studies in travel writing

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In The American Scene Henry James proclaimed 'the truth that the present is more and more the day of the hotel'. In Victory, Joseph Conrad speaks of 'the age in which we are camped like bewildered travellers in a garish, unrestful hotel'.

What is it that makes the hotel such a compelling symbol of the contemporary for these fin-de-siecle novelists?

Was it their sense that industrial expansion and technological progress had flung more and more people from the old certainties of lives lived within a day's walk of home to unfamiliar cities where they found themselves at the mercy of strangers? And that the hotel was one of those places where this drama was played out so intensely?

If the literary possibilities of the hotel had been exploited before - the boarding house which features in Balzac's Le Père Goriot (1835) is a celebrated early example - it certainly resonated with the pioneers of the twentieth-century novel. As well as Conrad's own Schomberg's Hotel - the setting for his story 'Falk' (1901), as well as the later Victory (1915), other memorable fictional meetings take place in or around hotels in works such as Bennett's Grand Babylon Hotel (1902), Forster's A Room with a View (1908), Mann's Death in Venice (1912), and the second volume of Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (1919).

In Vicky Baum's Grand Hotel (1929) the narrator remarks that
unacknowledged acquaintanceships are always happening in hotel life. You brush against someone in the lift; you meet again in the dining-room, and in the cloakroom and in the bar; or you go in front of him or behind him through the revolving door – that door that never stops shovelling people in and shovelling them out.
A hundred years on the hotel continues to flourish in literature, film, and popular song as a particularly useful device to bring strangers together in one place. Cultural theorists have grappled with its significance, leading some to elevate the hotel into a paradigm of the modern (Siegfried Kracauer), the postmodern (Fredric Jameson) or the postcolonial (James Clifford).

In travel writing, as you'd expect, the hotel figures frequently. But it is rarely allowed to be the main focus. After all, 'real' travellers are supposed to head out on their own, get away from the crowds. To write about hotels would be to run the risk of turning into a tourist-writer, reviewing or - worse - promoting holiday destinations rather than capturing the lineaments of a particular experience. Matthew Brace's Hotel Heaven - whose tone rarely wavers from the smug - might serve as a warning in this respect.

Yet now and then there appears a work of literary travel that dwells on - rather quickly moves away from - the time spent in hotels, their quirks and their predictabilities, their safety and their danger, their rooms, corridors, lobbies and balconies.

Here are ten examples worth investigating.

Edwidge Danticat, 'No Greater Shame'. 'From the outside, it looks like any other South Florida hotel.' But this particular Comfort Suites in Miami was used as a detention centre for Haitian refugees. First published in 2003, a disturbing account of the imprisoned women and children, denied visits from family and not even allowed outdoors.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, Another Day of Life. According to this account of the last days of Portuguese colonialism in Angola, Kapuscinski spent most of his time in the Tivoli Hotel in Luanda. One of the last buildings in the city to have electricity and running water, it is the only place where he can telex his reports on the civil war back to Warsaw.

Sophie Calle, L'hôtel.Working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Venice for three weeks, the first-person protagonist takes careful note of the state of the rooms and enumerates the belongings of the guests, in a provocative blurring of the private and the public, fictional and non-fictional.

Nicole-Lise Bernheim, Chambres d'ailleurs. The narrator and her partner travel widely in the Far East and the Indian subcontinent but the text dwells on the tensions of their relationship as they play out in the various places they spend the night - cars, buses, trains, family homes, monasteries, but above all guest houses and hotels.

June Jordan, 'Report from the Bahamas'. 'A Black woman seeking refuge in a multinational corporation may seem like a contradiction to some,' she writes, and indeed her stay at a 'hotel that calls itself The Sheraton British Colonial' prompts multi-layered reflections on race, class and gender.

Douglas Rogers, The Last Resort. Accounts of return visits to the Eastern Highlands where Rogers grew up revolve around the guest house run by his parents, which becomes a compelling metaphor for the changing fortunes of white Zimbabwe during the first decade of the 21st century.

Cees Nooteboom, Nomad's Hotel. This selection of translated travel pieces includes some fine kaleidoscopic reflections on the many hotels the author has stayed in, the habits they foster, the feelings they provoke.

Patrick Boman, Jakarta. This deadpan room-by-room account of a two-month journey from Bangkok to Bali offers a phenomenology of furnishings, decor, and nocturnal sounds.

Madison Smartt Bell, 'Miroir Danjere'. An exploration of a vodou motif and the music of Boukman Eksperyans that flits through various Haitian locales but always looping back to the Hotel Oloffson, 'a kind of mirror, an interface between the foreign presence and the mind boggling anarchy of Port-au-Prince street life.'

Derek Walcott, 'The Light of the World''. The hotel appears frequently in Walcott's poetry and drama as both an emblem of exploitation and a scene of writing. Here the two converge as the poet alights from the bus outside the Halcyon Hotel in St Lucia where he is staying, and negotiates the social distance that separates him from the other passengers.
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Fri 27 Dec 2013 22:29 GMT+0000


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