The Little Hotel
by Christina Stead
"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 dies. The woman stayed here twice." (p 7)
Christina Stead was an Australian novelist and short-story writer acclaimed for her satirical wit and penetrating psychological characterizations. She was born in Sydney, Australia, and died in Sydney. However in between she spent the vast majority of her life outside Australia in Europe and, briefly, in America. Having left her homeland in 1928, she subsequently lived in London, Paris, Brussels, New York and Hollywood before returning to her country of origin in 1969. She experienced a nomadic lifestyle, moving restlessly from country to country. Never completely at home in London, her relationship with Australia was decidedly ambivalent. Prior to 1965, none of her novels were published in Australia and she was denied the Britannica Australia Award for Literature in 1967 on the grounds that her years abroad called into question her Australian citizenship. Only later in her career did she receive critical acclaim in her homeland.
Though championed by Saul Bellow, this is a minor novel among the oeuvre of Christina Stead. It is minor in the sense that it is only a third the size of her typical books - and simply because Stead usually excels at what appears to be a Rabelaisian approach to her narrative canvas. A tale that starts and ends was not one of her enduring interests, and here we have a few amusing vignettes, and a few less amusing ones, all set in the "Swiss-Touring Hotel", a nondescript, probably a touch shabby, little hotel a few years after the end of WWII.
Most of the occupants are elderly Europeans (the English commonly crop up) who are various shades of desperate or insane (in the humorous sense). The book is narrated by the 26 year-old woman who runs the hotel, and Stead proves to have a terrific ability to reproduce the voice of such a person; she finds a sort of Swiss-German English that's a little halting, a little too precise, and works like a charm. Stead's ability to juggle a number of story-lines at one time (there are dozens of characters in a novel running under 200 pages) is on full display here - as long as things are filtered through the young owner's perception. Past the halfway point in the book she (Stead) makes the strange decision to change to an omniscient narrator, smooth out the language, and to concentrate on one of the hotel's aging English guests and her relationship with a man who refuses to marry her and who may be simply out to procure her large fortune, along with periphery friends and associates of this character. The novel probably could not have been sustained through the original narrator's voice, simply recounting all the amusing incidents, and the choice to eventually bring a few characters up front and center is right; but Stead's way of doing it is jarring and the book never recovers either its momentum or interest. It shows the impact of probably having been two separate books that were put together to make one small novel.
Like Christina Stead's pre-war novels set in Europe, this one suggests the disintegration of European culture. It is a microcosm of Europe in ruins, with its pitiful characters on a lifeboat and not a spot of land or ship around. In a letter Stead once complained that she couldn't write "positive" characters. It was not her talent. Aside from the hotel owner few of the characters appear very pleasant, and even she is less a saint than a practical businesswomen. However, there are memorable characters like the "Mayor of B", a Belgian whose personal idiosyncrasies provide fodder for several scenes as when he gently harangues the staff. And a proper British woman, Mrs Trollope (even the name is quaintly literary) is also the focus of many episodes including a nostalgic moment:
"I invited Mrs Trollope to the movies. The film was Goodbye, Mr Chips and I was longing to see it. Mrs Trollope wanted to see it again. She said:
'It gives you such a feeling of the dear old world still being with us in the new; though the young seem so old nowadays.'" (p 54) Moments like this one make her perhaps the most sympathetic of the hotel's residents.
Stead had a special gift for both proper and reprehensible characters, sick, neurotic, or insane, . The joy of The Little Hotel lies in her little portraits.
"The Princess said: 'Well, South America is good, there are so many skin diseases. But I met a doctor in New York, a very rich man, a friend of mine, who said nine-tenths of the babies in South America should be gassed; he said the bomb wouldn't do them the least harm; they should be exterminated. He toured South America and he was shocked. American science could do nothing for them. He is a splendid husband and father and he has seven children and knows what he is talking about.'
Lilia said: 'I think that is cruel.'
The Princess said: 'Oh, science is cruel; and this is a cruel age.'"
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