What a delightful book! Seldom do I read prose as simple and clear as this. Given that it was originally written in German, I have no way of commenting on the original except in what, again, I have to assume was the excellent translation by John Brownjohn – interesting in that Sulzer is a known translator himself. It is a short novel or an extended novella which, for my money was acutely sized and polished for maximum effect.
The initial pages had me thinking of Wes Anderson’s ‘Grand Hotel Budapest’ which visualized a great deal of what I was reading (in this case, it is also a ‘Grand Hotel’ at Giessbach). The movie is a surrealist feast of comedy and drama while this was to be a carefully modulated progress of interior thought. Many readers have also apparently found echoes of Tadzio in ‘Death in Venice’. I can see how it might be possible for some to be turned off by the flat even tone of the first person narrator while some might see it as veering toward over self indulgent melodramatic. It was none of these for me.
Sulzer is known to be a skilled short story writer and this shows in the crispness of his writing with very few long exposition pieces. Four segments stand out for me. One was the description of initial sex between Erneste and Jakob, the fitting of Jakob’s uniform, Erneste’s bashing and the description of the scene of Max’s death.
The story is set in two time frames, one pre-war 1935 in a Swiss resort hotel favoured by a mix of tourists, businessmen and the increasing flood of refugees from Hitler’s Reich seeking an escape to more distant safe havens. The other is in 1966, again at the same hotel and restaurant but also in the USA. The narrator links the two periods as the perfect waiter who, though he had found the love of his life, lost him only to keep him in his mind all those long years. Jakob Meier was certainly all that most could desire though the reader is alert to warning bells as the pair engaged in a secret closed world of intense sex and love-making – something do break, and it did. In the second period, the ‘lover’ communicates again stirring up old feelings that have been hidden all those years under Erneste’s mask of public consummate serving skills and a life of apparent drabness (though not without some sexual relief with attendant dangers).
The situation calls upon Erneste to either ignore a call for help or to take action involving contacting the third person (a successful poltitical author, Klinger) whom he knows was responsible for his loss. The story moves reasonably quickly to a denouement of some tragedy and leaves open a range of questions as to motivation, morality and culpability. There are a lot of questions left in the reader’s mind at the conclusion.
I found this a visual and interior delight evoking memories and questions about the life I have lived and some of the contacts I have experienced.