The guests of a modest hotel in postwar Switzerland reveal their unsettled lives on a ravaged continent in this reissue of a masterful 1973 work.
In the years following World War II, Stead was traveling around Europe with the married man she fell in love with in her native Australia in the late 1920s and whom she would wed in 1952. She had not yet been recognized for the brilliance of The Man Who Loved Children (1940), and she would publish three hefty novels before the decade ended—while chipping away at this comparatively lapidary book for some 20 years. It’s likely that her own transience, unwed status, and uncertain destination are reflected in the closely observed guests of the Hotel Swiss-Touring. Mrs. Trollope and Mr. Wilkins pose as cousins and occupy separate rooms, but everyone knows otherwise. He made his fortune in Malaya but wants to manage her finances without a trip down the aisle. Mrs. Blaise is kept medicated by her doctor husband, who lives in their Basel home and may dally with his housekeeper. The mayor of an unnamed Belgian town throws champagne parties for the hotel staff, gets electroshock treatments at a nearby clinic, and shows up at the hotel’s doors one night wearing only a hat and muffler. The American widow of an Italian prince brings her Sealyham terrier named Angel to dinner and encourages her to “sing.” There is constant fear that the Russians will invade Switzerland and take everyone’s money. All of that is but a sample. In this highly confined setting, Stead creates a busy mini-Europe of petty and poignant crises, or perhaps a molehill of The Magic Mountain.
This is an excellent place for the Stead novice to begin enjoying her artistry.