The Electric Hotel…
About the Book:
From the award-winning author of the acclaimed New York Times bestseller The Last Painting of Sara de Vos comes a luminous novel tracing the intertwined fates of a silent-film director and his muse.
Dominic Smith’s The Electric Hotel winds through the nascent days of cinema in Paris and Fort Lee, New Jersey – America’s first movie town – and on the battlefields of Belgium during World War I. A sweeping work of historical fiction, it shimmers between past and present as it tells the story of the rise and fall of a prodigious film studio and one man’s doomed obsession with all that passes in front of the viewfinder.
For nearly half a century, Claude Ballard has been living at the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel. A French pioneer of silent films, who started out as a concession agent for the Lumiere brothers, the inventors of cinema, Claude now spends his days foraging mushrooms in the hills of Los Angeles and taking photographs of runaways and the striplings along Sunset Boulevard. But when a film-history student comes to interview Claude about The Electric Hotel – the lost masterpiece that bankrupted him and ended the career of his muse, Sabine Montrose – the past comes surging back. In his run-down hotel suite, the ravages of the past are waiting to be excavated: celluloid fragments and reels in desperate need of restoration, and Claude’s memories of the woman who inspired and beguiled him.
‘Maybe memory is just electricity passing through us. Old voltage in the joints.’
This was a glorious novel of historical fiction. Possibly one of my favourite reads in the genre this year. In his latest novel, The Electric Hotel, Dominic Smith brings the beginnings of the silent film era to life with so much atmosphere and energy. It was a real joy to linger in the pages of this novel and learn something about a history I previously knew nothing about. I haven’t even seen a silent film before, at least not in its entirety! I have a strong urge to do so now, and I really wish it could be Smith’s invented ‘The Electric Hotel’. This fictionalised film, of which the story builds up to and then descends from, was brought to life with absolute intensity; I could picture the scenes so vividly, Smith writes that well. The film name, ‘The Electric Hotel’, is borrowed from a Spanish silent ‘trick film’ released in 1908 that was thought to be lost but has now been preserved and resides in safe keeping in the Filmoteca Espanola film archive. In his author note, Dominic Smith writes that more than seventy-five per cent of all silent films have been lost, mostly due to the instability of the medium – celluloid nitrate is both highly flammable and prone to decay. Reading this just made me all the more sad that I haven’t seen one.
When you think of how present movies are in our lives today, how frequently they are made and released, it seems strange to think of a time when they didn’t exist. The marvel of seeing silent moving images on a big screen was beautifully captured within this novel, so too, the skill and work involved in producing these images. From short moments to minutes long, we see motion picture production from its infancy and travel with the characters to the dizzying height of making the longest feature film for the era: an hour long continuous story with a plot, orchestrated score and professional sound effects, complete with outrageous stunts and a real life tiger – because a film would not be a film without the sensational. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this film come to life from an ambitious idea to a premiere event. And you can’t even begin to imagine what was involved in making a film of this magnitude. Even the short clips that preceded it involved so much labour and meticulous planning. There was very often no room for ‘take two’. It was a case of get it right the first time because we can’t afford to do it again.
Not only is this a story about early cinema. The Electric Hotel is also a study of love and friendship, of peace and war, and using the medium of film to contextualise the state of the world for others. The novel does have a lot of the technical aspects of film and film making broken down and detailed, but I rather liked that. It gave me a real sense of knowledge which enhanced my appreciation of the efforts these early pioneers of cinema had to go to in order to achieve their means. The process of creation, production, and distribution was fascinating and I was more than a little amazed to discover that early film makers were such ‘jack of all trades’. Because we begin the novel when Claude is elderly, I found it difficult to suppress a growing sense of sadness that kept building in me throughout the story. After all, I knew where this was headed, right? Wrong. And therein lies the mastery of Dominic Smith’s storytelling. This is the third novel I’ve read by Dominic Smith and I am quite comfortable now with using the words ‘literary’ and ‘genius’ in the same sentence as his name.
‘She sometimes felt like a coil of wire, a medium for the unravelling ideas of men, for storytellers and visionaries.’
The Electric Hotel is a highly recommended read and for fans of historical fiction, it offers a guaranteed outstanding journey back through time to a fascinating era of innovation and creativity.
Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Electric Hotel for review.
About the Author:
Dominic Smith grew up in Sydney and now lives in Seattle. He is the author of five novels, including The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, an acclaimed bestseller in Australia, winning both the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Indie Book of the Year (Fiction) in 2017. In the US, the novel was also a New York Times (NYT) bestseller and named a NYT Book Review Editors’ Choice. Dominic has received literature fellowships from the Australia Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. More information can be found on his website: www.dominicsmith.net
The Electric Hotel
Published by Allen & Unwin
Released June 2019