I couldn't help noticing how many people taking part in the Great Summer Read seem to get through their To Be Read lists at such a fast clip compared to me. I'm talking about you, person whose book which had been on her list "forever" was The girl on the train, not even two years old! Why I've had Vanity Fair on my list for 15 years! And wasn't it nice to see that someone logged Vanity Fair for this challenge. I wonder how long their "forever" had been!
How long had my choice, The Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett, an English author who celebrates his 150th this year, been on my TBR list? I'm not actually sure, but when I encountered it last year in the basement of the Central City Library, a quaint little volume marked on the inside back cover with a pre-smiley-face-era smiley face (no circle! a nose!) by an early, contented reader whom posterity can only know as "L", I didn't waste the opportunity. Reader, I took it out. And then, as sometimes happens with quaint old books, it was due back, and I still hadn't read it, so I took it out again. And again. And again, until it became the book which had been on my other TBR list forever, the "To Be Returned" one, which meant something had to be done, so thank you Great Summer Read!
A fantasia about the denizens of a luxury London hotel at the turn of the century, involving the kidnapping of a middle-European prince, a murderous maitre, or maybe it was the cook, a beautiful and spirited girl and her American millionaire father, The Great Babylon Hotel is described on its back cover as "the forefather of all the comedy-thrillers which were to bob up successfully throughout the present century", which for us was the last one. It was a bit of a cross between an opéra bouffe and the cartoons the great Peter Arno used to draw for the New Yorker, dated but still genial, but alas! lacking the music of the former, and the wit of the latter.
I found myself wondering how it had come to be on my list. So as librarians do, I went looking for sources. Almost the only Arnold Bennett fandom I could find was from twenty years ago. A piece in the New York Times blog Bookend found much to admire in Bennett, despite an unprepossessing opening which surmised that if you were to ask ten literature lovers (my alternate phrase for "poets over 40 or people who travel with a copy of Trollope") whether they've ever read this one-time giant of English literature, you will invariably find that "no more than one in ten will have read an Arnold Bennett novel".
My result was one out of one: I sounded out my uncle, a prolific and wide-ranging reader, 88 years old, who responded that he had indeed read Arnold Bennett. He did use the verb "sample", though, and added "but I couldn't get into him".
The Bookend writer went on to report on how Virginia Woolf dissed Bennett as an Edwardian (read "out-of-date") whose lack of interest in the interior, as opposed to the exterior, things in life led him to write books which leave you so dissatisfied that upon finishing them "you feel you must join a society, or, more desperately, write a cheque".
Virginia has a mean tongue, but I suspect I might have felt that way if I had finished the book. As it turns out, I didn't. I couldn't. At first my opinion was "A bit of a trifle, and dated, but enjoyable in its own way", but as I read on the enjoyment was more and more in its own way, and less and less in mine, until at page 36 I had to acknowledge (after skipping to the end to make sure there were no unexpected developments) that it was gone for good. I hadn't arrived at the page Nancy Pearl would have wanted me to reach according to her "When can you stop reading a book rule", but I had gotten close enough to fire off a mental salute to Nancy on knowing her stuff!
I do have a romantic thing about old hotels, and maybe it was simply that which suggested this book to me. If you do too, I can recommend Hotel Savoy, a literary classic by the Austrian writer Joseph Roth set in a ramshackle hotel in Poland after the first World War, John Irving's The Hotel New Hampshire, which features two hotels, a summer resort in Maine and a rundown Viennese pensione (if you've only tried one of his recent books, think again, this is one of three very funny, inspired books he wrote in his early period, the other two being The world according to Garp and A prayer for Owen Meany), and of course Eloise, a picture book for all ages narrated by a little girl, a relative of Ramona from the Ramona and Beezus books, who lives at the Plaza in New York.
Plus two magnificent movies: the legendary Grand Hotel from 1932 with its all-star cast led by Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, and Wes Anderson's reverie The Grand Budapest Hotel, not based on The Grand Babylon Hotel, but on Stefan Zweig's The post office girl, also recommended!