Saturday, October 26, 2013

Artifice keeping the performance of our selves at a tolerable distance (Books - The Two Hotel Francforts - by David Leavitt)

I have been a fan of David Leavitt's work since his debut collection of stories, Family Dancing, in 1984.  Literate, deeply felt, somewhat otherworldly, they usually feature cerebral, quirky characters who feel they are outsiders.  My thoughts on his last novel, The Indian Clerk are here.  His latest is set in Lisbon in 1940. Two Hotel Francforts (Bloomsbury, 2013) also deals with persons in exile, in this case they are mostly refugees fleeing the Nazis.  This is where Edward and Iris Freleng, a wealthy couple who write detective fiction, meet Peter and Julia Winters, ex-pat Americans who had been living in Paris. Julia has been running from a troubled past, or perhaps seeking a new, more sophisticated identity, by living in Europe, but now, as a Jew, is compelled to return home.  Peter is a car salesman.  Iris and Edward are guiltily fleeing the abandonment of their disabled child.  Amidst this maelstrom of personal drama and the desperate flight of thousands of refugees, Peter and Edward have an affair.

The writer Leavitt evokes the most here is Henry James. It is not because of the expat gay affair, and his prose is not nearly as ornate. He is a more concise writer.  I draw the parallel because, firstly, this is an old fashioned novel.  It doesn't have a cause.  It is about four very compelling characters doing something - in this case, running away - in a particular place and at a particular time.  Secondly, this is a ghost story.  The characters are haunted, in some cases by love they cannot have, in others by a more authentic self that they have abandoned - perhaps because it hurt too much to be themselves.  With the exception of Peter, these people all seem to hate themselves.  The relationships formed in this book are cerebral, full of mistrust, and manipulation.  The characters have a layer of insulation around them. Peter and Edward's affair is repressed as well as escapist.

The alienation of human beings from themselves has always been Leavitt's theme - it is true of the Indian mathematician in The Indian Clerk, whose nationality and brilliance set him off utterly from those around him.  It was true of the character in Family Dancing, if I remember correctly, she is a young girl, who believes she is an alien.  Although the fantasy element of that story could distance the reader from the theme or make it humorous, I found it particularly poignant. The pervading atmosphere there is one of otherworldliness and the mundanity of living in suburban America is the anomaly to the girl's sense  of displacement.  Here, however, Leavitt has created the opposite relationship.  These fantasies are fleeting.  They can barely be sustained, and each character must return to the reality of the moment which is overwhelming to them, as well as to any reader who knows the history of World War II.  This makes for a more sober story. 

It might be that Family Dancing is the youthful version and The Two Hotel Francforts  the adult version of this tension between the alien experience and the everyday, between fantasy and reality, between acceptance and rejection, that Leavitt is forever exploring.  While the child can sustain the imagined world, the adult must be impinged upon by the burdens of "reality."  In the case of some of Leavitt's characters in The Two Hotel Francforts, these burdens are too much.  Edward has got to be one of the saddest characters I have ever met in a novel.  He rivals Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited - another great novel of alienation from oneself.  Leavitt's characters are rich, his themes provocative, and his plot involving, but I had some quibbles with the book that left me a little less satisfied than I have been with some of his past work.  There is a lot of writing going on here.  Iris and Edward are authors, Julia runs into her Aunt (or does she?) who is writing a novel, and Peter's narrative makes it clear that the story we are reading is one written by him retrospectively.  Normally I enjoy this sort of meta-fictional layering, but I found the coincidence of all this writing strained credibility.  I had to wonder if Leavitt was simply running out of ideas and could only imagine wordsmithery, although the flipside of this critcism is that this activity plays up the action of sustaining fiction, in which so many of these characters were indulging.  I had a bigger problem, however, with the diction of Peter's narrative voice which was far too contemporary in places.  For example
We had met...but here is the thing: I can't for the life of me remember exactly where we met, only that the occasion was a reception following some sort of public lecture or recital or poetry reading....
I really don't buy 'here is the thing' as the phrase of a man who was 30 years old in 1940, whether he is writing in 1960 or today, although, it he were writing today, that would make our narrator 103 years old. But overall, I was more involved by the writing than distanced by it, and as I have thought about it (having finished it 10 days ago),  my experience of its themes has deepened and my appreciation for its structural complexities has grown. I'll leave you with this.
I think this was three or four days into that last week - three or four days, that is, since Iris and I had had our little chat at the British Bar.  A factitious jollity carried us through those evenings, the pretense that we were just two couples out on the town together and not what we really were, which was a little commedia dell'arte troupe of three, performing its pantomime for an unwitting audience of one...Yes, I'm sure if you'd seen us those evenings, you'd have thought us the best of friends, eating lobster and drinking vinho verde and talking about...what? Politics,.  books. (Mostly Edward and Iris's books.)  And questions of such grave import as, Did Salazar have a German mistress?  Was Wallis Simpson a hermaphrodite?  Was the woman at the next table the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg?  We thought she might be.  We weren't sure.  For when it came to it, none of us had the remotest idea what the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg looked like, and wasn't that hilarious?  Everything was hilarious, hilarity was our means of keeping at bay the coarse instincts rooting around under the table, lust and envy and enmity and the desire to kill...Nor was the performance all that difficult to sustain, for what roles were we required to play but the roles of ourselves...


Thomas Hogglestock said...

I have read most of Leavitt's novels and I just picked this one up this week. Tempted to start it soon since I just finished another WWII book--the brilliant HHhH by Laurent Binet.

Ted said...

Ah, the Binet is worth it - huh? I'll have to check out your site and see what you said about it. If you have been a fan of Leavitt's, I'm curious what you will think of this one. I wasn't as unequivocally admiring of it, as I have been of a lot of his past work, but I'll read anything he writes because he has created an important body of work that resonates. Probably because he came of age at the same time I did, and his work reflects the issues of identity, both sexual and artistic, that I dealt with at the same time.

On a completely different note, you will be glad to know that I am finally popping my Pym cherry (sounds like something to drink!) with The Autumn Quartet for my next book club meeting.

Thomas Hogglestock said...

I've been meaning to come back for ages now that I have read this book. I really wanted to, but I got so hung up on some of the details that didn't ring true to me I had a hard time liking it. I think it is interesting your comparison of Edward to Sebastian from Brideshead.

Ted said...

T - Yes, I struggled at times with this one too. I'm going to head over to your place and see what you had to say in detail.