by David Leavitt
Published by Bloomsbury
Published October 15, 2003
272 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com
Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray
September 24, 2013
At the much-heralded start of David Leavitt’s career, I doubt anyone would have guessed that he would turn to writing about times before he was born (in 1961). And after the debacle of being sued by Sir Stephen Spender for expropriating that writer’s inter-world-war life in While England Sleeps (1993), I’d have guessed that Leavitt would leave the past behind. He has not, writing a biography of Alan Turing (The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer) and a very substantial novel centered on the self-taught mathematical genius colonial Indian-born Srinivasa Ramanujan, as seen mainly through the eyes of his mentor and collaborator G. H. Hardy, a British mathematics professor at Cambridge University (The Indian Clerk, 2007), and now The Two Hotel Francforts, set in the anxious times after the Fall of France in the only port from which those trying to flee Europe could depart.
Among them are three Americans and the British-born wife of another, waiting to be evacuated on the Manhattan, which was only taking Americans (and their pets). Two of the three Americans, Julia Winters and Edward Freleng, are Jewish, at least Jewish in the view of the Nazis, though neither are practicing nor self-identified Jews.
Julia vowed never to return to America and is more concerned about losing face with the relatives to whom she proclaimed that than by the threat of the Third Reich extending to Portugal, a possibility that worries her husband. I don’t recall any views about Jewishness and its perils in the rapidly expanding Nazi empire from Edward or Iris. Neither of them is considering staying in Europe. They had been in Belgium, but were rootless (“nomadic” in a more romantic definition of their situation) with their 15-year-old terrier, Daisy.
I might consider the name Daisy an allusion to The Great Gatsby, another novel in which a wistful American remembers dubious glamour of yore, but the piece of the canon of English-language fiction that I felt most present was Ford Madox Ford’s (1915) The Good Soldier. It had an Edward (an admittedly common name, more so than “Daisy”), whose wife, like Iris Freleng, attempted to control him, and serial infidelities. The Two Hotel Francforts proceeds more chronologically than The Good Soldier, though both are retrospects in which the fairly ordinary narrator realizes there was much he did not know about his wife and about the other couple (Pete knew the Frelengs something on the order of nine days, rather than John Dowell knowing Captain Edward Ashburnham and his wife Leonora nine years.) There was also a suicide of one of the women in both novels. (It is explicit from the beginning of the novel that Julia is dead when Pete is recalling the interactions of the two couples in 1940 Lisbon.)
Also in the case of both novels, I wonder about the refined prose allegedly produced by the not especially cultured or insightful narrators (John Dowell and Pete Winters). Pete has been a Buick salesman in Paris, the place Julia desperately wanted to live (and managed to furnish an apartment that was photographed for Paris Vogue before fleeing across France, Spain, and Portugal). Leavitt’s novel is more explicitly set in a time of crisis (even for expatriate Americans in Europe) than Ford’s, which is set on the eve of World War I.
At least in retrospect, Pete realized that, in addition to having or making enough money to support her affectations, what Julia needed “was a husband who was sufficiently in her thrall that he would do all he could to maker happy, but sufficiently lazy that he could be counted on for loyalty.” Not an assessment to flatter his vanity, but crisp and clear-eyed, as Pete is about the Frelengs (who, btw, write mystery novels under the nom de plume Xavier Legrand). And he is also acute in realizing: “Now it seems churlish to speak of our plight, which was nothing compared with that of the real refugees—the Europeans, the Jews, the European Jews. Yet at the time we were too worried about what we were losing to care about those who were losing more.” And the even more epigrammatic: “We disregard every warning sign, no matter how blatant, rather than let anything interfere with our getting what we want” (one that readily applies to Jay Gatsby, too).
I could even link the seeming afterthought finales of Ford’s and Leavitt’s novels. Some early readers have been dismayed by what I see as a metafictional ending of The Two Hotel Francforts and complained that it provides the possibility of a sequel (what Pete says would have been the subject for a book by a professional writer, something he proudly is not). There is a set of ten rules for novel writers (less specific than those of the recently deceased Elmore Leonard, btw) by a professional writer who is a character in The Two Hotel Francforts that Pete’s narrative flouts. And what I thought was going to be a loose end is neatly tied up.
I think the book sags a bit two-thirds of the way through, but the ending does not seem “rushed” to me. Perhaps I am too accustomed to the information about what happened to characters later at the end of many movies.
Pete comes to see strengths in himself (including strength of passion) he had not known he had, and to see the weaknesses (including weakness of passion!) of the other three. I don’t know that The Two Hotel Francforts tells readers anything new about the collapse of Europe to Nazi domination in 1940 (or the slumbers of the U.S. through the rise of Hitler, though what I quoted about ignoring signs applies), but I feel the characters are credible expatriates of 1940 and interesting, if not especially likable (I don’t demand the latter from fiction I read). And though I have been to Lisbon, I don’t know it well enough to second-guess any of the local color Leavitt lays on (for a time more than seven decades in the past now).
What most irks me is the title. Each of the couples stays in a different Lisbon hotel named Francfort. Edward (who was educated at Harvard and Cambridge, though he left the latter without the Ph.D. toward which he was working) and Pete discuss whether it is “hotels Francfort” or “Hotel Francforts.” The first, the option not taken in Leavitt’s title is correct…and the question could easily be avoided altogether with “Francfort hotels.”
© 24 September 2013
©2013, 2016 by Stephen O. Murray