Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans

Hotel Splendide by Ludwig Bemelmans

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Perhaps best known for the eternally joyful Madeline, Hotel Splendide allows Ludwig Bemelmans to showcase another side of his personality. This strange, slender and occasionally deeply melancholic book is the story of his time at the Hotel Splendide in the 1920s. Bemelmans moves up the ranks of the hotel staff to become an assistant manager and, as he goes, chronicles the eccentric lives of the staff and guests. At its heart, this is Mitford type stuff where the social detail tells us so much about the people and the world he’s in (I rather loved the episode where he spoke about the Hispano Suiza, a car I have only ever seen mentioned in the Chalet School books and full of a rather evocative imagery in its own right) but it’s also a chronicle of big lives lived at the edge of excess. Characters have enormous, out of control banquets full of glitter and panache and then there’s these counterpoints of the staff who make these moments happen, while living their own wildly eccentric and often deeply poignant lives right alongside them.

It’s perhaps more productive to think of this as a short story collection rather than something sequential or as a pure piece of memoir. Not all of this feels true but then all of it might be, and that gossamer edge between fact and fiction is rather interesting to me. Even the stories that we’re in, the stories that we know, can be given a thousand different interpretations depending on time, perspective, and speaker. Bemelmans gives us a sort of detached interest which tells us little about himself (but almost, conversely, everything‚Ķ) Focus in particular on The New Suit but also The Magician Does A New Trick, absolute melancholic perfection both. I kept returning to that idea of melancholy throughout this. There’s something deeply melancholic about all of this, a sort of longing and realisation that what Bemelmans is chronicling is so so specific to this time and place and moment, and even amidst the wit (and there is plenty of that), there is always, always this melancholic edge and that intrigues me so much.

One final thing to emphasise is this: this is not a children’s book, so detach it from his other work. Certain terms and attitudes used have also dated.

My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

View all my reviews

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