Monday, December 7, 2009

not a day passes but something happens

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 Little Hotel begins and ends in the first person. Madame Bonnard is chatting to an unnamed "you," telling you about the hotel she runs in Switzerland, about her guests, her servants, the peculiarities of everybody, their financial situations, their love affairs, and so on: different people confide in her (as here) and so she becomes a kind of overseeing eye. Casually the first person becomes third person, quietly it shifts back again for the finale. Stead, argues R.G. Geering, can't sustain the first person because her cast in this book is too large and too independent.

But before long the first person account proves inadequate for a casual narrative which shuttles between so many characters and incidents ... Counting hotel staff as well as lodgers the number of characters present is closer to thirty than twenty (the novel is less than two hundred small pages long) and there are others, such as the relatives of Mrs Trollope and Mr Wilkins, who are important in analysis of the main figures

Madame Bonnard sits above it all, or at the centre but she's not, however, omnipotent - there are mysteries, there are facts hidden, even from her. "I never knew whether she was divorced, widowed or separated." Some of the more fateful events of the book crystallise around marriages and not-marriages. The story is set just after World War II and all of these characters, European and American (and the one from Java), are paranoid and jumpy, touchy, easily upset, not knowing which way is safe, not knowing what history will do to them next. They're racist, bigoted, anti-communist: many of them have come to the independent opinion that money is the one safe thing - they must get money. Even Madame Bonnard's friendliness has its roots in money. She's a naturally friendly woman (she treats us like a friend) but she pays attention to these people in particular because it's her job. A character trait has been honed into a practical asset. Everything "has its cunning," said George Paul in The Puzzleheaded Girl. "Irregularities are a nuisance with the staff," Madame Bonnard remarks, "but they matter hardly at all with the guests, who are here merely to amuse themselves and spend money." The staff are poor. The guests are not. Stead's communism-trained awareness of what you might call a financial class structure gives The Little Hotel a dimension that sets it apart from the chamber-piece genre of small, mainly British, books set in continental hotels, works like Anita Brookner's Hotel du Lac, written around people who find themselves in pensions, discovering love or the meaning of life, or withering away in genteel misery, or whatever. Those books tend to focus on a few guests. This one roves over a larger terrain. The mood of The Little Hotel is rapid, lively, reverberating with the warfare that everybody in this post-war place seems to be remembering and reacting to, even when it's not the subject under discussion.

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