Saturday, October 06, 2007

Pg. 99: Edmund White's "Hotel de Dream"

This weekend's feature at the Page 99 Test: Edmund White's Hotel de Dream.

About the book, from the publisher:
In a damp, old Sussex castle, American literary phenomenon Stephen Crane lies on his deathbed, wasting away from tuberculosis at the age of twenty-eight. The world-famous author of The Red Badge of Courage has retreated to England with his wife, Cora, in part to avoid gossip about her ignominious past as the proprietress of a Florida bordello, the Hotel de Dream.

Though Crane's days are numbered, he and Cora live riotously, running up bills they'll never be able to pay, receiving visitors like Henry James and Joseph Conrad, and even planning a mad dash to Germany's Black Forest, where Cora hopes a leading TB specialist will provide a miracle cure.

Then, in the midst of the confusion and gathering tragedy of their lives, Crane begins dictating a strange novel. The Painted Boy draws from Crane's erstwhile journalist days in New York in the 1890s, a poignant story about a boy prostitute and the married man who ruins his own life to win the boy's love. Crane originally planned the book as a companion piece to Maggie, Girl of the Streets, but abandoned it when literary friends convinced him that such scandalous subject matter would destroy his career. Now, with his last breath, Crane devotes himself to refashioning this powerful novel, into which he pours his fascination with the underworld, his sympathy for the poor, his experiences as a reporter among New York's lowlife — and his complex feelings for his own devoted wife.

Seamlessly flowing between the vibrant, seedy atmosphere of turn-of-the-century Manhattan and the quiet Sussex countryside, Hotel de Dream tenderly presents the double love stories of Cora and Crane, and the painted boy and his banker lover. The brilliant novel-within-a-novel combines the youthful simplicity of Crane's own prose with White's elegant sense of form, offering an unforgettable portrait of passion in all its guises.
Among the early praise for the novel:
"Many successful historical novels are not about wars and kings and queens but about, say, artists (for instance, Susan Vreeland's work, including Luncheon of the Boating Party, 2007) and writers (see Colm Toibin's The Master, 2004). The new novel by distinguished writer White is further evidence. The novel's conceit is this: facing death, the tuberculosis-suffering American writer Stephen Crane dictates to his mistress-posing-as-wife Cora his dying effort, reconstructing the pages of a novel he had destroyed years before upon the advice of fellow writer Hamlin Garland, who was scandalized (but also impressed) by the novel's sexual frankness. It was a rent-boy novel, based on a teen male prostitute working the streets of the Bowery with whom Crane had gotten acquainted — but never "used," other than as writerly material. The recomposition of the piece, Cora's point of view as she caretakes and takes dictation, and the fictional narrative itself constitute the three beguiling levels of this imaginative visit to the life of an American master."

"Chief among the book's pleasures is its impressionistic recreation of the miseries and splendours of fin-de-siècle Manhattan -- swarming, noisy, riddled with both luxury and poverty -- and its deft setting of the elusive Crane among his better-known peers. There are neat asides on Bennett and Wharton, and vivid portraits of Conrad and James -- the last, refreshingly, portrayed as an evasive, poisonous queen. But it is as a love story, not as historical fiction, that the book matters. It reminds us that when it comes to love -- or writing -- the only struggle that counts is the struggle to imagine other lives. When, as here, he is at the top of his form, White simply does it better than most."
--Neil Bartlett, Guardian

"[A]n ingenious, fully imagined, and utterly winning piece of work."
--Morris Dickstein

"Did straight author Stephen Crane (The Red Badge of Courage) really dictate, on his deathbed at age 28, a novel about a teenage male prostitute in 1890s Manhattan? Almost certainly not, but that's the intriguing scenario Edmund White spins.... Hotel de Dream is a clever mash-up of literary biography, creative-writing exercise, and bygone-gay-demimonde history. A-"
--Entertainment Weekly
Edmund White's novels include Fanny: A Fiction, A Boy's Own Story, The Farewell Symphony, and A Married Man. He is also the author of a biography of Jean Genet, a study of Marcel Proust, The Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, and, most recently, his memoir, My Lives. Having lived in Paris for many years, he is now a New Yorker and teaches at Princeton University.

Read an excerpt from Hotel de Dream, and learn more about the novel at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Hotel de Dream.

--Marshal Zeringue