David Leavitt (b. 1961) is an American writer, currently part of the Creative Writing faculty of the University of Florida. He first came to my attention with his second novel The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) which was filmed in 1991 and is basically a ‘coming out’ story. Sexuality often looms large in his work which hit a peak with While English Sleeps(1993). However the English poet, Stephen Spender (Barry Humphries’ father-in-law) sued him for copyright infringement alleging that Leavitt used material from Spender’s memoir, World Within World; and in particular, Spender’s relationship with Jimmy Younger, the character based on an early lover of Spender, as the pivotal relationship in Leavitt’s book. The case was settled out of court; the publishers, Penguin-Vintage, withdrew the book, and it was revised and re-issued in 1995.
Leavitt’s latest, The Two Hotel Francforts (or should it be The Two Hotels Francfort?) published last year is nowhere near his best.
My main objection is Leavitt’s use of the first person; well, to be more precise, his wasteful use of the first person. Choosing the right point of view (see my blog post “Close Writing” on October 12 2014 for more about point of view) for your story is a powerful novelistic tool and once you choose one (or many) it seems sensible to use it (or them) to the fullest.
Let me explain.
The Two Hotel Francforts is set in the neutral port of Lisbon in the summer of 1940 where many exiles, refugees, and shady characters have gathered, fearing war in Europe, and hoping for a safe passage to America. Here we find two couples: Julia and Pete Winter, sedate and middle-class; and Edward and Iris Freleng, elegant, bohemian, and wealthy. Each couple is staying in a hotel called the Hotel Francfort; yes, there are two.
The story is told in the first person with the sedate and conservative Pete Winter as the narrator and all that he describes for us, the readers, is the action, what he sees. Here is an example of what I mean.
“Edward!” I called.
A few seconds later another wave hurled him back onto the sand. “That was glorious!” he said, pushing his hair back. “Come on!”
I didn’t hesitate. I pulled off my clothes as he had, without ceremony. I took off my glasses. The patch of darkness towards which I swam might have been a rock or a sea monster. All I had to navigate by was Edward’s voice. “Warmer,” he said. “Colder … Warmer…” Suddenly we collided.
Behind us a wave was building. I tried to draw away, but Edward wouldn’t let me go. “The thing to do is to go under it,” he said. “Hold on to me.”
Then he pulled me down until we were sitting on the sandy bottom. The wave broke over us. I felt it as the faintest trembling.
We rose again. I was laughing. He took my head in his hands, and now he did kiss me. Another wave broke, pulling us apart from each other, sending us tumbling.
And, yes, that is when their love affair begins.
It’s like watching a movie, which is great if it’s a movie you’re watching; but this is prose, and prose allows you to do so much more. A first person narrative puts you inside the narrator’s head, with all the thoughts, memories, hopes, desires, fears, and expectations; to report on simply what he sees, and not on what he feels, thinks, remembers and wants, seems to me a waste of the first person.
There is metaphor and skill, “The patch of darkness towards which I swam might have been a rock or a sea monster … I felt it as the faintest trembling” but it’s like picking up a multi-coloured palette to paint a portrait and only using one colour; or composing a symphony and only using one chord. It can be done and as an exercise it might be worthwhile for the creator, but the audience is let down; I know I was.
There is no internal life in this story, and, consequently, we know nothing of the internal life of the characters. It is the opposite of what makes Colm Toibin’s Nora Webster shine (see my post dated November 2); where the external plot is minimal, all the action, drama, and interest is internal.
Leavitt is an experienced and accomplished writer but his novelistic choices in the composition of The Two Hotel Francforts just don’t do justice to the material.