The cinema is an invention without a future.
— attributed to Louis Lumière
The more I think about Dominic Smith’s extremely ambitious novel The Electric Hotel, the more that I feel it will be only fair to come back to it another time, having reread it. You see, it should be perfect for me. And yet it isn’t.
In 1962 the Knickerbocker Hotel in Hollywood stands dreaming sad and threadbare dreams in the Californian sun. Like the majority of its regular guests, some of whom live there permanently, it has seen better days, and yet it still retains a faded and touching dignity. And Smith’s powers of description are both moving and evocative:
“If the lobby had once resembled an elegant Spanish Colonial outpost, with its stenciled, hand-painted ceilings and Moorish tapestries, it now resembled a Madrid funeral home on hard times. Frayed cordovan carpets, dusty ferns in copper pots, velvet gondola couches marooned in pools of fifteen-watt lamplight. Celebrities once sat in easy chairs smoking cigars or reading Variety, but now an unemployed screenwriter was taking his pet iguana for a morning stroll and Susan Berg, an actress of the silent era, stood in her robe whispering a monologue to an empty chaise longue.”
One of the hotel guests is the 85-year-old silent film director Claude Ballard. For decades Claude has been shut away from the world in a manner that I personally find alluring: he’s not a recluse exactly – he interacts with people; eats in a local diner where he is known; wanders the streets in the early hours, taking photographs - but he hasn’t made a film since his lost masterpiece The Electric Hotel bankrupted him in so many ways back in 1910. And he hasn’t even seen a film since 1920, meaning that the entire age of sound is unknown to him. Into this cloistered and controlled environment comes film student Martin Embry, who wants to conduct some interviews with the not-so-forgotten genius of yesteryear:
---- Nobody remembers my work anymore. How do you know it?
---- I’m writing my dissertation on innovation in American silent film before 1914.
---- And there is someone in existence who would read such a thing?
As Claude opens up and emerges from his cocoon over the weeks that follow, we realise that central to his withdrawal from the world is his years-long infatuation with his lover of one night and muse of decades, the actress Sabine Montrose, thirty years his senior. And their relationship constantly reminded me of a line from Nicholas Roeg’s underappreciated 1995 film Two Deaths: from the moment he touched her ankle… he was damned. It is an obsession with a woman who is at best disinterested.
The recreation of the early days of motion picture history, with its rivalry between the Lumiére Brothers in France and Thomas Eddison in America, is beautifully recreated, as are Ballard’s later experiences during WW1.
Yet the novel persistently refused to come alive for me, the characters stubbornly keeping themselves at a distance, never letting me get to know them. And that certainly wasn’t helped by a style of writing dialogue that I find irritating in the extreme; and which added further to the feeling of distance I had from events and a history that in theory I should have found fascinating. As you can see from the quotation above, Mr. Smith favours the dropping of quotation marks in dialogue and replacing them with a simple dash.
It's a choice of writing that doesn’t seem to bother some people, but it drives Your Humble Narrator to clean up the wall.
Look: maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for it; that happens. After all -- like this one -- on paper Killers of the Flower Moon should have been an Event for me, but that didn’t work out so well either.
So, I hope that you give The Electric Hotel a go and make up your own mind, simply because of the rich subject matter; it also reminds us of how vitally important the work of film restoration is.
NB: I read this in the Picador paperback edition and just have to comment on the beauty of the book’s design. Not only the gorgeous black and white image that is on the cover, perfectly recalling the silent era; but also in the tiny photographs that appropriately head each chapter. For example, the third one is where we get a sighting of Sarah Bernhardt acting out the ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ scene on stage in Hamlet.
It's not often I look up who did the book design but this was an exception. It was Jonathan D. Lippencott. So now you know.