02 February 2018

Redonnet's splendid and vicious cycle

Hôtel Splendid by Marie Redonnet, translated by Jordan Stump (University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

The Hemingway school of writing isn't one I'm fond of. In his review of a bestseller, Chad W. Post described it as "short, direct, concise, with little abstraction."

A book that is solid, something you can easily envision, with sentences you never get lost in.
The whole novel is unchallenging in that way. It’s the kind of writing that you can sort of relax into, the type of writing that lets you forget that your life is stressful and a struggle. I can see why this appeals to a lot of people—it’s the sort of writing that uncomplicates your consciousness as you read it.

It's the kind of judgement that I can't hand down to Hôtel Splendid, Marie Redonnet's novel of a hotel's decline. To say that it belongs to the Hemingway school of writing was a superficial claim. That claim was without basis, uncalled for. In fact, it was a travesty for it was the opposite case. In fact, at this point, I found this (my) introduction to the book already stale.  

Hôtel Splendid belonged to the Redonnet school of writing. It was not a bestseller. But in the year of the fire rooster, one of my most rewarding reading times was spent on this slim novel of parasitism and survival. For sure, the sentences were crisp and short and clipped. Subject was followed by verb and terminated by predicate, but that was not the hard and fast rule. Some dependent clauses allowed some fresh air to unclog the musty air of the sentences. But taken out of context, certain passages would make for a mannered and insufferable style. It was the arrangement and clustering of sentences that give the short novel its heft and depth. Redonnet plowed on and gave an indubitable testament to the dreariness and clarity of suffering.

She wants me to wash her. That's hard for me because she has an odor that makes me queasy. She has never worked. Mother used to support her, and now I do. I inherited the Hôtel Splendid. But in exchange, I owe an allowance to my sisters. They chose to come and live at the hotel instead of taking the allowance. Here they are housed, fed, and served. Maybe I should not have agreed to this arrangement. Ada and Adel left the hotel very young with mother. They never came back until mother died. I am the only one who never left the Hôtel Splendid. But now that they have settled in, they are not about to leave. They have made themselves at home. They have taken the two nicest rooms, but that does not prevent them from complaining about the Hôtel Splendid's poor condition and lack of comfort. I should not let them get the better of me. I keep them alive, thanks to my work and the hotel. But the Splendid brings in less and less. It needs repairs. I don't have the means.

Think of Julio Cortázar's "House Taken Over", replace house with hotel, replace house owners with female narrator, then replace the "colonizers" with the narrator's two sisters (Ada and Adel). It's a stretch of a comparison, but the same feeling of foreboding, suspense, and helplessness that haunt Julio's haunted house pervaded Redonnet's decrepit, and hardly splendid now, hotel. But this was not evident at the level of the sentence but at the furious stream of sentences. Page 49 summed the whole quite well: "And since everything always goes wrong at once, her lavatory is blocked." And since the hypothetical realm of "if worst comes to worst" was made flesh, the comedy was uncanny for its pathetic tragedy.

The swamp is swallowing up the cemetery, because there will be nothing but the swamp. Even though she [Ada] limps because of her rheumatism and has to walk with a cane, she will not give up going to the cemetery. She will go as long as there is even just a piece of a gravestone still visible. She says grandmother's gravestone is like a boat that has been shipwrecked and is slowly sinking. She has more and more difficulty walking. It takes her all day to go from the hotel to the cemetery and back. She has a touch of gout also. She is going to be a cripple soon if this keeps up. You would think Ada's rheumatism was contagious. I walk with a cane too. Since Ada took grandmother's cane, I use a stick. It does not make as good a cane. The guests complain about the noise that the two canes make in the hotel. With my rheumatism, it's painful to bend over to unblock the lavatories. The guests should be more careful. No matter how much I tell them that, they don't care. Adel sets a bad example for them. She treats her lavatory like a trash can. It's disgusting. Ada's appearance is changing. She has the beginnings of a goiter. 

One only had to note in the passage how the health of the characters and the state of the surrounding graveyard went on a downward spiral ("she limps because of her rheumatism and has to walk with a cane ... shipwrecked and is slowly sinking ... more and more difficulty walking ... a touch of gout also ... I walk with a cane too ... With my rheumatism ... the beginnings of a goiter") to gauge the amount of change happening within a short span of time. Anthony at timesflowstemmed observed this uncommon space-time compression wherein "situations and emotions change polarity within a few paragraphs". By free association, Redonnet was heaping up anarchy upon chaos in the hotel and its environs. Everything was going the way of doom. The compression was also evident from one immediate sentence to the next.

The plumber is my only ally. He comes as soon as I call him, and I call him more and more often. It is incredible the things he pulls out of the pipes. What would become of me without him? I am worried because he had a small but unexpected attack, and now he has to keep to his bed. Now would be a bad time for the pipes to let me down. The pipes have become all porous. You can see that just by running your finger over them, your finger is wet. It isn't a good sign that the pipes are porous. It's the same with the wood, which is turning spongy. Fortunately the guests are not observant. [emphases supplied]

From a rhetorical question ("What would become of me without him?") to "a small but unexpected" shift in the health of the plumber. From wishful thinking for the pipes to not let her down, to a stab of reality that the pipes have, really, talk about the timing, become all porous. The sentences rambled along in a montage of ruin and destruction. The hotel turned and turned in the widening gyre. It was not for nothing that the hotel took its name after a favorite movie of the narrator's grandmother. In that movie the hotel, that was actually right beside a swamp, was in an oasis in the middle of a desert. In the movie the wind continually blows; the oasis "was slowly becoming choked" with the sands of the desert.

Hôtel Splendid was not as inscrutable as Kafka's castle, but almost as unavailing and mythic in its cruelty. In addition to the three siblings, hotel and swamp were like characters whose states of fixity were challenged by the inherent impermanence of things. Would that the vicious cycle of life degrading unto death was celebrated through natural, pure neglect or deliberate, man-made disasters. By the time an apathetic and silent figure (maybe a burned out artist figure) checked in at the Hôtel Splendid near the end of the novel, first as guest then as a potential long-time boarder, the novel had taken its full course, following the contours of human existence and the rhythm of the swamp. The narrator was still asserting her self-respect and dignity, things tangible that's left when everything else went the way of dust and mote. She might as well be the muse haunting the hotel's now-ghostly existence.

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