I mentioned a few weeks ago that there was a new series of books in town which I was lusting after, Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series. A series that intrigued me from its contents, nonfiction-cum-essays-cum-memoir (it seemed from what I gathered), as well as the covers which I just lusted after. When one of the series authors, Joanna Walsh, offered to take part in Other People’s Bookshelves – you can see hers here – it was simply a matter of time till I picked Hotel up, which I did in Foyles a few weeks ago. Any excuse to have a mooch in a book shop, any…
There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels.
Around this time, the time I did not spend in hotels was a time I did not live. During this other time I haunted a marriage I was soon to leave. There’s no place like home, and as home hardly seemed to qualify as a place any more, I began to look for something elsewhere.
Hotel initially looks at the period in Joanna Walsh’s life when she was reviewing hotels for an up and coming website. This was also the time in her life that she was leaving her husband and the end of her marriage, naturally these two events converge and it is her that what follows trickles from and merges with another strand, Freud – but wait I have ended up a little ahead of myself. As Joanna contemplates her life back home away from home, in somewhere that tries to be a home yet never really can be (stay with me), she starts to look at hotel life from a new angle and also home life.
I found this a really fascinating look at hotels, in part because it is the total opposite of mine. I absolutely love a hotel. I could, and this is no word of a lie, be resident in them for a year or two and (as long as there were bookshops around) live quite happily. Think of that life of anonymity, of having fresh sheets everyday and a long hot bath to soak in for hours, well in the few hotels that seem to have baths now anyway. A chance to escape life and the daily chores, sign me up. Yet when your home life is anything but routine and you are anything but in it you can suddenly seem how alien and false the world of a hotel can be.
The hotel offers other overpriced toys: “erotic” chocolates, jelly-flavoured condoms. As well as the “nostress” you can buy incense and “calming” bubble bath. The hotel sells you misbehaviour, then something to deal with the fallout, both in candy colours. There’s a pointed notice in the bathroom: “If you would like to take away a souvenir, our robes are for sale at reception.” The hotel mistrusts me. I am not surprised. There’s no right or wrong here. Despite the bedside drawer’s insistent Bible, the usual moral standards do not apply. This is my holiday, my treat. I’ve come for what I’m owed, and more. The disappointments of my life may revenge themselves in petty larceny, but, even then, will I get what I’ve paid for?
So I was enthralled by the hotel element yet the honesty of Joanna’s writing about the breakup of her marriage is where the power of Hotel really lay for me personally. For me this year has been a year of reading, and in many ways discovering, some brutally honest writing which I am coming to respect greatly when the authors of such words write them unflinchingly and with an unflatteringly yet admirable rawness. Walsh does this here. She looks at how it feels when love has faded, she look s at the flaws of both parties, she writes about the emptiness and loneliness and also the odd liberation mixed with fear. It was during these segments that I found her at her most visceral.
Now that I no longer have you, I no longer have the kind of loneliness in which to wait for you. I no longer have to wait, but I have not yet developed the leisure to read a book. It is a different kind of loneliness. Perhaps, at first, it is worse.
Now then, I mentioned Freud earlier didn’t I? And he does indeed appear in Hotel with one of his patients Dora. And so does Oscar Wilde as do the Marx Brothers, Katherine Mansfield, Martin Heidegger, Greta Garbo and Mae West. How and why? Well I can answer the how, as the books second part (which is really all of it) is called Fragments from a Hysterical Suitcase which links to Freud. I am slightly more confused on the why though I know I enjoyed the end result. You see the form of Hotel is one of the things that makes it so quirky, so unusual and also the kind of book you have to pay attention to and just go along with all at once. You’ll find yourself in Joanna’s head then suddenly the patient in Freud’s chair, or find Katherine Mansfield (I loved all the sections with her in, I really must read some of her work) in some kind of conversation with Mae West, or Odysseus being compared to Trip Advisor all via Walsh’s ponderings and meanderings. It is bonkers, yet somehow it works.
I haven’t mentioned style yet the way the book is formed is rather brilliant, each chapter almost having its own form or character. You have some chapters which are set in a particular hotel (the final chapter goes through 26 hotels), one told through a tour of a hotel from the lobby to the en suite of the bedroom and everywhere in between, one told through the free postcards that you sometimes get alongside a pen, one in diary form and so and so on. Experimental and rather original, if sometimes a little self conscious but it would be hard not to be with all this going on.
All in all Hotel is a very unusual work and one which you don’t come around too often and when you do they either excel or fall flat on their own faces. Books which intertwine an authors personal life, along with some essay like moments and twist in figures from history and their theories and philosophies can go either way. Yet along with Julian Barnes Levels of Life and Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (which I will be discussing later this week) I think Joanna Walsh creates something rather special with Hotel. It isn’t going to be for everyone, it is rather more abstract and fractured than its contemporaries than I mention above, yet for those who give it a whirl there are many rewards, from the insight into hotels from another angle to the raw and moving insight of a broken marriage.