miércoles, 31 de marzo de 2010

Hotel de Dream by Edmund White

In Hotel de Dream, Edmund White presents a fellow writer, a fellow-countryman called Stephen Crane. Stephen is well connected, but ill-equipped. We are in turn of the century England. That’s old-England, by the way, and we are tuning into the twentieth, not twenty-first century. Henry James drops by occasionally. Conrad sometimes stumbles hereabouts and Arnold Bennett throws in an occasional sentence. But Stephen’s social life is hardly hectic. He is ill, tubercular, and in need of treatment. He seeks what might be a last chance, perhaps, to deny or merely postpone the inevitable. A clinic in Germany might be able to offer an answer. If only he had the money.

While his carer, Cora, struggles to meet his needs, Stephen recalls a street-waif in New York. Elliott is in his mid-teens. He sells newspapers and does a little thieving on the side. Prostitution fills otherwise unproductive hours. Stephen further recalls the boy’s beauty, his wholly pragmatic approach to securing a livelihood and also his syphilis, a condition for which the writer tries to arrange treatment. Via the germ of memory, Stephen, despite his own failing health, begins to invent a narrative. He writes from his sick bed, his weakness eventually requiring he dictates to his partner.

He tells the story of Elliott’s arrival in New York and his introduction to the ways of the street by an Irish red-head boy who is in need of an accomplice. He describes the petty larceny and the occasional servicing of specific services for casual clients that provide the boy with a living. When Theordore, a middle-aged, unhappily-married family man takes a liking to the boy, everyday life takes a different twist. Elliott and his accomplice have just done for Theodore’s wallet. The older man, however, hardly notices the loss, so taken is he with the lad’s delicate, almost porcelain but ailing beauty. Theodore and Elliott the lad become lovers and Theodore’s respectable career as a banker becomes increasingly compromised by the pressure of having to provide with the boy’s needs, his own desires and his family’s respectability.

Stephen Crane’s own condition deteriorates. As he heads to the Continent for last-ditch restorative treatment, he has to dictate his writing to his carer, herself a former brothel owner. And so Edmund White skilfully presents parallel narratives relating Stephen’s treatment and decline and Theodore’s self-destructive obsession with Elliott. Together, they proceed towards their perhaps inevitable conclusions.

All of this happens in around 80,000 words. Hotel de Dream is far from a long book, and yet it manages to pursue both themes adequately. Edmund White’s style is nothing less than beautiful throughout. He is economic with language, but also poetic and in places highly elegant. The book is a real joy to read.

But there remains the problem of the subject matter. Edmund White appears to believe that the homosexual, even paedophilic nature of the writer’s fiction is inherently interesting because of its subject matter. Without that, the predictable decline of the writer would be less than interesting. The process was hardly original. After all, Chopin had already trod this path three quarters of a century earlier! And to greater effect! Edmund White does ask some questions about attitudes towards homosexuality, about double standards and also about loveless marriage. But they are questions merely asked. There are only cameos of the detailed scenarios that might suggest answers.

But at the core of Hotel de Dream is the assertion that Stephen Crane is one of America’s greatest writers. An early death and an interest in risqué subject matter conspired, however, to keep him from the wider public gaze.

Though Edmund White’s book works in itself, it fails to convince the reader of this grand assertion about its subject. To make its point, it would need to be weightier, broader and offer much more evidence. Its apparent self-satisfaction with the mere statement of sexual proclivity falls well short of real substance. But then lives may be substantially less than substance. Hotel de Dream is a captivating read and an engaging, often beautiful study.

View the book on amazon
Hotel De Dream

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