“The Theatre of All of My Struggles And Ideas. . . .”
by Andrew Zornoza
—A communication from a hotel comes from nowhere. The letterhead deceives. . . .
The record for most stolen bases in a season by a pitcher is nine, accomplished by Winifred Mercer in 1900.
Win’s popularity with female fans convinced the Washington Senators’ general manager to pitch him on Tuesdays and Fridays, stadium designated “Ladies’ Nights.” After the umpire ejected Win from one such game, women stormed the field, attacked the umpire, and broke windows and seats in frustration. Three years later, Win checked into the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco, California. And wrote the following on the hotel’s stationary: “A word to friends: beware of women and a game of chance.” He then killed himself.
About the Occidental Hotel: it is where the first Martini (then called a Martinez) was poured.
And, also, coincidentally, where Mark Twain sat alone, on his hotel room bed in 1866. Contemplating suicide.
“Many times I have been sorry I did not succeed, but I was never ashamed of having tried,” wrote Twain.
Wayne Koestenbaum’s latest book is about hotels.
“I masticate literature that values smallness—a world quashing retreat to the infantile—and that stops short of suicide on a ledge called hotel.”
Told in columns of text, Hotel Theory has two narratives competing for your attention (for fontophiles, one in Pica, the other in Times New Roman).
Column one is a meditation on books, writers, philosophy, and movies, all filtered through an obsession with hotels and Heidegger. Column two concerns a largely naked Liberace and an infinitesimally more prudish Lana Turner.
l-l-l-lana. . . .
The non-fiction oriented column one takes on a host of luminaries: Henry James, Joan Didion, Hemingway, Tanizaki, Sebald, Jean Rhys, Edward Hopper, Denis Johnson, Charles Simic, the Marx Brothers, William Hazlitt, John Malkovich, Richard Strauss, Paul Auster, Greta Garbo, Edith Wharton, and James Baldwin.
All analysis is bent through the prism of “hotel theory.” Here, Apollinaire:
The hotel resident—Guillaume, male—spins like a dreidl going nowhere manically in the room’s mourning embrace (“Je tourne en route / Comme un toton”). A sour smell of British Tobacco from the next room carries into Guillaume’s chamber. The hotel fosters a chaotic plurality of languages, all babbling together (“Et tout” ensemble / Dans cet hotel / Savone is langue / Comme a Babel”). The hotel room plays host to ostracized masturbators, each resident affixed to a grindstone of solitary love (“Chacun apporte / Son seul amor”). The hotel absorbs street noise (“Le Bruit des fiacres”) and ugly neighbors (“Mon voison laid”): no escaping the filth. Apollinaire’s hotel, legs spread open, typifies a sordid, familiar condition.
Almost all of Koestenbaum’s passages on Chopin are startling in their clarity and insight:
TOWARD A HOTEL-ANALYSIS OF CHOPIN NOCTURNE #3 AND SCHERZO #1
A hotel analysis will notice that in the nocturne (Opus 9, No. 3), a melancholy and nostalgic (but not quiet) passage plays host to a tempestuous (minor-key) passage, and that in the scherzo (Opus 20), an angry frame (oft-repeated) extends welcome to a sweet-tempered (major-key) interior. Chopin tampers with host/guest relations. Nostalgia hosts (or buries) a tempest; anger (virtuosity, puissance) hosts a backward-looking guest, improperly curious about the past.
Hotels raise but cannot settle the question of anterior.
Although this prose may sound painfully intellectual . . . play the Chopin concurrently and you will be amazed.
Column one makes the book. Kostenbaum deftly moves between high and low brow—and it’s amazing how astute and far-ranging his observations can be. His monomaniacal obsessions with hotels seem to bring more to the table in the discussion of Elizabeth Bishop and Tennessee Williams than an entire heap of critical journals. The same with obscure contemporary artists like Martin Kippenberger and Stephen Lapthisophon: you don’t even have to see the art to be engaged by his analysis.
The thread of thoughts on hotels gives us a line to hold on to when following Koestenbaum’s tricky path. And because of their brevity and wit, these bits of skewed criticism move quickly despite their density. There are some missteps: a long section on Jean Rhys strains to justify its inclusion and a section on murdered NY Times reporter Stephen Vincent is wrenchingly sad, but out of place.
Out of place. . . .
Despite the difference in content, column “two” manages to keep the similarly stilted language of its non-fiction neighbor (the book is written in Hotel Language—it’s never quite at home), but it has some distinctive handicaps.
First, its major mouthpieces are Liberace and Lana Turner; second, Kostenbaum has managed to write the entire sequence without any indefinite or definite articles. All ‘a’s,’ ‘an’s,’ and ‘the’s,’ are missing from the text. This stinks of gimmickry, but the effect is almost unnoticeable—and does nothing but speed up what can sometimes be a slow read.
Not slow here however:
Talk of schizophrenia made Liberace hard. He turned over on his stomach and rubbed tanning lotion on his buttocks. He reminded himself to shave them tonight. Hotel Languor was no excuse to let personal grooming slide.
Nor here—Lana and Liberace (wearing Jams) sunbathing on the roof of Hotel Women:
“I’m going to move my armchair to face you,” said Lana.
She groaned as she shifted its green bulk. Liberace inconspicuously fingered his nipples.
“You’re cute,” said Lana.
“Thanks,” said Liberace. “So are you.”
“Why aren’t you naked?”
“To exercise self-control.”
“Are you stoned?”
“Yes,” said Liberace.
“I like you stoned.”
The little bits of slapstick and witty repartee between Liberace and Lana are good for a healthy smattering of chuckles. Liberace is hilariously bifurcated, one minute he is calm and implacable, the next he seems ready to thrash about in his own skin. Lana is a transparent headcase much of the time–but can be as impenetrable as a stone. A small roster of minor characters occasionally break the focus away from these two stars. Whitehead, the hotel manager, and Lana’s mother, Mildred, provide some comic relief and are timely, autonomous, and unpredictable in their minor roles.
Unfortunately, some later sections sag, when Liberace’s family (determinedly uninteresting) arrive and Koestenbaum takes us through some tired bouts of cold war paranoia (Lana and Liberace almost consummate in the hotel’s bunker).
Liberace and friend
Koestenbaum smartly steers us away from delving too far into Liberace’s homosexuality (he always denied it – oh no you didn’t!) or the real-life crime case of Lana Turner and her lover Johnny Stompanato. Echoes of these events beat underneath the narrative, but Koestenbaum never makes them the focus. Just as he displaces a multitude of cultural elements by taking them out of their context, he de-glitters Lana and Liberace in the most discomfiting way — he turns them into hotel intellectuals.
A genre is a hotel in which other hotels stay for the night.
Context is a lot of what Hotel Theory is about. The neatest trick of the book is its almanac-like assemblage of material. Walter Benjamin, the German cultural critic, is mentioned several times. Although the author sets Heidegger‘s “In Being” as a cornerstone for Hotel Theory, it is Benjamin’s unfinished Arcades Project that is Koestenbaum’s most direct antecedent.
These notes devoted to the Paris Arcades were begun under an open sky of cloudless blue that arched above the foliage; and yet—owing to the millions of leaves that were visited by the breeze of diligence, the stentorous breath of the researcher, the storm of youthful zeal, and the idle wind of curiosity—they’ve been covered with the dust of centuries. For the painted sky of summer that looks down from the arcades in the reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris has spread out over them its dreamy, unlit ceiling.
the reading room of the bibliotheque nationale
More Benjamin, sounding stuck in Hotel Malaise:
“the man who walks long and aimlessly through the streets” in an anamnestic intoxication . . . feeds on the sensory data taking shape before his eyes but often possesses itself of abstract knowledge—indeed, of dead facts—as something experienced and lived through.”
Walter’s beautiful sprawling work of more than 1000 pages has been recreated by historians who have unearthed earlier versions (the last known draft was destroyed by the author).
Ostensibly its only subject is the outdoor malls of Paris. Yet Benjamin blends in hundreds of precariously tangential and extensive quotations from other writers, as well as his own notes, criticism and observations. All assembled into a mosaic that he called: “The theater of all of my struggles and ideas.”
our man in Europe, Walt Benjamin
Benjamin found a way to sublimate himself into the world surrounding him by pulling himself through the needle of one question: Why did he love the arcades?
Kostenbaum’s narrator goes one step further, sublimating himself not into things, but into a state, into a mode of consciousness that is never fully at home.
Every item checking into Hotel Theory goes through the wringer of Koestenbaum, everything is rendered transitory, uncomfortable, strangely familiar, anonymous, spoiled, confused, discomfited. It’s not a pleasant place to be, really. There is a whisper of a plot near the book’s end, but it’s just a small joke.
Neither theory (column 1) or narrative (column 2) are able to answer the riddle of Hotel-being. It’s a well-earned victory that there is no overt overlap between the two sections. Convergence would be too neat. What lies between the columns is up to you.
Note that Walter Benjamin was found dead in a hotel: Room No. 4 of the Hotel de Francia, just across the Spanish border into Catalonia.
This was in 1940, and he was certain of being captured by the Gestapo.
He swallowed a massive dose of morphine.
Andrew Zornoza is the senior contributor to This Recording. He lives in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. His latest story is available here. His photo-novel “Where I Stay,” will be available from Tarpaulin Sky Press in early 2009. You can e-mail him at azornoza at gmail.com.
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