I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started the very short Splendide-Hôtel (1973). I run into Gilbert Sorrentino’s name only sometimes, but when I do it’s like the person I hear it from is keeping a treasured secret. I get the feeling I should already know about Sorrentino, and if I don’t, there’s no use speaking to me about him—casting pearls before swine, or something like that.
When I receive books I like to open them to peruse their structure. Is it divided into parts, books, chapters (long or short)? Are there several pages of unbroken text? The like. I was surprised when I opened this book to find several short segments all beginning with a letter of the alphabet. Turns out the book is a bunch (27 to be exact) of incredibly short, uhm, musings?, beginning with the letter A all the way through Z, the extra letter being the Rx pharmacy symbol thrown in for good measure. And, to introduce you to the loose feel of the book, here is what Sorrentino said, “One must find some structure, even if it be this haphazard one of the alphabet.” Each letter is important to the segment as that letter inspires a starting point. A, for example, brings out a discussion on flies. I never even noticed—doubt I would have noticed—that an A looks kind of like a fly from above, wings pulled up on the side. As you can tell, even that bit of structure is loose. I can take a strange structure as long as the content provides a reason for it. Here, the content is just as strange and seemingly arbitrary as the structure, so there’s reason enough. And there’s reason for the strange content too.
The title of the book comes from Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem “Après le Déluge” in his Illuminations: “Et le Splendide-Hôtel fut bâti dans le chaos de glaces et de nuit du pôle.” (“And Hotel Splendid was built in the chaos of ice and of the polar night.”) For Sorrentino, Splendide-Hôtel is a place of and for the imagination. Within its structure dwell many poetic characters, but the structure is also a place where the work of art is praised for itself, for the toil of its creation and for its grandeur.
Everyone who is a devotee to graciousness in living knows under what incredibly difficult conditions the Splendide-Hôtel was built: the chaos of ice and polar night, the blizzards and avalanches, the black bitter frosts that took so many workers’ lives. Why it was built in such an unprepossessing spot remains a mystery to this day, yet its location has certainly not prevented it from being one of the most elegant hotels to be found anywhere. From the day it was opened in 1872 until the present, it has stood as the epitome of Old World charm.
The primary presences in the novel, besides Sorrentino himself, are the poets William Carlos Williams and Arthur Rimbaud. In many of the segments Sorrentino engages with their work on a formal and substantive level. I believe some familiarity with Williams and Rimbaud is important, but I don’t think it is necessary to enjoy this short book. In fact, this short book might be a good segue into their work. More than analyze their work, Sorrentino uses it to draw out more general meditations on writing, politics, whatever, while keeping the beauty or power of language front and center. Here’s one I particularly liked. It’s how the letter E begins:
It is my opinion as well as that of others that the word grey spelled with an e is “greyer” than the same word spelled with an a: gray.
Can the poet be correct in assigning the color white to this letter? Admitting, therefore, more light to the world so that it becomes itself lighter, creamier, if you will: on the other side of darkness. The blackness of a. Gray holds to itself more black than does grey.
Yes, it is loose. Somehow, though, Sorrentino brings many of the images together in later segments, each building somewhat on what has come before, creating, in a manner of speaking, Splendide-Hôtel, even while discussing it.
While most of the writing is pensive or expository in nature, there are several segments where, though still ruminating about the power of prose, the reader gets a glimpse of feeling that might be more common in Sorrentino’s novels.
I learned to play chess—or play at chess as the expression goes—from a man in my company in the army. Of the many things I remember about him two come to mind immediately each time I think of him: his love for avocados and his showering in a Mexican bordertown brothel with five whores. I see him there, streaming with soapsuds and water in the whirling steam, he and the girls laughing with enormous joy. He was, I believe, a regional chess champion in his native Pennsylvania.
It would be an enormous pleasure to me if he would read this book—finding it on his own—and recognize himself in it. To open it in his easy chair, his four or five children involved in their various activities, his wife preparing supper. He sits back and takes a swallow of cold beer and suddenly—suddenly he tastes that ripe avocado, lightly salted and tangy with a squeeze of lime and smells the clean flesh of those harsh Mexican whores, sees their white teeth and golden crucifixes. He puts the book down to look across the room at his wife. the aroma of meat loaf in the oven, apple pie with plenty of cinnamon.
Outside, the streets and lawns of Allentown are white with the last snowfall of winter, it comes down with that fabled gentleness all writers at some time remark upon in one way or another. And why not?
This passage shows all the evidence I need of his greatness. The contrast between the whore’s flesh and their golden crucifixes, the exotic avocado and the good old American apple pie . . . I wonder, did this fellow ever find himself in the book?
When I began this book I was not looking for a sort of treatise. The talk about Sorrentino I’ve been privy to was all about his devestating novels (which must be somewhat in the cutting tone of the above quote). It was with some trepidation then that I began with the letter A, that fly. Soon I was engaged and it then took me only an hour or two to read straight through. A small cost in time, but it lead me to think about many things, literary, political, personal, etc. Not a bad result when commencing a relationship with an author.