Author Claire Messud’s response was direct and to the point when an interviewer said that he thought Nora, the main character in Messud’s recent book, The Woman Upstairs, was someone he wouldn’t want as a friend.
“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?,” she retorted. “Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” ‘’
The spat came to mind after finishing The Two Hotels Francforts by David Leavitt. Despite the potentially perilous circumstances in which the four main characters find themselves, stranded in neutral Lisbon as the Nazis stampede spreads across Europe in 1940. A chance meeting brings together Pete Winters, who has been selling American cars in Paris, his emotionally fragile wife Julia and the bohemian Edward and Iris Frelangs independently wealthy but who also moonlight as writers of crime fiction. Oblivious to the panic and desperation around them, both couples are almost casually about filling in time before they can catch the boat that will take them to safety in America. Julia is still clearly piqued by the fact that she had had to leave her renovated Paris flat just after it was featured in Vogue; Pete and Edward embark on a destructive affair. In fact the biggest problem these “refugees” seem to face is the decrepitude of Edward and Iris’s beloved dog. They are all (except perhaps the dog) a pretty unlikeable bunch, more irritated by the personal inconveniences than sympathetic to or even apparently comprehending of the much larger tragedy already impacting Europe.
Considering the epic nature of the book’s setting, Leavitt’s choice to focus on the relationship both between the couples and within the couples with little more than a passing mention of the bigger picture becomes increasingly curious. He is clearly deliberately playing some literary games with the reader, that and his undoubted skill as a writer with a fine eye for detail and turn of phrase, certainly kept the pages turning for me. But in the end the characters were not robustly carved enough to sustain interest in them alone. Why, for example, did Pete so easily and so thoroughly give in to Edward’s sexual advance although there is no indication of previous homosexual encounters or even hinted desires.
The Two Hotel Francforts particularly suffers from a lack of balance; a considerable amount of time in the early parts of the book is spent on dead ends and irrelevant plot twists but major developments like Pete’s sudden morph into freelance freedom fighter and the explanation from Julia’s fear of return to America get just a couple of pages at the very end. I wanted to know more and the characters couldn’t tell me.
Although empathy makes our reading experience more complete I have no inherent issue with not liking the main characters. The problem comes when the story isn’t strong enough to paper over their deficiencies.
The Two Hotel Francforts by David Leavitt is published by Bloomsbury. Leavitt is professor of creative writing at the University of Florida and twice shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His other novels and books of short stories include Family Dancing, Equal Affections, While England Sleeps, The Page Turner and The Indian Clerk