Hotel de Dream
by Edmund White
Seven years before his untimely death from consumption at the age of 28, Stephen Crane published Maggie: A Girl of the Streets. It was 1893 and the time was out of joint for a grimly realistic fictionalisation of the life of a prostitute. Nineteenth-century sensibilities recoiled. Crane enjoyed a succès de scandale, and established himself at the forefront of American literary modernism.
Fellow American author Edmund White — himself no stranger to the succès de scandale — has chosen Stephen Crane as the subject of his new novel. Crane is a cultish writer, largely unknown to British readers. In White’s hands, depicted at the very end of his life, he is a figure of desperate pathos who nevertheless fails fully to engage our sympathies.
White describes Hotel de Dream as a ‘fantasia on real themes’. As Crane dies, he dictates to his wife, Cora, a novella, ‘The Painted Boy’, about a syphilitic rent boy — inspired by a similar novella, ‘Flowers of Asphalt’, which Crane may or may not have begun. White’s novel consists of a framing device — the narrative of Crane’s death — and a story-within-a-story, ‘The Painted Boy’. Both make painful and ultimately unpleasant reading.
Hotel de Dream is either tremendously sad or relentlessly depressing. Crane inevitably dies; Elliott (‘the painted boy’) is gruesomely disfigured in a fire and will also, presumably, die on account of his syphilis. The subject of ‘The Painted Boy’ is longing, that of a married, middle-aged banker Theodore Koch for the scarcely adolescent Elliott. But the narration of that longing is a slow and self-indulgent affair, so that Theodore’s plight — like those of Crane and Elliott — also largely fails to touch us. Respectable Theodore is ruined by his flirtation with ‘unspeakable’ vices; within the context of this novel, the reader could expect nothing less.
Edmund White teaches writing at Princeton University and is undoubtedly himself an accomplished practitioner. Hotel de Dream includes passages of fine descriptive writing: ‘As he slipped into and out of sleep his mind was awash with words and phrases… As if language itself were a pattern-book of carpenter’s gothic, all the bric-à-brac of what could be said.’ The description of Theodore’s courtship of his wife Christine has a meditative, elegiac quality: White’s prose at such moments shares the hypnotic qualities of Anita Brookner’s writing. But this is not the novel’s prevailing tone.
‘I always liked turning the horrid into something lovely,’ White’s Crane tells Cora shortly before he dies. Then he pauses, uncertain: ‘Was there any way his gasps and sweats could be transformed by a gorgeous metaphor into organ bellows or stones exuding honey or trees secreting amber?’ In Hotel de Dream the answer to that question is ‘no’ — partly because the novel embraces unlovely facts unshirkingly and, in the 19th century, consumption, syphilis, poverty and social ostracism were hard truths unresponsive to art’s whitewash; partly because of the tenacity with which White pursues the irony of the novel’ s title. There is nothing dreamlike about Hotel de Dream, but much that is the stuff of nightmares.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 25, 2007