Review: Lisa Gortonon Christina Stead

The Hunted Months: The Little Hotel by Christina Stead

‘If you knew what happens in the hotel every day!’ From the hotelkeeper’s first sentence, the reader becomes another guest of the little hotel. Abruptly, vividly, Madame Bonnard starts talking. She is an unusual kind of narrator: she tells the story like someone watching action on a stage. Scene by scene, she introduces the actors, her staff and guests: servants without papers, war profiteers, collaborators, touring cabaret artists — ‘people without a home’. Confiding, secretive, unreliable, she creates the hotel out of talk: her talk, their talk.

Christina Stead’s exhaustive imagination, which in her other novels ranges over continents and years, here concentrates itself on a cheap hotel in the off-season, soon after the Second World War. The Little Hotel includes just two expansive descriptions of the natural world: one is a memory, one is framed by a window, and both are of light playing over a lake. For the guests of the Hotel Swiss-Touring, days are measured out by mealtimes and seasons by the price of rooms. As you read Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children (1940), you see the setting fill in with detail, growing denser and more natural. As you read The Little Hotel, you feel the passage of time: digressive, repetitive and also vertiginous. These guests have escaped from their past and keep putting off their future — that country in which they will live. The old lady waiting for a broken elevator, trying to read the menu before the staff snatch it away, embodies the feeling of time in the little hotel: for the guests there is never enough of it, but they are always waiting.

‘The old wandering hunted life starting again, patience, weather, menus, cafes at night,’ Stead noted in her diary in September 1951. Her partner, William Blake, was a communist sympathiser and in December 1946 Stead left McCarthy’s America to join him in Europe: England, Belgium, France and Switzerland. Her diaries from that time are crabbed, dense with landscapes and weather, dreams and dream interpretations, outings to films and opera, alongside descriptions of hotel staff and her fellow guests, notes on their history and fragments of their talk.

Those wandering, hunted years form the backdrop to The Little Hotel. Stead started writing early versions of the novel then, and drew on material from the diaries. She published excerpts and versions in short stories: ‘The Hotel-Keeper’s Story’ (1952) and ‘The Woman in Bed’ (1968). Although she tried a couple of times to publish earlier versions of the novel, it did not appear until 1973 in Australia and 1975 in the United States, after the editor and critic Oliver Stallybrass had worked on it, changed the title from Mrs Trollope and Madame Blaise, and sent it out to publishers. With mordant humour, Stead had sent the manuscript to Stallybrass as a Valentine’s Day gift.

This long gestation meant that Stead had the novel with her, in one form or another, for twenty years. More than any other of her published works, The Little Hotel reveals a rigorous aesthetic sense of form, a deliberate dramatic objectivity most akin to her unpublished plays for marionettes. Comparing it with her diaries and the stories reveals how she worked to make The Little Hotel at once subtler and more dramatic.

In early notes, she wrote: ‘1. Sitn of the little hotel. The town. The sitn of the town. 2. Description of the little hotel. 3. It is the off-season and what is that like.’ The Little Hotel is remarkable for how much of that situation and description she dispensed with. The landscapes went, and most of the weather, along with the ordinary narrative machinery of getting a character out of a room and down some stairs; so did the historic backdrop and the characters’ backstories—all an author’s customary props, asides and amplifications.

This is the precarious brilliance of Stead’s approach: in the little hotel, her characters are like actors in a play, talking themselves into existence. They stay for a while and then vanish into their lives again. One has written notes on the edge of old handtowels; one sends back a letter; one returns unexpectedly after months away. For the most part, they leave no trace. Against that bare anonymous setting her characters invent themselves, magnificently dreadful, at once archetypal and exactly realised.

When the novel appeared in the United States, Lillian Hellman optioned the film rights. In changing the title to The Little Hotel, Oliver Stallybrass had perhaps sought to emphasise its relationship to Vicki Baum’s bestselling novel Menschen im Hotel (1929), translated into English as Grand Hotel, and made into a film starring Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1933. Baum is often credited with creating the ‘hotel novel’ of fragmented storylines, characters brought together by chance: ‘A hundred doors along one corridor and nobody knows a thing about his next-door neighbour.’ In Grand Hotel, Baum makes the hotel into a characteristic space of modernism, ungrounded, anonymous, fleeting. In her memoir, It Was All Quite Different (1962; English translation 1964), she wrote, ‘I wanted the hotel to be a symbol of life as such.’

Stead’s novel is starker, funnier and more political—and owes as much to Katherine Mansfield’s short-story sequence In a German Pension (1911), alike organised around mealtimes and built of talk. Stead’s hotel is not the most expensive but the cheapest in town. In place of Baum’s lonely and opium-addicted Dr Otternschlag, a war veteran with a glass eye and half his face burnt off, Stead has Dr Blaise, who keeps his wife on opium, and collects photographs of other people’s wounds and diseases. In place of Baum’s famous ballerina, Stead has the cabaret dancer Lola-la-Môme, who ‘ends her dance in nothing but a few beads’. If Baum treats the hotel as an existential condition, Stead remakes it as a study of capitalism. Money buys time, and not only time, in The Little Hotel. It shapes the relationship between lovers and families as much as between staff and guests: ‘The Blaises had much to keep them together, a daughter, a son, Madame Blaise’s fortune.’

Scene by scene, the novel is vivid with small details: how Robert passes the morning, what is for lunch, what kind of rings Lilia and Madame Blaise like to buy. Amid this small dailiness, Stead sets mysteries. Was that a murder in the beginning? What did the Mayor of B do in the war? What happened to the scissors? Who stole Lilia’s hundred-franc note? Will Miss Chillard survive the journey? Is that another murder at the end? Such mysteries introduce a sense of double time: a difference between action and plot. The reader is perpetually aware of forces at work behind the scenes.

This is part of the genius of Stead’s dialogue. Her characters speak out of their need, but even their most heartfelt cries seem like a form of delay. Through all the intricate quotidian activity of the hotel, distractingly lifelike, we find ourselves waiting for Lilia to decide: ‘She had a terrible choice to make, to choose between Robert and some sort of freedom, between a wandering old age and that homeland in which she was a stranger.’ For all their self-absorption, the hotel guests are puppets controlled by outside forces: exchange rates and regulations, foreign governments and money schemes, mothers and children. With each of them, Stead keeps us puzzling over who is pulling the strings. Lilia’s decision is at the heart of the novel, because it is the dramatic expression of that question: will she take her life into her own hands?

This doubleness is essential also to the novel’s comedy, at once ludic and deadpan. The novel’s greatest scene is a grotesque dinner party at the Grand Café where the Blaises pass around their gruesome photographs and the Princess’s dog, Angel, howls out ‘D’ye ken John Peel’. Such idiomatic humour glints everywhere in The Little Hotel. ‘You see he wore his sunglasses at any rate,’ says Charlie, when they finally get the Mayor of B to put on some clothes and come out of the bathroom. Madam Bonnard’s best friend remarks: ‘Oliver used to be a beautiful child; now he is cross-eyed and fat and getting more like you every day.’ ‘No doubt she is beautiful too?’ cries the jealous servant Luisa to Lilia: ‘As beautiful as a dancing bear!’ ‘We’ll have to invite them back, you know,’ remarks Madame Blaise to her husband. ‘The doctor laughed. “Not to the same tune. I’ll invite them for the anniversary of the day I met you and we’ll give them lentil soup and cornmeal cakes.”’ In even its smallest piece of dialogue, in all its madcap scenes, the novel has this understated, acid wit and kickback of pity.

‘No, no, we have no rooms, the hotel is full up, sir.’

But the Mayor yelled: ‘It’s the off-season, you haven’t three wretched sinners in the whole mausoleum, there are five miles of corridor occupied by ghosts of dead bankrupt Englishmen in this damp mausoleum; that is all.’

…The Mayor took himself up in the lift, quite naked of course, except for his top-piece and neckpiece with his two shopping bags, while the boy was saying:

‘But, sir, you have no luggage.’

In this fashion, Stead transforms a comedy of manners into a satire with the dispassionate brutality of a folk tale. As the housekeeper, Clara, says: ‘Drink, fall on your face and be merry, for tomorrow you die.’

I had never heard of The Little Hotel when I saw it in the window of a second-hand bookshop in Melbourne. Alice’s Bookshop in Carlton had the 1975 American edition, which has no introduction. I still remember the feeling of shock as I started reading. The Little Hotel had in its first two pages more reality, more fierce intelligence in play, than anything else I had read that year. But I couldn’t find anyone who had read it, so I ordered the 2003 Richmond edition with its printing errors just for the intelligent introduction by Fiona Morrison and Margaret Harris.

How could such a book have fallen out of print? In this little hotel’s self-closed world, with its closed-in days, Stead analyses the legacy of the war, Cold War attitudes, and the rise of international money laundering and tax evasion: forces of history written into the nature of her characters. ‘There are communists even in this country, in Switzerland,’ declares the old American eugenicist Mrs Powell. ‘Why don’t you get busy and stand them all up against a wall?’ The Little Hotel is the shortest of Stead’s novels but it is not minor: all the satiric ambition of her other novels finds dramatic concentration here.

This is the introduction to the new Text Classics edition of The Little Hotel, which will be published on 3 October 2016.