We present a guest blog by writer Rachel Carmichael, who discusses some novels and stories that feature hotels, surely one of the greatest settings in literary fiction.
Hotels in Literature – Rachel Carmichael
Interesting things can happen when characters are thrown together in unfamiliar locations, in intimately close accommodation, with different cultures to negotiate. How they choose to present themselves to people they may only know briefly. How similar or different they are to their everyday selves. Those who make friends and make sure everyone knows who they are, those who hang back and try to guess what everyone else’s deal is.
There’s potential for a shelf of hotel-lit on every bookcase. Here are some stories I’ve enjoyed.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)
This novel begins with Florence and Edward eating dinner in a Georgian inn on their wedding night. She thinks it’s too cold to eat outside, so from the table set up in the honeymoon suite they have a view of their four-poster bed. Two local lads employed as waiters work around them, while the door to the suite is open to the corridor because the trolley can’t be taken over the steps. McEwan reveals the thoughts of the nervous, self-conscious characters; we can feel their dread and trepidation, and how these feelings intensify in the unfamiliar semi-public surroundings.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016)
In 1922 Count Rostov becomes an unwilling permanent resident of the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, when trouble with the Bolsheviks leads to his being placed under house arrest. He is shunted out of his suite into tiny servants’ quarters in the attic. Most of his belongings are left behind to become the property of “the people”, but he saves his books, his desk and some other precious things. It is a luxurious lockdown, but Rostov has been warned that if he leaves the hotel he will be shot. He understands that he “must master his circumstances or otherwise be mastered by them” and looks to literature for inspiration and to people he would previously have overlooked, to build his new life. Rostov’s circumstances may be limited; his language is not. But even with the elaborate prose this story charms and draws you in.
The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov (1899)
In the coastal location of Yalta, Dimitri Gurov sees Anna Sergeyevna walking her little white Pomeranian. He is middle-aged and unhappily married; she is young, naive and also married. They begin an affair at his hotel in Yalta, and resume it later, in another hotel in Moscow. This is one of Chekhov’s best-known short stories and much has been written about it. What can I add? Out of deceit, guilt and bitterness, something beautiful appears. You should read it.
Roman Fever by Edith Wharton (1936)
Two wealthy Manhattan widows, whose younger lives occasionally connected, find themselves staying in the same hotel in Rome, holidaying with their daughters. In a restaurant overlooking the Roman Forum, against the uneasy background of the Fascist threat to world peace, their conversation turns to an incident in their past.
We hear the thoughts of each woman, each still in competition with the other, each silently pitying the other. Long-kept secrets come to the surface. The language may feel old now, but the observation of human nature is fresh and relevant.
Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (1929)
This is a novel packed with life and well-developed characters. We live their lives with them – the war veteran, the ageing ballerina, the businessmen, the professional thief – and get to understand them. It is Berlin in the 1920s but the characters are vibrant and modern, not held back by the moral code of another century. The city itself is made vivid, its charms and attractions shared with the reader through the perspective of a terminally ill character, determined to make the most of his remaining time, who finds himself at a boxing match
“… cooped up no longer in his dilapidated body. [He] was one among fourteen thousand, one green distorted face among countless others, and his voice indistinguishable in the one great roar that issued from every throat at once …”
The novel was adapted for the Broadway stage and then the screen. Baum emigrated from Austria to the United States and worked at Paramount and MGM for several years. She said that what she liked about Hollywood was that “one can get along by knowing two words of English – SWELL and LOUSY.”
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor (1971)
The Claremont Hotel on the Cromwell Road is the penultimate residence – before the care home or the hospital – of the moderately affluent but socially isolated. This is not a depressing reading experience. While there is a strong sense of life getting smaller, of freedoms being lost –
“ … food made the breaks in the day, and menus offered a little choosing, and satisfactions and disappointments, as once life had … ”
– it is lightened by the writer’s observations of the undimmed social competitiveness and snobberies of human beings. The stoic and sensible Mrs Palfrey carries the story, but Taylor dips into the perspectives of other hotel residents and of Ludo, the young writer Mrs Palfrey befriends.
In the end, for all the wit and gentle charm of the novel, Taylor shows her characters no mercy. After all, life doesn’t.