New Mortality

John Harvey

  • The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving
    Cape, 401 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 224 01961 9
  • The Villa Golitsyn by Piers Paul Read
    Secker, 193 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 436 40968 2
  • Funeral Games by Mary Renault
    Murray, 257 pp, £6.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 7195 3883 1
  • The Cupboard by Rose Tremain
    Macdonald, 251 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 03 540476 0

One of the genuinely eerie moments in the recent huge and hollow film about a huge and hollow hotel, The Shining, comes in the late shot where we get a glimpse inside one of the rooms that should be empty, and see some sort of human bear, or person in a bearskin, kneeling to a woman in evening dress: this couple looks back at us slowly, surprised in we can’t guess what macabre rite of love.

Whether or not this shot helped inspire John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire one doesn’t know; Irving, author of The World according to Garp, already had his own surreal interest in bears, as in his early novel Setting Free the Bears. At all events, a girl who wears all day (and night) a shaggy bearskin prowls the corridors of the largely empty Hotel New Hampshire, and in a zanily lyrical moment is glimpsed through a bedroom door kneeling down and loving the heroine. We have seen many hotels recently: the rich, crowded period hotel in Death in Venice which that film loved more than it loved Venice, Tadzio or death; or the banner-streaming, nostalgically remembered hotel in Fellini’s Amarcord; or J.G. Farrell’s hero committed to reviving the antiquated Hotel Majestic in Troubles; or, most notably now, The White Hotel of D.M. Thomas. The White Hotel, with its collocations of Freud and holocaust, looms large behind The Hotel New Hampshire, which has among its characters a Viennese Jew called Freud (Irving has some of Magritte’s pleasure in the surreal effect of incongruous namings, with his bear called State O’Maine, his dog called Sorrow).

The Hotel New Hampshire has few guests and many deaths, and in general our fictitious hotels are largely deserted, and are often (like those I’ve listed) houses of death; they are a world away from the teeming, sappy commonplaceness of, say, Ludwig Bemelmans’s real-life hotels. They are sad places, as I dare say hotels always are: tawdry-grand labyrinths that are home and not home to multitudes of people who don’t know each other, and are rapidly effaced. Modern cities under one roof, they are haunted now – though the ghosts are not so much people as weird dreams, bear-lovers, wistful dying fantasies, surreal pantomimes of other people’s passions.

Harbouring these thoughts in the vestibule, one toys with the idea that some such grand establishment might be our Elsinore, a location of modern tragedy. But that is hard to imagine, since no one knows anyone in a hotel: whether few or many, the guests flicker past, flat to each other, and are gone. John Irving’s people have this hotel-character: they are diverse, colourful, odd, flat. One is stunted, one wears a white dinner-jacket, one is pockmarked, speaks funny and has a performing bear – grotesque-amiable figures spinning in and out of the plot at a great rate on the time-honoured now-you-see-him-and-now-you-don’t principle of picaresque fiction. And one realises that it is just this feature of hotel life – the flat hurry, the crowding and dashing, the jamming together of people so different and so briefly seen that they seem caricatures of themselves – which, however many gruesome mortalities occur, restricts hotel-tragedy to sad glimpses –

        Fräulein von Kulp                 
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door

– and which at the same time makes the hotel-world so fertile for comedy.

For comedy proves to be the true bent of hotel-art: a hectic, jam-packed farce of disasters – and since John Irving’s novels are that anyway, powered by a particular effervescent outrageousness, he is at home in his hotels. The idea of ‘home’ is perhaps important: hotel comedy works best when it has at its centre the people for whom the hotel is, more than for anyone else, their home – like the mad-inspired-hilarious Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers seems to me the triumph of hotel-art to date), or like the multifarious, ramshackle, misadventurous Berry family which is the hotel-owning corporate hero of The Hotel New Hampshire. Of the family, the true hero is Father, a quixotic martyr of capital investment, led on by the palatial mirage of a huge, thriving ideal Hotel New Hampshire, and projecting his family from one set of disused, impracticable premises to another. As hotels, the huge ventures fail, but the family just keeps afloat, and through persistence in the face of recurring failure, Father emerges as a kind of idealist.

In Paul Theroux’s recent novel The Mosquito Coast there was a marvellously vital but similarly quixotic Father, an inventor-businessman making ice in the jungle. It seems that fiction is at present engaged in a cautious rehabilitation of the entrepreneur: easily sympathised with because he has failed but still hopes, and easily liked because seen, through affection’s eye, as Father. And, after all, businessmen are important enough in the world: isn’t it time that fiction gave us again the man in businessman – something it has hardly done, really, since Balzac. Political inhibition can afford to lapse now, for I imagine that in the multinational world the independent entrepreneur has had his day. But why in that case should novelists pull their punches, and do the thing only in whimsical terms: why especially an idealist-failure of a businessman, a Quixote of capitalism? Irving’s Father is all vision and wishful thinking and no business-passion at all; and his soul is virginal. Fiction keeps turning from the real face of business: it would be a pity if one had to conclude that such avoidance was fiction’s business.

The novel as a whole is, I should say, scarcely soft. Father is blinded in a bomb-blast, and in general the Berry family’s ‘misadventures’ are a Garp-style run of disasters which make one writhe as one reads, and which go far beyond the natural hazards of hotel-keeping and the entrepreneurial life (I hope). It is an odd effect that John Irving gets, running accident on accident in his brisk, snappy way as though they were just the funny collisions of slapstick when often they are more: one sister raped, the other stunted, mother and brother killed in a plane-crash, best friend and others blown to smithereens; not to mention the heart-attacks, shootings, bear-mawlings, glass-splinterings and other hilarious mishaps of the supporting cast. It is a pretty chilling sort of vivacity for comedy to have: there is a cruelty in it, and at the heart of the cruelty, perhaps, a sterility.

The horribleness of these things is, though, mitigated by a more wistful and desolate play of fantasy such as clings, for instance, to the novel’s succession of ancient near-empty hotels. In a way, it is all a dream: we are told of Father that ‘imagination was his own hotel,’ and in the closing paragraphs the novel describes itself as a kind of necessary dream. The family has not only a bear but the dog called Sorrow, who, dead but weirdly preserved and restored, somehow bobs to the top of one after another of the family’s troubles, as if with habituation to disasters has come a sad affection for them: it is a touching fancy – trouble has become this family’s pet. And the family is, on the one hand, such an odd family as never was, while, on the other, the narrator’s acidities – as in the description of his stunted authoress-sister – suggest some autobiographical basis for it. Perhaps Irving’s novel is the dream-version of his family life: that is what much fiction has been. What else is Kafka’s Metamorphosis? And Grass, Marquez and, most recently, Salman Rushdie work to a similar conception. Possibly, in being playfully aware that it is dreamlike, The Hotel New Hampshire takes dreaming too lightly, like those dream-films where, at the end of the story, someone ‘wakes up’ – something that could never happen in Kafka.

Climactically, this family dream is a dream of incest: I shouldn’t say who with whom. But evidently incest is in – weakening family taboos affording now this weak kick. It plays its part in Piers Paul Read’s The Villa Golitsyn, a cisatlantically spare and economic book, a house to Irving’s flying hotel, two hundred pages to his four hundred, introvertedly English where Irving is Pan-Americanly extrovert. In 1956, a member of the British Embassy staff in Djakarta betrayed the route of a British patrol to the Indonesian guerrillas, so the patrol died horribly. One of the two suspects seemed to convict himself by absconding, and reappearing only years later, an expatriate alcoholic in the South of France. Now the Foreign Office needs to know whether he or the other man was the traitor, and Simon Milson is dispatched to holiday at the suspect’s villa and plumb him. Arrived there, both Milson and the novel itself are sharply and guardedly observant, and if the book is spare, it is spare as an animal on the scent would need to be, taking well-placed, light, deliberate steps as it approaches the quarry. At the end, there is a sudden tautening when the hunter finds he himself is threatened and trapped. He has to choose between doing the ‘right’ thing, to his own destruction, and endangering everyone else by playing safe. As he realises what little reason he has to take the former course – and how exigent, isolated and ungrateful the right course is – his predicament takes on the sharpness of the real dilemmas of life. It is a pity that this grim tension is diffused in the surprise dénouement of the last two pages.

The Villa Golitsyn ends with its smaller proscenium as crowded with dead bodies as was, in the upshot, the Hotel New Hampshire. As its title indicates, Mary Renault’s Funeral Games is another busy series of deaths. Babylon is hushed, the courtiers agitate in whispers, as Alexander the Great lies dying. He has conquered the world but left no clear succession, and the novel records how his generals and relatives and wives contend for his power and in the process wipe each other out. In the background the ancient civilisations of Asia decay, while the army that has conquered them breaks itself to bits: the novel is inevitably, but still unfortunately, scattered. The liveliest figure is Eurydike, a would-be Lady Macbeth 15 years old, who marries Alexander’s idiot brother and propels him upwards through a political career, leading ever larger mutinies in the armies; the other contenders are amazed, discomfited, she more than keeps them busy. But they are the veterans, one knows they will get her in the end, and they do.

Many deaths, then: a high mortality in fiction this fortnight. What cumulatively I found most alarming was the separate blankness of each of these deaths. Modern fiction is strong on last moments, and comes closest to people when they are closest to death. But when they die, it is dumbfounded: the narration resumes elsewhere, after the hiatus, and then proceeds with an odd indifference, as if the life lost is simply cancelled. We and our novels don’t have a good way of letting other people’s deaths be important to us. In a way, the empty, haunted hotels and these numb, separate deaths go together. For it is a question of accommodation: death should have a home in life, and life should have a home.

The accommodation in Rose Tremain’s novel is tightest of all: it is not in any particular building, but simply in a cupboard, that her elderly authoress-heroine composes herself to die. Yet I found her death more moving than the others because the novel finds room for piety: the biographer-hero loses his job by staying too long to see her last wishes respected – an inconceivable sacrifice in a modern novel, one might have thought. There is agenerous life in The Cupboard, as well as a generosity to death. It shows in the book’s unchristian, kindly attitude to the heroine’s hope that if she can die just right, she may, in a dormouse, or some other creature’s form, be reincarnated.