Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hotel de Dream

I remember reading The Red Badge of Courage when I was in high school. Stephen Crane did not impress me then; I was interested in the novels of Dreiser and others that seemed more exciting. Over time I came to a better appreciation of Crane's prose and value the quality of Red Badge today as much if not more than the quantity of Dreiser who seems too prolix in comparison. I mention this as introduction to some remarks on Edmund White's magnificent imagining of Crane's last days in his novel, Hotel de Dream.

The story of Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel is one of two pairs of lovers, Stephen Crane and his wife Cora and the young prostitute Elliott and his lover Theodore the Banker, who are products of Stephen Crane's literary imagination. In this novel Crane is writing a companion piece to his earlier novel, Maggie, Girl of the Streets, and it is this novel, The Painted Boy, that occupies Crane as he slowly succumbs to the ravages of TB. What is fascinating is the seamless way that White is able to meld the stories of Crane's life and Crane's writing. Sections of The Painted Boy are interspersed throughout the novel as Crane dictates it to his wife Cora. The description of the young boy of the streets, Elliott is both moving and heartbreaking as he loses his childhood in an attempt to simply survive. In an inter textual delight for the reader Crane becomes a character both in White's novel, as journalist studying the boy, and in the novel he is writing within Hotel de Dream. It reminds me of a favorite novel of mine, The Counterfeiters, by Andre Gide, wherein the protagonist Edouard is writing a novel titled The Counterfeiters, thus making Gide's tale a novel within a novel. White is using a modern approach to the novel to tell a very authentic fin de siecle tale.

He succeeds; and the reader is drawn along by the atmospheric seediness of turn-of-the century Manhattan as it is contrasted with the quiet countryside of England where Stephen and Cora are passing their days. There is also the realism of visits from Henry James and Joseph Conrad that add to the book's milieu. I found White's prose elegant and his realization of Crane's novel within the novel believable. The contrasting portraits of passion help make this novel a gem. It makes me want to explore more of both writers in the near future.

Hotel de Dream: A New York Novel by Edmund White. Ecco, New York. 2007.

No comments: