I awoke one morning inside of a giant oyster shell, dimly made out a treasure chest overflowing with precious jewels, then turned to see a pair of comely mermaids beckoning from the wall. I briefly thought I had dreamt myself into “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. (“We have lingered in the chambers of the sea…”), but soon realized that I was in a much stranger place: the Sea-Cave Suite in a Pocatello, Idaho, hotel.
I suppose it could have been worse. Gay Talese’s necktie could have dangled through one of the heating — er, hydrothermal vents — indicating that he was on the case of yet another voyeuristic ethnologist-cum-motelier. Or one of the mermaids could have emerged from the wall and exacted her revenge for some past depredation of her ocean realm. As Colin Dickey puts it in Ghostland, his sharp, enjoyable study of the repressed past expressed in American ghost stories, “…all hotels are haunted. You’re kidding yourself if you don’t see this, if you don’t recognize that you sleep with ghosts.” If all hotels are haunted, they are also all strange, even if less outwardly so that the Sea-Cave Suite. Again, to quote Dickey: “There’s something uncanny about the very nature of a hotel, its endless, involuntary repetition of home-seeming spaces, rooms that could almost be home but are always somehow slightly off.” After a nice long think in the grotto shower, I resolved, once back on dry land, to conduct a survey of recent, or recently reissued, novels that make their home, so to speak, in hotels.
“It’s an odd thing about the guests in a big hotel. Not a single one goes out through the revolving doors the same as when he came in,” writes Vicki Baum in Grand Hotel, the 1929 novel (and basis for the famous 1932 film) reissued last year by New York Review Books. This maxim may or may not hold true for guests of limited duration, but it certainly does for the Russian Count Alexander Rostov, who in Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow is sentenced to house (or rather hotel) arrest at the Metropol Hotel. Beginning in 1922, he stays there for over three decades, though this confinement is not as restrictive as it initially seems: “Within the Metropol there were rooms behind rooms and doors behind doors.”
Grand Hotel depicts the exhaustion, loneliness, and alienation of the luxury life. “The whole hotel is only a rotten pub,” scoffs its most cynical habitué. Even the guests’ footwear seem to be tortured souls: “Some wedded pair of boots and shoes that stand outside the doors at night wear a distinct impression of mutual hatred on their leather visages.” Its most memorable character, the aging dancer Grusinksaya, wears “trodden-down slippers” covering “weary, unutterably weary” feet. Adventures galvanize the vigorless cast, but the enlivening enchantments, in an out of the “mass-produced” beds, are always fleeting. What remains once the revolving door turns once more is a nightmarish scene of soulless luxury: “an endless perspective of hotel bedrooms with double doors and running water and the indefinable odor of restlessness and homelessness.”
A Gentleman in Moscow, by contrast, demonstrates indefatigable wonder at the variety and whimsy of the grand hotels. Towles’s novel, as if protesting of its own straitening conceit, resolves to be big. The six-foot-three-inch hero, Count Rostov, cannot stand up to his full height in the attic room to which he is assigned, though his spirit is not similarly cramped. In Soviet Russia size doesn’t necessarily matter: “For if a room that exists under the governance, authority, and intent of others seems smaller than it is, then that which exists in secret can, regardless of its dimension, seem as vast as one cares to imagine.”
The novel contains delightful touches worthy of inclusion in the feuilletons on interwar hotel life filed by Joseph Roth (collected in The Hotel Years). The barbershop is “a land of optimism, precision and political neutrality…the Switzerland of the hotel.” The hotel restaurant, the Boyarsky, wages an epic struggle to maintain its standards, “a battle that must be waged with exacting precision while giving the impression of effortlessness, every single night of the year.” And the bored international journalists congregating in the hotel bar devise ploys to attract summonses from the ever-vigilant Commissariat of Internal Affairs. One conspicuously drops a letter “that included descriptions of troop movements and artillery placements on the outskirts of Smolensk.” He is called in by the authorities, only to explain that he has copied out the description of the Battle of Borodino from War and Peace.
Rostov conspires with the restaurant staff against a villainous hotel manager; becomes enamored of a silent film movie star; roams the hotel with an adorably precocious girl; scares off a young man sniffing around his adopted daughter in a typically mannered way (“So that’s your game, is it? Seducing young women with jitterbugs?”); is enlisted to school a Red Army Colonel in the cultural traditions of the West; and chuckles approvingly over the farcical scene of three geese scurrying about and terrorizing a Swiss diplomat, Uzbek fur traders, and a Vatican representative (“How I love this hotel”). It’s all very light — even the Count’s momentary resolution to hurl himself off his balcony doesn’t dampen things terribly — but after nearly 500 pages, the airiness becomes curiously stifling. I found myself in odd sympathy with the Soviet interrogator at the beginning of the novel, who is somewhat exasperated by the Count’s winning archness. “History,” the Bolshevik chides the nobleman, “has shown charm to be the final ambition of the leisure class.”
If A Gentleman in Moscow is a big novel that ultimately feels small, Yusuf Atilgan’s reissued Motherland Hotel is a small novel that feels big. Motherland Hotel, originally published in Turkey in 1973, is the story of a private space made public, then made private again when its clerk unravels and shut himself, and the hotel, off from the outside world. The sign directing passersby “points downwards giving the impression that the hotel lies underground,” thus inadvertently indicating the trajectory of the novel’s protagonist.
“Son, when I’m dead and gone I don’t want you giving this room to just anyone who comes along. Every hotel needs a room like this.” Zeberjet, the phlegmatic clerk “of not quite average height” — compare another taller, but still deficient hero, Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, “an inch, or perhaps two, under six feet” — follows this paternal advice. He reserves the special room for special guests, like the glamorous woman from Ankara, whose arrival wakes Zeberjet from his sleepy existence.
We learn that the hotel was converted from a manor house, one of the few structures standing after the fleeing Greek army set fire to the town in 1922. Its name, The Motherland Hotel, is a relic of the “shamefaced patriotic zeal encountered, during the years just after Liberation, in those towns and cities where very little had been done about the enemy.” The gesture gives the modest establishment a slightly ridiculous air, and adds to the sense that for the unanchored Zeberjet, the town and nation are similarly full of bluster.
The transformation from manor house to “true hotel” takes years, not until “that small-town-hotel odor seeped into walls and woodwork.” But to someone who was born in one of its rooms, that transformation can never completely take place, no matter how many travelers, businessmen, couples, or prostitutes find lodging there. The hotel is a domestic inheritance, having come down to Zeberjet from his well-to-do merchant ancestors. That family, with its Faulknerian history of madness and suicide, is a ghostly presence in the novel. The room in which Zeberjet’s lecherous, senile grandfather was locked up in is now the third-floor bathroom, and tales of the sexual escapades between and among masters and servants work their way into Zeberjet’s erotic imagination, as do tantalizing overheard snatches from the hotel’s guests. (Zeberjet is an auditory voyeur, as it were.)
Motherland Hotel, which depicts the gradual disintegration of a mind, begins in a relatively orderly fashion. After a mildly disorienting opening passage, the narrative resets and proceeds with a series of labeled sections (“The Hotel,” “The Town,” etc.), as if to stave off the coming chaos. The principal actors are similarly introduced: Zeberjet, who carries out his duties in zombie-like fashion; the languorous maid whom he accosts each night in her sleep (“Sometimes he’ll be a nipple and she mumbles ‘Ow’ or ‘Scat’”; the glamorous woman from Ankara, who stays for one night and whose room Zeberjet keeps free in the hopes that she will return; and the mysterious “Retired Officer” who loiters for days on end in the lobby and seems as obsessed with the Ankaran woman as Zeberjet. Even the cat and a pair of bath towels — one belonging to the hotel, one left by the woman from Ankara — are included in this dramatis personae. In a novel full of somnolent characters, inanimate objects become charged.
Zeberjet fetishizes the traces of the woman from Ankara, keeping her room as a shrine, one which he honors, or profanes, with masturbatory visits. But he seems to take a greater sensual pleasure in the commonplace words uttered in their brief interaction (“Never mind the change”) or in calculating the number of cups she poured from the tea kettle he brought to her room, how many lumps of sugar she used. When he breaks her teacup one night, the accident shatters the sanctified atmosphere and his hopes for her return: “The room had been violated. Now she would not come back.”
No matter. The nameless woman (she claims to carry no ID) spawns nameless desires, setting off an unpredictable chain of reactions in the affectless man for whom the hotel has become a kind of prison over the years. (Zeberjet hardly gets out more often than Count Rostov.) He shaves his moustache and buys new clothes; turns away new guests; thrillingly, but timidly, flirts with a young man; and roams aimlessly about the small town.
Once out in the world again, he witnesses a world of action and contests starkly different from the purgatorial torpor of the Motherland Hotel. He watches a cockfight in which one of the birds (sporting the same color as the towel left behind by the woman) is killed in the ring, to the dismay of the onlookers: “Maybe they were afraid of going all the way. Of seeing the end.” He sees a movie, a typical Western in which a lone hero takes on corrupt town bosses. It rings false to him, though he grants that “it gave the illusion that something could be accomplished single-handed, and you went along.” Finally, he attends the murder trial of a young man who, for reasons he doesn’t divulge, strangled his wife on their wedding night. The hunger for a motive exasperates him: “Why a motive at all they need a story either insult or a slap silence or obedience something to fit a little box…”
These scenes of violence — ritualized, heroic, inexplicable — foretell Zeberjet’s own surrender to his darker impulses, a necessary surrender, according to him: “He felt embarrassed, ashamed actually, before all those people who thought of themselves as innocent, who failed to realize that only crime — some kind of crime — could keep you alive on earth.” Such half-baked Nietzschean sentiments are less indicative of his madness, though, than the cooly rational, and illogical, summation of his own crack-up:
Basically the running of a hotel was no different from running an institution, managing a large business, or governing a country. Just when you began to know yourself and understand what the means at hand might be, that’s when you slipped and broke down. Luckily the managers of government didn’t realize this, or they could do much more harm than the manager of a small hotel.
Here is the madman’s tendency to see his particular condition as universal. All the word’s mad, and the center cannot hold for the motherland’s statesmen and hoteliers alike.
Image Credit: Pexels.
Joseph Roth was a master of the feuilleton, a peculiar form of journalism that many contemporary readers may not be familiar with. Short, subjective, and eclectic, the feuilleton was especially popular in European newspapers in the early 20th century. Roth described it as “saying true things on half a page,” and despite its seemingly casual nature, he did not consider it inferior to other forms of journalism. “The feuilleton is as important as politics are to the newspaper,” he wrote, “and to the reader it’s vastly more important.” In his confident, controversial way, he added, “What people pick up the newspaper for is me. Not the parliamentary report. Not the lead article. Not the foreign news….I don’t write ‘witty columns.’ I paint the portrait of the age.”
The Hotel Years brings together 64 of Roth’s feuilletons, nearly half of which were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung. Each of these little essays is a pleasure to read, and regarded collectively they present an invaluable portrait of life in Europe between the two World Wars. Though tone and temperament vary throughout the book, the quality of writing does not. Roth is perpetually engaging, whether he is decrying the Third Reich, criticizing clichéd notions of Russia, enumerating the unpleasant realities of travel, or simply commenting on the quirks of a hotel cook.
In a letter to the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1926, Roth remarked on his “habitually satirical mode” and described himself as “wholly incapable of allowing any enthusiasm in me more space than my skepticism.” These qualities are apparent in many of the feuilletons gathered here; they are works of satire, driven by Roth’s bristling sense of irony and his unsparing eye for detail. He was a keen observer of everyday life, and he had an ingenious knack for capturing a person or place with a few brief sentences. His essays reveal an obsession with physical descriptions and a fascination with the habits and appearances of the people he encountered, as demonstrated in “The Dapper Traveler:”
The traveler is clad in a discreet gray, set off by an exquisite iridescent purple tie. With complacent attention he examines his feet, his leather shoes, and the fine knots in the broad laces. He stretches out his legs in the compartment, both arms are casually on the arm rests to either side. Before long the gray traveler pulls out his mirror again, and brushes his dense, black parted hair with his fingers, in the way one might apply a feather duster to a kickshaw. Then he burrows in his case, and various useful items come to light: a leather key-holder, a pair of nail scissors, a packet of cigarettes, a little silk handkerchief and a bottle of eau de cologne.
So much attention and enthusiasm are given to these kinds of details that it often seems as though Roth is creating a world rather than describing the one that already exists. Taken out of context, in fact, many of the pieces in The Hotel Years could pass as fiction. They are strikingly similar to the work of Robert Walser, the eccentric Swiss author whose books have become rather fashionable in the past few years. (Berlin Stories, a collection of Walser’s short prose pieces, includes feuilletons that were published in the Frankfurter Zeitung.) Some resemble sketches for novels, travel notes, diary entries. It is remarkable that they were published in newspapers — not because they are uninteresting or poorly written, but because they are so different from the kind of work one expects from a journalist. In an essay on the German city of Magdeburg, Roth explains his writing in the following way:
What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory.
There is, of course, a transitory nature to this kind of writing. It is short and often very specific, tightly bound to the time and place in which it was written. Roth traveled across Europe, lived in hotels, and wrote essays that were inspired by what he refers to as “the great blessing of being a stranger.” He is whimsical and frivolous at times, prone to exaggeration, and indulgent of superficial details that fail to leave the reader with any lasting impressions. But many of his essays endure, as mere ephemera do not. “Where the World War Began,” for example, is a particularly haunting piece that looms in the mind long after reading it:
We drive through the streets, along the river bank — there, that corner there is where the World War began. Nothing has changed. I am looking for bloodstains. They have been removed. Thirteen years, innumerable rains, millions of people have washed away the blood. The young people are coming home from school; did they learn about the World War, I wonder?
As the preceding passage shows, there is a melancholy eloquence to The Hotel Years. Joseph Brodsky believed that there was a poem on every page Roth wrote. Although this may be an exaggeration, it does not seem unfounded — even when reading Roth in translation. For this, much praise is owed to the prodigiously talented poet, critic, and translator Michael Hofmann. Without him, the reader of English would hardly know Roth at all. The Hotel Years is the 14th of Roth’s books that he has translated. (Among the others are The Radetzky March, commonly considered Roth’s masterpiece, and Joseph Roth: A Life in Letters, a significant work of scholarship that serves as an essential companion to all of Roth’s other writing.) Hofmann’s commentary is insightful and especially helpful in establishing a context for Roth’s life and work. In the introduction to What I Saw — a collection of feuilletons written in Berlin during the years of the Weimar Republic, and the first book of Roth’s journalism to be published in English — Hofmann describes Roth as “a maximalist of the short form.” In these reports from Berlin, as in the pieces collected in The Hotel Years, “What is small is inevitably made to seem vast, and vast things are shrunk into a witty perspective.”
For Roth, writing was not merely a way to make a living, it was a way of life. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, he left the country and never returned. “Very few observers anywhere in the world seem to have understood what the Third Reich’s burning of books, the expulsion of Jewish writers, and all its other crazy assaults on the intellect actually mean,” he wrote at the time. “Let me say it loud and clear: The European mind is capitulating. It is capitulating out of weakness, out of sloth, out of apathy, out of lack of imagination…” Six years later, at the age of 44, Roth died in Paris from the effects of alcoholism. It is frustrating to think of what he might have written had he lived longer, but not because the body of work that he left behind is lacking. As the present publication of The Hotel Years proves, much of Roth’s writing has been neglected. Although he has come to be remembered mostly for his novels, his journalism is equally as impressive.