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Review: The Electric Hotel, by Dominic Smith
FSG, 2019. 352 pp. $18

In 1962, Claude Ballard lives in a once-fashionable Los Angeles residential hotel, among old film containers and equipment and memories of a difficult, yet stimulating, past. A long-forgotten (fictional) film director whose magnum opus was The Electric Hotel, shown only once, in 1910, Claude lives out his days taking neighborhood walks with camera in hand and keeping a benevolent eye on a neighbor, a former silent film star whose memory and understanding of her surroundings often desert her.

Into Claude’s quiet, measured existence wanders Martin Embry, an academic field historian writing his dissertation, who takes one look at the director’s apartment and wants to know if the celluloid in those canisters has been developed and preserved. Actually, he takes one whiff and realizes they haven’t, for the decomposing film gives off a strong odor, like vinegar, which Claude has never noticed. That shocks him and makes him more receptive when Martin tries to persuade him to loan him the films that can still be salvaged in the laboratory. Just as important, he coaxes the hermit to recount his life story; it’s as though Claude suddenly realizes that he’s been gathering dust and doesn’t have to.

And what a story, from a lonely youth in Alsace — Claude’s French, by birth — in which his mother died of smallpox when he was quite young. Claude nearly succumbs himself, and afterward, when his vision falters — “the edges of objects began to slowly quake and fringe” — the village doctor sends him to a specialist:

… Claude emerged with a wire frame prescription wrapped behind his ears and it was suddenly as if he’d swum to the surface of a very deep lake. The world rushed back in as the coppered edge of an October leaf, the crinoline hem of his teacher’s skirt, the yellow-white flange of a chanterelle mushroom on his father’s foraging table… He was a diver emerging from the murky, myopic depths into a bell jar of crystalline edges and forms.

That’s exactly the same impression Claude has when, years later in Paris, he watches the first moving pictures of his life. The Lumière brothers, pioneers known today mostly to ardent cinephiles, create minute-long films of everyday life — a bus traveling down the street, people in a crowd. From that moment, Claude knows his life mission. Not only does he want to learn about and make films, he wants to see and record life the way the Lumières do. A shy, withdrawn person who expects no one to notice him, for him, this is true adventure.

Marcellin Auzolle’s 1896 publicity poster for a Lumière brothers comic film, L’Arroseur arrosé (The Waterer Watered), showing the astonished, enthralled audience (courtesy moah.org/exhibits/archives/movies/movie _theatres_p.html; public domain in the United States)

The Electric Hotel requires a reader’s patience, for the narrative takes a while to get places, portraying Claude’s career, associates, and obsessive love for Sabine Montrose, a French actress who stars in his films. But every time I asked myself if I really wanted to continue reading, once I started, I got lost in the story. It’s not just the writing, which often leaps off the page. Nor is it the fascinating detail about making movies back in the old days–and Smith means old, before any of the silent-film stars commonly discussed today got their start (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Mary Pickford, to name a few).

The tale of how Claude and his friends film The Electric Hotel, which occupies the bulk of the novel, involves a Siberian tiger, a dirigible, an impossible leading lady, and a cameo appearance by a grasping, self-involved Thomas Edison. Equally important, the novel portrays a forgotten time and place. As always, people crave novelty, wish to be entertained, even to be shocked. But after they see Claude’s films, they may resent them afterward, because their attraction to the images tells them something about themselves they’d have preferred not to know.

So too with Claude, who tries to hide behind the camera, even into old age, to avoid facing his past. But the past never leaves — it’s all there, whether on celluloid or in meaning—and he’s a casualty.

Most of the characters come through fully, at least the important ones; other than Claude and Sabine, I particularly like Chip Spalding, the Australian stunt man who covers himself with grease and sets himself on fire. However, several lesser figures remain faceless, and I wish the narrative had paid more attention to them, rather than include certain sequences that contribute very little. I especially wonder about a long First World War segment in Belgium, which, though well told, seems utterly superfluous (and bears little resemblance to any historical facts I know, or even possibilities).

Nevertheless, The Electric Hotel may beguile you as a tale of a bygone era, evoking passionate excitement over a way of seeing that hadn’t existed before—and which we now take for granted.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.