I admit to a brief feeling of déjà vu when I started Dominic Smith’s latest novel, The electric hotel, because it starts by telling us that its protagonist 85-year-old Claude Ballard has been living in the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles for over thirty years. Not another man living in a hotel like our gentleman in Moscow? Very quickly, though, I realised that this was a very different book. Towles was inspired by the idea of people living in hotels, while Smith was inspired by something completely different, the idea of lost films. The Library of Congress, he says, believes that over 75% of silent films have been lost forever. A figure familiar to retired film archivist me.
What’s the hotel got to do with all this? Well, apparently, the 1929-built Knickerbocker was, for much of its life, closely connected with the film industry. As Claude remembers in the novel, costume designer Irene Lentz committed suicide by jumping from the 11th floor, and silent film director DW Griffiths collapsed in the lobby. Moreover, at least one person, the character actor William Frawley, did live at the hotel for thirty years. However, Smith’s story, unlike Towles’, spends very little time in the hotel. Instead, it follows the life and career of fictional silent filmmaker Claude Ballard, focusing on his most famous film, The electric hotel, which sent him, and the production team, bankrupt, not because it was a failure but because the film inventor Thomas Edison threatened to sue for illegal use of his patented film stock. While Claude and his film are fictional, Edison was a shrewd businessman who did try to control the film industry. Smith’s research, then, looks good, and while I’m not an expert in the silent era or its technology, I felt pretty comfortable with the history – right down to the concerns about the vinegar smell in Claude’s room, although I don’t think the term “vinegar syndrome” was much used in the early 1960s.
For a (retired) film archivist like me, The electric hotel offers a step down memory lane. Indeed, the framing story is that film historian Martin, who is writing his dissertation on innovation in early American silent film, has become interested in Claude’s career. We are neatly given the shell of Claude’s career in the first chapter via his first meetings with Martin. This segues to Chapter 2 and the largest portion of the novel which takes us from the young Claude’s meeting the pioneering Lumière Brothers in the mid 1890s, through to the heyday of his career when he worked with American producer Hal Bender, French actor Sabine Montrose, and Australian stuntman Chip Spalding, and which peaked with the release of The electric hotel in 1908. They are artists, entrepreneurs, adventurers, and together they make something quite astonishing. Gradually, however, and for various reasons that I won’t spoil now, they go their separate ways. We follow them through to the end of World War 1, with a couple of forays back to the novel’s original time setting, 1962, where we also end up.
It’s an engrossing read. Smith creates vivid characters, and conveys well the excitement and energy of the early film industry pioneers – Claude’s early fin-de-siècle days in Paris, his travelling around the world with the Lumières’ cinématographe, the development of his career in New York with Hal and Chip, and the war years. It’s a complex story, with a fair share of twists and turns, about art and money, success and failure, and, yes, an artist (Claude) and his muse (Sabine).
What, though, is the book really about? Besides being inspired by the idea of lost films, I mean? Smith himself says, as quoted in the press release, that his ongoing interest is “the gaps and silences of history”. What does he say about these gaps and silences? I’m not sure, really. I think that perhaps he’s not so interested in commenting on the gaps, as dabbling around in them and bringing them to our attention. This is what he does for silent film, anyhow, but in doing so he also explores the increasing realisation of the power of this new movie medium. Early on Claude tells Sabine that “it turns life into moving pictures”, and a little later, Sabine’s coach and devotee of naturalism, Pavel, says that Claude had “managed to trap real life”. It’s in the war, though, that film’s darker potential becomes obvious, as German soldier Bessler forces Claude to produce the perfect propaganda movie, The victor’s crown. Claude, however, manages to subvert it to his own ends, proving to Bessler’s detriment that, indeed, “the camera sees the truth”!
The book is also an ode to the drive, the obsession, to produce art – and to the price paid by those who have this drive. Claude, who never goes anywhere without his camera, keeps his most personal negatives undeveloped because “until that second they hit the chemical bath, every image is perfect in my mind”. I’m sure many creators understand this.
But the book also has a personal dimension. It’s about love and loss, about escaping, hiding, and stalling. Claude’s personal life is peppered with loss, from which he never really recovers. He tells Martin, “I had every intention of starting over. It was like an errand I meant to run for fifty years.” And, late in the novel he says:
… the past never stops banging at the doors of the present. We pack it into watered suitcases, lock it into rusting metal trunks beneath our beds, press it between yellowed pages of newsprint, but it hangs over us at night like a poisonous cloud, seeps into our shirt collars and bedclothes.
It’s good writing – expressive, but controlled, and never overdone.
The smug German Bessler tells Claude that “art is art wherever it blooms”. The electric hotel explores that in all its glorious messiness.
The electric hotel
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2019
(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)