I was in Browser Books in San Francisco today. It’s a nice little shop around the corner from the dental college where I was having X-rays taken. I saw David Leavitt’s new novel The Two Hotel Francforts there, which is a book I read on iBooks on my iPhone. Seeing it in hardcover, as a real object, made me wish I had held out so I could have bought it then. It’s a nice little hardcover. Plus it has the photo of David Leavitt, whom I miss very much, looking quite serious as shown above, on the dust jacket. This the ebook lacks.
Here is a write-up of the novel that I did. I’ve been listening to Sherlock Holmes on audiobook recently, so it’s titled
The Adventure of the $4000 Desk
On David Leavitt’s The Two Hotel Francforts
Pete and Julia Winters, the heroes of David Leavitt’s new novel, had their Paris apartment decorated and furnished by a man named Jean. This work took two months and during that time the Winters stayed at a hotel. This was late autumn, 1939. The apartment was soon thereafter featured in Vogue. Among the furnishings were a shagreen (sharksin) table and a leather desk, which Julia would not let Pete use.
"One doesn’t use a desk like that—" she said. When Pete asked what the point of owning furniture one doesn’t use, Julia replied, "Living among beautiful things is its own reward."
By June 1940, the Winters were back in a hotel, this time in Lisbon. Looking to escape the war in Europe, they found their way to neutral Portugal where they waited for an ocean liner bound for New York.They had abandoned their apartment and its furnishings, leaving them in the hands of their concierge. The dog-eared copy of Vogue was all that remained of it.
In Lisbon, Julia plays solitaire. Pete has an affair with a married man. Jean, the decorator, is mentioned in the Winters’s conversations, always by his given name alone. His story arc echoes that of the Winters in many ways. The details about him drip out: He was Jewish. His two brothers died fighting in the war for France in 1915. That same year, his father jumped out a window and killed himself. He made his way to New York in late 1940, by way of Buenos Aires. He was, as Julia calls him, a fairy.
There is a hitch in the Winters’s plans to leave Europe: Julia wants adamantly to stay put. She makes her opposition to returning to the United States clear to Pete. “I told my family I was never coming back to New York, and I meant it,” she says. She grew up with the fantasy of leading a life as a writer in Paris, images of which were supplied to her by the pages of Collete’s Claudine novels. Having attained her Paris apartment, she was loathe to let it go.
But Julia’s life in Paris was just imaginary as one that would appear in a school girl’s tale. The trappings of the artistic life she longed for were there, but as window dressing. The desk, after all, sat fallow. It was the life of a writer bought in the same way that, in the words of John Berger, the “the look the thing an oil painting represents” is bought with the painting.
Berger tells us that the tradition of realism in the European oils came from an “emphasis on the tangibility, the solidity, the texture, the weight, the graspability of what was depicted. What was real was what you could put your hands on.”
Pete Winters made it back to New York. The desk also made the journey, it seems. Pete saw it in the window of a shop on Madison Avenue. The price was four thousand dollars. Four years ago, in reality, the Christie’s Auction House sold a wrought-iron and leather desk designed by Jean-Michel Frank (a man who shares many biographical details with the Winters’s designer) for $86,500. That is the going rate for an unreal desk, the dream it represents.