Friday, 11 February 2011

Penguin no. 615: Life Class
by Ludwig Bemelmans

"From this bench under the bent old tree, in this godlike perspective, as if one hung in the sky, there is, in a brief yet eternal moment of time, clarity and understanding. It comes at the end of long stretches of thinking, sometimes distorted by my reading, and I have to put much that I like aside, along with my respect for the knowledge and brilliance of the minds that have written the books. I have to say loudly to myself that life is Mother and Father, house and garden, nurse and childhood, play, work, love and children; that is not what goes on in the Splendide."

Ludwig Bemelmans writes beautifully, almost as though he is sketching with words. He is best known as the author of the series of childrens books about Madeline. But he wrote for adults as well, including this delightful book of sketches and stories published a year before the first Madeline book appeared. In this he describes his early adult life and the people that he met, customers and fellow employees, when he first came to America in 1916 to work in the hotel industry. And he is so observant. The stories are generous and affectionate even when they are mocking, and they include little descriptions of incidental detail, so that he slowly builds a picture of the world he lives in, and we come to understand his conflicted feelings about America and Germany.

He did not show much promise in childhood. It is yet another of these stories of someone who succeeds despite everyone believing failure is inevitable, and despite his being discouraged from pursuing his dream of drawing. After his father abandoned the family, Ludwig came to live in the sleepy German town of Regensburg  with his grandfather, who owned the brewery. His mother hoped that he would finish six years of schooling at the Lyceum so that he could avoid the disgrace of being a common soldier during his military service, but he was sent away from school after school, and was eventually sent to live with and work for his Uncle Hans, who owned hotels.

Ludwig was also dismissed from each of his uncle's hotels, on the final occasion for what is described in this book as a serious offence (and described elsewhere as shooting a waiter). His uncle gave him an ultimatum: he could be sent to a German reform institution or he could leave Germany, and rehabilitate himself by seeking his fortune in America. America was viewed as the land where the bad can make good. He had had enough of German discipline. He chose America.

Most of the stories are about his life working at the Hotel Splendide in New York (in real life the Ritz-Carlton), where he starts as a commis, but after the first world war rises to assistant to the assistant manager of the banquet department, becoming wealthy on tips and having time to pursue his art. Virtually all of the hotel employees are European; the American customers are extremely wealthy, bad-tempered, overweight and vulgar. But he seems to love people despite their faults, and he himself is not completely reformed by success. He tells many tales of when he himself pushed the boundaries of appropriate behaviour.

Some of the most delightful stories are of Mr. Sigsag, who is convinced of the American dream, that hard work and ambition inevitably lead to success. And Mr. Sigsag is living proof, having started as a child piccolo in Europe and rising to assistant manager of the banquet department in Hotel Splendide. But he is without taste. There is a lovely description of him returning to his home town outside Przemysl as a hero and spending his vacation transforming his parent's traditional European home into a modern American house:

"It took Mr. Sigsag four weeks of hard work, all his vacation, to ruin this beauty...The peasant beds, old, worn, painted in most beautiful forget-me-not blue, with saints on them, were taken away, along with the chairs that had so much peace in them and lovely simple carving with the trace of handwork on every leg. In their place came beds with inner spring mattresses and pressed head-boards, immoral little satin boudoir chairs, ...The final touch was a copy of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentihomme, in a beautiful old binding, which, when opened, contained cigarettes."
There are also affectionate references to German efficiency and hard-work, and their unquestioning obedience of rules and signs.

Ludwig Bemelmans wrote other books about his life working at the Hotel Splendide. Penguin book 670 is by Bemelmans and called Hotel Splendide (this title gets listed on Penguin branded teatowels and mugs) and I read a lovely post here about another of his books, Hotel Bemelmans which I cannot find in the Penguin listings, but which is clearly also about his early life. He had a special talent. His little stories are soothing and relaxing to read, and I cannot wait to read more of them.

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