are either long-term or repeat customers, and because some of these people more or less live at the Hotel Swiss-Touring, they establish relationships with each other. As the book continues, these relationships, rooted in propinquity, lead to ‘friendships’ that are inherently false and laced with elements of nastiness. Madame Blaise, for example, a “very cunning” woman according to the proprietor, is ‘best friends’ with the British, very troubled Mrs Trollope, who shares a room with her “cousin” Mr Wilkins. Mrs Trollope is desperate to maintain the fiction that they’re related, but everyone knows the truth. Mr Wilkins is from a middle-class Yorkshire family and is “snubbed and ignored by the resident English, even those drunk or in debt.” There is some underlying issue between the wealthy Madame Blaise and her physician husband who visits every weekend from Basel, and by the time the book concludes, we see Madame Blaise’s friendship for what it really is in a very funny episode when Mrs Trollope and Mr Wilkins host an anniversary dinner.
Then there’s the Mayor of B, obviously a complete lunatic who’s there to attend a clinic and receive shock treatments. He can only behave for a limited amount of time before he explodes into bad behaviour. The Mayor imagines that he see Germans everywhere, but he also wants to avoid Belgians. One day he walks around the dining room shaking hands with all the guests, and the second day “he began to complain about Germans in the dining room, though there was no one there resembling a German.” Afraid of “germ contact with Germans” he insists on being served in his room. The Mayor makes frequent trips to France bringing back loads of champagne which he drinks with the staff, and the proprietor has to break up impromptu parties in the Mayor’s room where he’s “insisting” the staff stay, drink champagne and watch him do “balancing tricks.” He’s always submitting “memorandums” and numbered “Documents.” Then he begins writing on the towels:
If this is a sample of the towel you give guests in the Hotel Swiss-Touring (and his writing was arranged to take in the woven name, you see) it is no wonder that guests who are short of writing-paper use it; for there is no writing paper supplied in the Hotel Swiss-Touring; so that if guests want to write letters or complain about the GERMANS in the place, they will be sure to look for material and to write on the towels and tablecloths, so take notice. Signed the Mayor of B.
Even though the war is over, shock waves of the aftermath still rock the hotel residents. While the Mayor sees Germans everywhere, other guests are paranoid about the Russians. An elderly American guest advocates dropping the atom bomb on them and when the touchy subject of politics is raised starts shouting: “There are communists even in this country, in Switzerland. Why don’t you get busy and stand them all up against a wall.” Due to the war and the subsequent displacement, it’s not possible to tell if Madame Blaise is telling the truth about the millions she claims she’s fighting the banks for, and in the hotel environment, she could be just another storyteller. The proprietor suspects that Madame Blaise has “enemy alien” property belonging to a German “entrusted” to her.
The Little Hotel is not a perfect novel. It suffers from a certain lack of focus, but in spite of its flaws, I enjoyed this social comedy very much for its spot on observations of human behaviour. Stead creates a microcosm in a hotel setting, and here we are in the cheapest hotel in the area with the hotel guests mostly behaving very badly. When they’re not complaining about each other, they’re complaining about the staff. It seems to be human nature to complain and pick fault simply because one can, but we also see temperamental staff members fight back in this chronicle of human nature.
I told Papa that nothing can be done when servants have made up their minds to get rid of someone. You see she gave no tips: she paid her ten per cent service, but nothing extra. The servants are very poor and need the little extra. As it is, on their days out, you will find them sitting each by himself eating a roll perhaps, on the seats along the promenade getting a little fresh air and waiting to go home to sleep. We do not feed them on their days out. Very often too they spend the day in bed, eating a little bread or fruit. You see most of the send money home to their families, and their families think of them as the rich ones. Well it is not the business of the guests to worry about that and not mine either; we must all live and eat, and out of the same pot. The way they see it is, there are people living in comfort, doing nothing and eating all day, who deny them a few extra pence. Yet I have seen them very kind to certain guests who do not pay extra; it is a question of luck and personality.
Christina Stead shows the layers of society within the hotel and the clashes of class and culture between the servants and the guests. We also see a world in flux: refugees, people who no longer have homes, collaborators who don’t want to return home, an affluent British couple terrified to return home due to the Labour Government, another who believes her money will only be safe with a dictator in control and people still broken and sensitive to the hostilities between nations.