Monday 29 May 2017

How / Isolated, like a fort, it is

My recent booking of a night at the Hôtel du Lac set me thinking not only about Brookner's most famous novel but also about other hotel-set works of literature. There's an early Arnold Bennett, there's Elizabeth Bowen's The Hotel, there's Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. And there's Larkin's poem 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel' (High Windows, 1974).

Larkin was notoriously phobic about 'abroad', but his hotel could be located as easily in Mitteleuropa as in the Midlands. The poem, ostensibly a description of an all but deserted hotel on a Friday evening, is packed with strangeness. Light 'spreads darkly downwards'; empty chairs 'face each other'; the dining-room 'declares / A larger loneliness of knives and glass'; silence is 'laid like carpet'. The vivifying of the inanimate owes much, perhaps, to Elizabeth Bowen. There are also strong Brooknerian echoes, or rather prefigurings. 'The headed paper, made for writing home / (If home existed) letters of exile' reminds us of the ending to Hotel du Lac.

But 'Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel' is more than a virtuoso description, and it is about more than solitude. It is about the poet's sense of himself as a writer, as a writer in the Romantic tradition. It is about, if you will, his 'out-of-date romanticism' (to quote Brookner's A Closed Eye). When the speaker comes to write his 'letters of exile', he pens instead the enigmatic lines that finish the poem: 'Now / Night comes on. Waves fold behind villages.' We've left far behind the real world of the hotel, and we're deep in night thoughts, deep in English Literature itself. We might recall King Lear's 'low farms, / Poor pelting villages'.

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