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One of David Leavitt’s talents as a writer–and there are many– is his ability to quickly thrust his characters into intimate situations. Take the two men in his exquisitely realized new novel, The Two Hotel Francforts (Bloomsbury). Edward and Pete, along with their wives Iris and Julia, meet when Edward accidentally steps on Pete’s eyeglasses in a café. After a brief conversation, the women are in a taxi, taking Iris’ dog to a veterinarian while Edward accompanies Pete to his hotel to retrieve replacement eyeglasses. The conversation–perhaps no more than an hour after they’ve met–is prescient of the affair the two men will have. As Pete tells us:
He [Edward] tightened his grip on my arm. “Now that I think about it, I wonder if it wouldn’t be in my best interest to make sure you don’t get your other glasses.”
“Because without them, you’re my prisoner. You’re completely in my power.”
He punched me lightly on the biceps. I laughed. I couldn’t help it.
Moments like this one are not gimmicky examples of foreshadowing. Rather, they stand on their own as part of the narrative, even as they often suggest something deeper.
While the juxtaposition of what is told with what is suggested provides a good deal of tension in the novel, we are also gripped by the time and place of Leavitt’s story: Lisbon in the summer 1940, a year into World War II and a year and a half before direct U.S. involvement. The Portuguese capital is the only neutral port left in Europe, and the two couples are awaiting the arrival of the SS Manhattan to take them to New York City. Complicating matters is the fact that Pete’s wife, Julia, is Jewish.
The specter of Nazism hangs over the relational drama of Edward, Pete, Iris and Julia. Pete is surprised to find himself in a sexual relationship with Edward; Edward’s wife, Iris, tries mightily to keep her unorthodox marriage intact. Meanwhile emotionally fragile Julia–who has lived with Pete in Paris for the past fifteen years –hates the idea of returning to New York as much as she does having left Paris where “the war had at first seemed like little more than a costume party.” Leavitt’s description of the “haute–couture gas mask holders” that Vogue magazine declares is a “necessity that no sophisticated Parisienne should be with out” is particularly disturbing and emblematic of the denial of some French Jews who “regarded themselves as French first and Jewish second” and “made the mistake of assuming that France would regard them the same way.”
This is not the first time Leavitt has set a novel in Europe during the early 20th century. As he did in While England Sleeps, in The Two Hotels Francforts Leavitt makes his story at once very much of its era but also strikingly contemporary. It’s the emotional content that seems immediate, as when Leavitt shows us how lovers’ spats can erupt out of the tiniest of transgressions, but at the same time are indicative of a broader unhappiness. In this scene, Edward has been walking with Julia and his dog Daisy. Iris and Pete (the narrator) are ahead of them:
Our spouses had now caught up with us. “Sorry about that,” Edward said, a little breathlessly. “Daisy slowed us down.”
“You shouldn’t have let her stop to lick everything,” Iris said. “God knows what’s been spilled on the pavements around here.”
“It’s not just that she stops to lick at everything. It’s that she’s old. She can’t move the way she used to.”
“She moves just fine with me…”
The scene feels like quintessential Leavitt, as do the class issues that surface in The Two Hotels Francforts. As was the case in While England Sleeps, the male lovers in this new novel are from different economic backgrounds. Edward, who is independently wealthy, co-authors mysteries with Iris, while Pete, a successful car salesman, is firmly planted in the middle class. At times class–not just economic, but also cultural–is more than just a difference; it’s a weapon, as when Edward and Pete go for a ride outside Lisbon:
“We’re going in circles,” I said. “All day we’ve just been going in circles.”
“Like Francesca and Rimini,” Edward said.
“Yet another allusion I’m too ignorant to grasp,” I said.
“Oh? I assumed they would have taught Dante at Wabash,” Edward said.
I pulled to the side of the road. “Get out,” I said. “You can walk back to Lisbon.”
In this regard, Leavitt brings to mind Edith Wharton and E.M. Forster, two novelists whose pointed observations about class sometimes belied their elegant prose.
Leavitt’s interests have often not just lied in pure storytelling, but also in the clever interplay between fiction and the reality. (The novel Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing comes to mind as does his novella The Term Paper Artist.) In The Two Hotels Francforts, Leavitt has fun with these themes. Years after the arrival of the SS Manhattan, Pete, who doesn’t think of himself as a good storyteller, revisits an article called “Ten Rules the Novice Writer Should Follow.” Pete (or is it Leavitt?) seems to have broken every item on the list, which begins with “Never set scenes of dialogues in cafés. They provide insufficient business for the characters.”
Whether these rules have any validity is obviously questionable. What isn’t in doubt is that it doesn’t matter if Leavitt broke them or not. The Two Hotels Francforts stands with his very best work.
The Two Hotel Francforts
By David Leavitt
Hardcover, 9781596910423, 272 pp.