The Little Hotel by Christina Stead
Hosted By Idra Novey
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In Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel, the guests cannot escape each other. They are like people sealed in a pandemic pod. Set after the Second World War, the multinational set of characters in this novel don’t know what changed world will await them when they creep out of their “fourth class” Swiss hotel by Lake Geneva. For some of them, the scale of the unknowns is so paralyzing they choose to hole up for years to avoid finding out. Stead wrests great psychological insight from the growing restlessness and affections of her characters, who are outrageous and great fun to read about. This sly, concise novel packs in quite a number of dark truths, too, about the prejudices that immobilized postwar Europe and continue to immobilize in our present era.
is the author of the novels Those Who Knew, a finalist for the 2019 Clark Fiction Prize and a New York Times Editors’ Choice; and Ways to Disappear, which received the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction. Her works as a translator include Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H. and a co-translation with Ahmad Nadalizadeh of Iranian poet Garous Abdolmalekian, Lean Against This Late Hour, a finalist for the 2021 PEN America Poetry in Translation Prize. She teaches fiction in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
(1902-1983) was born in Australia but lived for many years in London and New York, which she took as the settings for her major novels. She worked in banks and as a screenwriter while writing the acclaimed novels, The Man Who Loved Children, A House of All Nations, and Letty Fox: Her Luck. She returned to Australia in the early 1970s and lived there for the rest of her life.
April 6, 2021 | pages 1-21 — start: If you knew what happens in the hotel every day!
“Perhaps something wonderful will happen to me—I will become human again and start writing?’
I love this quote from Stead’s letters to Jim Hamilton, who worked in the Fellowship of Australian Writers.
April 7, 2021 | pages 22-42 — start: This Englishwoman was unlucky
“I teased him: ‘Why do they call you Mayor of A. when you are Mayor of B.?’
‘It is because I am incognito,’ he said.”
This absurd Mayor of Nowhere is one of my favorite guests in the Little Hotel.
April 8, 2021 | pages 43-63 — start: "You said when you're busy in summer"
“She had been away from her country for nearly forty years and yet she was the most exaggerated American I ever knew.”
With insufferable Mrs. Powell, Stead sets in motion an exceptional character study on the prejudices that people pack and take along wherever they live.
April 9, 2021 | pages 64-84 — start: Emma agreed to this
“I made a mistake and did not think the Italian people would accept Mussolini and then I kept saying he would last only another year or two.”
Many moments of dialogue in this novel contain haunting parallels to the present, especially when the characters admit their naiveté in the years leading to World War II.
April 10, 2021 | pages 85-105 — start: Miss Chillard spoke to Mrs Trollope
“Oh, dear Mrs. Collop…I am so weak, Mrs. Scallop…”
The blunders of Mrs. Trollope’s name are so absurd, and painful. Stead wields dialogue like a saber.
April 11, 2021 | pages 106-126 — start: "A signorina"
It’s clear by now that Mrs. Trollope must escape Mr. Wilkins and the suffocating stasis in the Little Hotel or she will die inside.
April 12, 2021 | pages 127-147 — start: "We are not going to be hung, I hope"
“Lilia said: 'I think that is cruel.'
The Princess said: 'Oh, science is cruel; and this is a cruel age.'”
The blithe tone of the Princess feels contemporary, from our own 21st-century pandemic era, rather than the ruins of WWII.
April 13, 2021 | pages 148-168 — start: "Well, I think that was rather nice"
“Their behavior was marital. It was incomprehensible to everyone…”
Stead has a gift for seeing funny patterns in human behavior like a botanist describing the curious patterns on leaves.
April 14, 2021 | pages 169-189 — start: Mrs Trollope had some business to do
Mr. Wilkins calls Mrs. Trollope “a girl” with increasing frequency in these pages, which rings true for how patronizing language can become a verbal weapon when the person whose had control of the relationship finds that control is ending.
April 15, 2021 | pages 190-209 — start: "I think he is a very peculiar man"
“Depend upon it, it is something to do with money.”
In all of Stead’s books, she exposes the capitalism lurking under the surface of her characters’ choices, whether they talk about money aloud, or not.