Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 1, 2020

The Electric Hotel, by Dominic Smith

I have read and liked Dominic Smith’s fiction before, but although readers interested in film may respond differently, and Smith’s writing is often very good indeed, I found The Electric Hotel only mildly interesting and vaguely disquieting.  For me, what this novel exposed was what I dislike most about the film industry: although there are fine (mostly foreign) films that I’ve admired, most of what is promoted from Hollywood caters to ever more explicit prurience and a lust for ever more dramatic scenes of spectacle and violence — including justification by inference of America’s obscene gun culture.  (Though from what I see of trailers of the film and TV series offerings from SBS, there is also a great appetite for Scandi Noir, which portrays ever more gruesome murders nearly always involving extreme violence against women).  And while today a lot of the breathtaking scenes are done with special effects, in the past it involved people in dangerous stunts that became riskier and riskier to satisfy public tastes.  Today there are still film makers making what are called snuff films and other equally unpleasant manifestations of the dark side of human nature.  An appetite created in the first place by people like Smith’s ‘hero’ who in the silent film era filmed his sister dying of consumption, his love interest naked in a bubble bath, and a stunt involving a tiger which was shot dead when it mauled a trainer who was lucky to survive.

The novel spans 60 years between 1895 and 1962, the structure framed by a Texan student of film history who in the 1960s enables the rediscovery of a film long thought to be lost.  This film, titled ‘The Electric Hotel’ was an attempt to circumvent Thomas Edison’s highly effective stranglehold on the emerging film industry, but it fell foul of his skill in issuing lawsuits against anyone using equipment for which he held the patent.  Between the first meeting of the student Martin Embry and the film maker Claude Ballard, and the finale screening of the restored film in an arthouse cinema, the story traces Ballard’s career as a salesman for the Lumière brothers, and his entrepreneurial ventures in America where he screens short films for an enthusiastic public.  The making of the feature film which gives this novel its name explores the trinity of Ballard, the film promoter Hal Bender and the mercurial actress Sabine Montrose. She betrays Ballard and breaks his heart, but he betrays her too by what happens in the final scene of the film.

IMO the relationship between these two is too frail to support a novel that is too long for itself. (You know a book is too long when you keep going to the last page to see how many pages there are to go.)  Like me, Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best found the characters lacked heart and their motivations weren’t always convincing, particularly in the case of Sabine.  Geordie Williamson in a generally positive review in the (paywalled) Weekend Australian of June 15-16 also had reservations about the characters, writing that Ballard is too passive to occupy the novel’s centre; Sabine too hard and capricious to step into the breach.  So perhaps if you are a reader who prefers character-driven novels, this book is not for you.  What I found most frustrating about it, however, was its failure to interrogate the lack of heart about the exploitation involved in those early days of the industry.  This is an omission remedied in the novel only in part by the sequences where — at considerable risk to his life, since he was a prisoner of war being used to film German propaganda — Ballard managed to capture scenes of German atrocities in Belgium in WW1.

Williamson OTOH found the novel’s raison d’être more compelling than I did:

What Smith has done, however, is to return the reader to appreciation for an art form whose primary masterpieces are lost to time.  He has, with the aid of a warm-hearted, elegantly elaborated, historically informed imagination, restored some small vanished portion of the past.

Exactly like books, film can indeed be an art form, and it can also be inane, ephemeral, or worse, pandering to what’s popular but not necessarily worthwhile and may even be harmful when it perpetuates abhorrent values.  Compared to Bright and Distant Shores, which was not only a great story combining a rollicking style, an intriguing love story and food for thought about the impact of collectors on indigenous societies during the 18th century Enlightenment, The Electric Hotel IMO is merely an homage to its subject matter.  It offers no moral dilemmas for the flawed hero — or the reader — to consider.  Unlike most of the novels I read, it left me with nothing much to think about at all.

To put it another way, Smith’s idea of a lost masterpiece in film is entirely different to mine, and if the fictional melodrama of The Electric Hotel is meant to be representative of a ‘masterpiece’ I do not care at all that 75% of all American silent movies has been lost forever, as reported by Stephen Romei, in his enthusiastic review in the Weekend Review of June 1-2, 2019.  He quotes Smith as saying…

‘There’s something abut that idea of a three-quarters of a body of work missing […] I kept thinking how we would feel if that happened in literature, if a 30-year period was lost.  And so the notion of a lost masterpiece in film took a strong hold as I thought about this book.’

Sue at Whispering Gums, OTOH is a retired film historian, and her response to this novel is entirely different to mine. She found it engrossing, while Theresa Smith thought it was one of her best books of the year.  So don’t take my word for it!

PS Note to editors and authors wishing to impress with snippets of French: even beginners with the French language know that lovers and intimates do not address each other using the formal ‘vous’.  Claude (who lost his virginity to Sabine) entreats Sabine (on page 148) not to interrupt him with Vous promettez?’  Surely in multicultural Australia it’s not hard to find a French speaker who can advise on these matters?

Author: Dominic Smith
Title: The Electric Hotel
Cover design: Sandy Cull
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2019
ISBN: 9781760528621, pbk., 449 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

 


Responses

  1. I was also counting down the pages… and telling myself that I must get better at simply stopping!

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    • *chuckle*. Yes.
      Yes but…
      Yes, but I never got to the stage of not wanting to finish it. I just wanted the route to be shorter, especially that last 100 pages which was so obviously wrapping up the loose ends.

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  2. Interesting post Lisa. As you know I was engrossed, but that was partly because of my career. It felt pretty real to me in terms of evoking the challenges and excitement of those times as they explored what this new medium might achieve (whether or not we approve of what they did from our times).

    As for the issue of so much being lost and not caring if it’s bad, as an archivist I am less interested in the quality of what is lost than in the content, context, and what it tells us about ourselves. If all that is left of any art form is the cream (the cream as it was assessed at the time) then we end up with a skewed view of the world. (Just as we are trying now to recover women’s work in music, art and literature from the past to round out our understanding of the past). In other words, archivists and librarians at national and state archives and libraries are keen to collect and preserve the breadth of every era and it makes it difficult if most of that has been lost.

    However, although I think he does explore some of the darker potential of film – how it can be misused – it’s not a book that I’ve remembered, which says something, I think. So, while I enjoyed reading it at the time, and nutting out what Smith was trying to do, I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t appear in shortlists.

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    • Good points, Sue. I think that my training in the ancient classics where nearly everything has been lost and we are lucky to have what we do, makes me a little less worried about what might be lost from more recent times. But I do wish he’d done a little digging around in the Australian archive. I don’t know much about it but I know that Australians were genuine film pioneers, and that would make a terrific novel. Though with my cynical hat on, I know that it wouldn’t sell in the international market the way that this one will.

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      • Fair point. He doesn’t live here anymore, and hasn’t I think for some time?

        We certainly have our huge percentage of lost films too, and as you say, our pioneers with some great stories. We did, it’s generally accepted, make the first feature film – on the Kellys of course!!

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  3. Hmmm… I’m in two minds about reading this book. Absolutely loved The Lost Painting of … but the topic in this one doesn’t really grab me (and it sounds like it didn’t really grab you either). But it’s interesting in that he seems to be an author intrigued by the issues sounding the preservation of visual artefacts. Wasn’t his first novel about photography?

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  4. I have a copy sitting here, awaiting its turn to be read. It may now need to wait a while longer.

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    • I know how that feels, I’d had this since May 2019 and I don’t usually take anywhere near that amount of time to get round to a review. But somehow the description just didn’t appeal to me, and truth be told I actually read it because I was having such trouble with my eyes that the large print was about the only thing I could read at the time.

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