Idra Novey | Christina Stead

#APStogether February 27, 2021

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.

Christina Stead (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.

Idra Novey 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.

Reading Schedule:

Day 1 (April 6) | pages 1-21 — start: If you knew what happens in the hotel every day!

Day 2 (April 7) | pages 22-42 — start: This Englishwoman was unlucky

Day 3 (April 8) | pages 43-63 — start: "You said when you're busy in summer"

Day 4 (April 9) | pages 64-84 — start: Emma agreed to this

Day 5 (April 10) | pages 85-105 — start: Miss Chillard spoke to Mrs Trollope

Day 6 (April 11) | pages 106-126 — start: "A signorina"

Day 7 (April 12) | pages 127-147 — start: "We are not going to be hung, I hope"

Day 8 (April 13) | pages 148-168 — start: "Well, I think that was rather nice"

Day 9 (April 14) | pages 169-189 — start: Mrs Trollope had some business to do

Day 10 (April 15) | pages 190-209 — start: "I think he is a very peculiar man"

April 15 | A virtual discussion of The Little Hotel with Idra Novey. Register—and submit questions—here.

Day 1 | April 6
pages 1-21

“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.

“At last,” a reviewer in Stead’s native Australia predicted in 1997, her work would receive the critical recognition it deserved.
As often occurs with writers who don’t fit neatly into any literary current, Stead remains largely unknown today.

“You are always astonished at how people can muddy their lives.”
Stead has an uncanny ability to capture disastrous impulses in the making, how often people are compelled to sabotage themselves and others.

Day 2 | April 7
pages 22-42

“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.

“…she did not believe in what she called southern talk; but she had very strong ideas about races.”
Stead has a gift for revealing a character’s fixed mindset in no more than a few sentences. Mrs. Powell’s insistent, tiresome voice in the dining hall comes through loud and clear.

“People who do nothing for a number of years are naturally eccentric.”
The sly humor in Stead’s observations about idleness and the lives colliding in the hotel is one of the supreme delights of this novel.

Day 3 | April 8
pages 43-63

“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.

Reading Stead’s equally funny & devastating scenes, I kept thinking of Calvino’s Memos for the Next Millennium, his description of “the sudden nimble leap” of the modern writer who can take on the weight of the world with a magical lightness & exactitude.

“She had seen the strangest thing—a soft dark fringed living thing, a human eye in the keyhole.”
How did this novel fall out of circulation, with an image this startling about one human determined to spy on another?

Day 4 | April 9
pages 64-84

“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.

“Stead transforms a comedy of manners into a satire with the dispassionate brutality of a folk tale.”
Lisa Gorton writes in her intro about the element of folk tale brutality in this novel. Stead pours a number of literary traditions into the pot of this book, and then turns up the heat.

“The Mayor was always very bright…he stepped off the train at the very first stop the express made in France. Perhaps he is still having a good time.”
I admire Stead’s choice to leave her wild mayor of nowhere having a good time somewhere. I will miss his exuberance, though, in the rest of the novel.

Day 5 | April 10
pages 85-105

“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.

Like the couple in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, each dialogue between Mrs. Trollope and Mr. Wilkins exposes yet another darkness between them.

Why stay miserable among strangers? Stead provides an answer with Miss Chillard: “who could not bear those at home who knew her sadness.”
To seek the mercy of strangers can feel like a beginning, in a way that going home full of sadness never can.

Day 6 | April 11
pages 106-126

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.

Stead worked on The Little Hotel between other novels for years, and there is a sense of the author sharpening the eccentricities and prejudices of her characters for a long time, all that will contribute to Mrs. Trollope’s anguish until she finally says enough.

“A few artists like Stead persevere no matter what—and then people think it is adversity that has made the artist.”
Bette Howland knew what it felt like to have one’s work continually overlooked. She recognized the uncommon urgency of Stead’s creativity that made her 14 books possible.

Day 7 | April 12
pages 127-147

“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.

“Did you talk to your husband about your novels?” an interviewer in Australia asked Stead.
“No, never,” Stead replied, adding that the good company she found in her spouse helped make it possible to pursue as many novels as she did. “I had luck, I tell you, I did,” she said, and steered the next question back to her work.

Even the dog is singularly absurd in The Little Hotel, Angel “plumped” to sing along at the restaurant with the Princess, the dog’s moans and howls “reasonably scaled.”

Day 8 | April 13
pages 148-168

“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.

“Everyone likes Robert at first sight. It is only much later you find out that he has a heart of stone.”
To hear Mrs. Trollope speak with candor, at last, about Mr. Wilkins is like beholding the glowing flow of lava from a volcano that erupts at night, while most people are asleep in their beds.

Stead’s humor, Randall Jarrell wrote, “is of an unusual kind…there is a bewitching rapidity and lack of self-consciousness.”
In our painfully self-conscious era, it is refreshing to read scenes in which there is no predicting what absurd statement or behavior may be coming, and from whom.

Day 9 | April 14
pages 169-189

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.

The ferocious insistence of Mr. Wilkins in these scenes brings to mind the father in Stead’s best-known novel, The Man Who Loved Children. In both books a central tension is how to wriggle out with one’s spirit still alive from that kind of domestic control.

“Oh, this is going too far!” Mrs. Trollope says on page 191, a declaration that blows open the novel, allowing in some welcome brisk air to rush through the sealed rooms of The Little Hotel.

Day 10 | April 15
pages 190-end

“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.

“You are retreating from life more and more, Robert. You will not face any issue.”
Another brilliant line that resonates with our own time, of people compelled to retreat from whatever changed world emerges from this pandemic.

"I do not know if they ever saw each other again.”
With this last line of the novel, Stead leaves Mrs. Trollope as she leaves the Mayor, in motion—thrust once more into the moving forces of the world. The weigh station of The Little Hotel is over.


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