22 June 2009

The Romance Of The Hotel

Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel in Tokyo has been gone now for almost as long as it existed (1923-1968), yet it looms large in Wrightian mythology. Finished just in time to weather the great Kanto earthquake, waters from the reflecting pool enabled firefighters to douse the fires that threatened it as a result of the quake. Wright encouraged the notion that his building was unscathed; in truth, his floating foundation was a conductor for seismic tremors that caused interior buckling.
The undated photograph of Wright, sitting in the hotel's lobby, shows a man whose confidence at least equaled his talents. A major collector of Japanese art, when Wright came to design a hotel funded by the Imperial family of Japan, he chose a style that could be described as Mayan Revival. Romantic, to be sure, but there is something subversively romantic in the very notion of a hotel, the mixing of an ever-changing cast of transients, meeting promiscuously, observed only by the group of strangers that constitute the hotel's staff.
If there is not, somewhere, a book about the hotel as novel, it is merely an oversight. The Edwardian novelist Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) wrote two novels, Grand Babylon Hotel (1902) and Imperial Hotel (1930), that are thought to be based on London's prestigious Savoy Hotel where Bennett often stayed after he became a successful writer and where an omelette named for him is still on the menu. Austrian novelist Vicki Baum (1888-1860) became one of the earliest of international bestselling novelists based on her 1929 Menschen im Hotel, which in turn became the film Grand Hotel (1932) starring John Barrymore and Greta Garbo. It is Garbo's character, the ballerina Grusinskaya, who utters the words often attributed to Garbo herself: "I want to be alone."
A good hotel novel is like a banquet, offering an array of stories to feast on and the genre is cross-cultural. The Bengali writer Mani Shankar Mukherjee's delightful 1962 novel Chowringee, only recently published in English, revolves around Shankar, a young man working at the reception desk of Calcutta's Hotel Shahajahan. A servant knows more about the masters than the masters know about the servants, as Shankar understands. "When I had checked in here, it was filled with known and familiar faces. Some left after breakfast; a few disappeared after lunch; others went away after tea. Now it was time for dinner, and no one was left ... I, the patriarch, seemed to have sat down at an empty table."
At one point, Shankar assures the reader, "At least a dozen novels about hotels are written in this country every year." Who knows? There may be one about Wright's Imperial Hotel.
Images are from the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, with the exception of the frontispiece, from the Getty Archive.