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The magic of hotels – and what we miss about them

Sarajevo's distinctive Holiday Inn, where Charlie Connelly was a semi-regular visitor - Credit: Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on a writer who brings home the strange attraction that hotels have for us, and what it is exactly he is missing most about them.

I had an e-mail from a friend the other day that felt like it came from another era. She had, she told me, just booked a long weekend in Bucharest for her and her husband in the autumn. “Cheap flights, hotel cancellable,” she wrote. “At least it’s something to look forward to. Maybe.”

Flights? Hotel? There was something wispily familiar about these words, especially in combination, especially preceding the phrase ‘something to look forward to’. Remember that? When there was something to look forward to? Good times.

I tried to remember the last time I stayed in a hotel – or indeed, any building, room or bed that isn’t my own – and found it a struggle. I think it might have been in Dieppe, weaving tipsily through ancient, narrow streets which, rain-shiny beneath wrought-iron street lights, looked much as they had when Oscar Wilde haunted them straight after his release from prison, heading for a nice old-fashioned hotel near the castle. It all seems a long time ago now because, well, it was a long time ago now.

When my friend’s e-mail arrived I happened to be reading Joseph Roth’s The Hotel Years, a collection of the Radetsky March author’s journalism from his peripatetic years in Europe between the wars. It’s a deeply absorbing book, collected and translated by the poet Michael Hofmann from newspaper pieces Roth wrote, each an evocative slice of life, usually intimate moments of stillness, reflection and observation of what he saw around him.

Roth spent most of the 1920s and 1930s practically homeless, moving around Europe from hotel to hotel, nostalgic to the point of pining for the Habsburg era in which he grew up and whose echoes, resonances and ghosts he sought throughout a continent descending into authoritarianism. In the Austro-Hungarian empire, into which he’d been born in 1894, Roth had detected a rare heterogeneity, an effortlessly tolerant mixing of nationality, culture and religion undone by the Great War and its aftermath. The nationalisms and anti-Semitism that finished off the ailing empire would grow in malevolence until they consumed the entire continent with Roth forced to watch in increasing anguish (an alcoholic, he drank himself to death in May 1939 in an act many suspect to have been deliberate).

Hotels afforded Roth anonymity as well as facilitating a wilful rootlessness. They provided accommodation from which he could come and go without forging new nostalgic yearnings of the kind that fired his prose. He thrived in them, writing how, “other men may return to hearth and home and wife and child; I celebrate my return to lobby and chandelier, porter and chambermaid”.

While Roth’s itinerance fed an innate melancholic loneliness he also enjoyed the feeling of being a somebody in a hotel, how he could be almost anyone he wanted to be for the duration of his stay. He would sit in the lobbies, sinking into comfortable armchairs, and watch his fellow guests coming and going, returning their nods of greeting.

“The men smell of new leather luggage and English shaving cream and coal. The women disperse gentle hints of a Russian aroma across the room,” he wrote of wealthy Europeans he observed in a nameless hotel lobby in 1921, and for as long as he was their fellow guest he could be one of them too. Not that he necessarily wanted to, but the combination of anonymity and the assumption of belonging suited his purposes perfectly.

Austrian writer Joseph Roth in Paris, in around 1925 – Credit: Getty Images

Reading Roth’s masterly feuilletons – short, observational newspaper sketches free of politics and rich in context that were so highly valued they usually appeared on the front page – combined with the enforced domestication of the battle against coronavirus prompted in me strong feelings of nostalgia for just about every aspect of hotel life, from the welcome at reception to the moulded plastic tray with built-in travel kettle and tiny cartons of UHT milk.

I began recalling hotels I’ve stayed in across Europe as if they were from a different age: the old and wildly posh one in Hamburg, all high ceilings, elaborate plasterwork and a room key so large and ornate I thought for a moment I was being presented with the freedom of the city. The one by a frozen Finnish lake in the darkness of winter in which I was the only guest, dining alone in its huge restaurant, every place set meticulously in anticipation of diners who wouldn’t arrive for months. And a semi-regular haunt, the yellow cube of the former Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, where I once watched a disgraced politician happily cross the lobby with a glamorous escort on each arm, enjoying one last Balkan night before leaving the next day for the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

It will be a while yet before I’ll be visiting any similar establishments across our continent and even when we can travel it will likely never be the same experience again. As well as Brexit adding bureaucracy and inconvenience to our previously uncomplicated journeys we might have said goodbye to the buffet breakfast which, when travelling on a budget, has often provided extra snacks, lunch and even dinner if your pockets are big enough.

Hotels are more than just a bed for the night and a source of rubbery scrambled egg and toast that takes an age to trundle through a grilling machine. Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac, for example, follows romance novelist Edith Hope to the eponymous establishment in Switzerland whence she had been dispatched by friends after an ill-advised love affair.

Hope’s fellow guests represent different aspects of her situation: a wealthy older woman and her daughter rejoicing in consumerism demonstrate the kind of life her friends want her to have, an elderly deaf countess is living the kind of lonely existence Edith can plausibly envisage for herself.

It’s soon clear that the novel’s protagonist is the hotel itself, not Edith. Every brick of the building, every guest, every view is part of a symbiosis: the hotel is the world and Edith at the same time, as if she’s staying in a gallery of her past, present and future. Thinking about her predicament she looks out of the window and sees, “the dense cloud that descended for days at a time and then vanished without warning to reveal a new landscape, full of colour and incident”.

Maybe it’s this notion of hotels as a world in miniature that makes the thought of them so appealing right now. For all their variety of styles, quality and architecture, at their heart they are also neutral spaces. Whether it’s five-star luxury or budget chain austerity every hotel room boils down to bed, bathroom, wardrobe and television. They become whatever we want them to be and even allow us to present ourselves as whoever we want to be.

By definition hotels are places of transience, a node through which pass people on the move having arrived from a range of places for a range of reasons, a constantly changing cast of characters on a never-changing set. A hotel room is presented to us as a home, a sanctuary that’s welcomingly familiar when we return to it at the end of a long day as we indulge a myth of belonging.

It’s a slightly strange thought that someone else occupied ‘our’ room shortly before we arrived and within hours of our departure all trace of us will be gone and someone else will dip a key card into the lock and see exactly what we did when we arrived, right down to the little notepad on the desk and the herbal teabags we didn’t use.

“When my suitcases are gone, others will take their place. When my soap is packed away, someone else’s will nestle by the basin,” writes Roth. “By the time I look round it one last time before I go, it will already have ceased to be my room.”

When my friend’s e-mail arrived with news of her at least vaguely plausible trip to Bucharest it triggered a yearning that went way beyond mere Covid cabin fever and a desire for a holiday. Thanks to Roth’s near century-old observations in The Hotel Years I realised that this was something else, something more profound.

Roth was writing during a time of European upheaval and transition. He wouldn’t live to see the worst of it but he knew it was coming and for him the rhythms and routines of hotel life lent a sense of reliable stability to an increasingly chaotic world.

It’s partly the era of transition we’re currently enduring that makes me long to plonk a holdall by a big desk and announce that I have a reservation, but it was mainly something Roth wrote for the Frankfurter Zeitung in January 1929 that brought home to me the source of this particular strand of ennui.

The piece is called “Arrival in the Hotel”, an unnamed establishment described almost as a fantasy of a perfect stay in a perfect hotel. It’s similar to George Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water”, the ideal vision of the English pub he set out in his 1946 essay, but in Roth’s case there’s a definite sense this hotel really existed, possibly in Marseille according to Hofmann. Wherever it might be this establishment also represents something we’re all missing, something that has seemed further away than ever since the turn of the year.

“The waiter is from Upper Austria”, he writes. “The porter is a Frenchman from Provence. The receptionist is from Normandy. The head waiter is Bavarian. The chambermaid is Swiss. The valet is Dutch. The manager is Levantine; and for years I’ve suspected the chef of being Czech.”

His fellow guests are drawn from a wide range of nationalities and religions, standing in for his lost Austro-Hungarian empire in the same way we’ve been deprived our own hard-earned mishmash of rights, tolerance and co-operation.

“Freed from the constriction of patriotism, from the blinkers of national feeling, slightly on holiday from the rigidity of love of land,” he writes, “people seem to come together here and at least appear to be what they should always be: children of the world.”

For Joseph Roth the hotel represented the best of Europe, a vision of what the continent could be: a place of sanctuary where nationality wasn’t competitive, a mingling of languages and accents where fear of the other didn’t exist. All that and a buffet breakfast too. I miss it.

The Hotel Years: Wanderings In Europe Between The Wars, by Joseph Roth, edited and translated by Michael Hofmann, is published by Granta Books, price £9.99

FIVE GREAT BOOKS SET IN HOTELS

AFTER LEAVING MR MACKENZIE

Jean Rhys (Penguin Modern Classics, £8.99)

Set in London and Paris between the wars, Rhys’s second novel finds Julia in a cheap Paris hotel on the Quai des Grands-Augustins, living off a meagre allowance provided by her ex-lover. When the money stops, circumstances take her to a Bloomsbury hotel in London, before returning to her original Parisian abode. Occasionally bleak, and at least partly autobiographical, this is a deeply moving exploration of loneliness and the quest for love.

DEATH IN VENICE

Thomas Mann, trans. David Luke (Vintage, £8.99)

Based on the author’s 1911 stay at the Grand Hotel des Bains, aging writer Gustav von Aschenbach takes up residence at the Venetian hotel where he becomes first drawn to then increasingly obsessed with a young Polish boy, Tadzio, also staying at the hotel with his family. Set against a Venice consumed by a cholera epidemic, the book was adapted for screen by Luchino Visconti in 1973 and filmed at the original hotel.

THESE FOOLISH THINGS

Deborah Moggach (Vintage, £8.99)

Better known for its film adaptation The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel – and since republished under that title – Moggach’s 2005 novel follows a disparate group of older English people answering an advertisement and taking a chance at a new life in India for their autumn years. Rebellion, love and the challenges of the unknown combine to wonderful effect in the hands of this criminally underrated novelist.

THE GRAND BABYLON HOTEL

Arnold Bennett (Vintage, £8.99).

Another British novelist who should be far better known, Bennett’s 1902 evocation of a London hotel is blessed with a raft of extraordinary characters, including American millionaire Theodore Racksole who buys the place on a whim when he is refused a favourite meal in the restaurant. Disgruntled ex-staff and European royalty combine in what turns out to be a riotous murder-mystery in the rollicking tradition of adventure fiction like Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda.

THE HOTEL

Elizabeth Bowen (Vintage, £9.99)

First published in 1927, this fabulously witty comedy of manners immerses us among a group of British tourists on the Italian Riviera. We follow the emotional development of the awkward and insecure Miss Sydney as she falls under the influence of the much older Mrs Kerr in a glorious yet sensitive portrayal of the minefield of early 20th century social niceties.