Part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons - a series of books about the hidden lives of ordinary things - Hotel by Joanna Walsh defies genre categories, much like Walsh herself. As an illustrator, writer, essayist, short story writer and founder of the Read Women project, Walsh’s career is varied and fascinating, as she uses art and writing to explore sex, sexuality, psychology, geography, travel and feminism.
Joanna Walsh: Photo: Sarah Davis-Goff
Hotel is part memoir, part essay, part meditation and all fascinating. Its subtle and slippery form makes it difficult to pin down. And yet the thoughts it provokes and the questions it asks stay with you long after you’ve closed the last page.
At the book’s opening, Walsh explains that there was:
‘A time in my life when I lived in hotels. Around this time, the time I did not spend in hotels was time I did not live. During this other time I haunted a marriage I was soon to leave. There’s no place like home and, as home seemed hardly to qualify as a place any more, I began to look for something elsewhere.’
What follows is a memoir of the breakdown of her marriage and the difficulties in leaving a relationship; a meditation on the meaning of ‘home’; and an exploration of our relationship with and within hotels - all interspersed with guest appearances from Freud and Dora, Katherine Mansfield, Mae West and the Marx Brothers. The reader travels from hotel to hotel with Walsh, and is reminded or introduced to portrayals of hotels in popular and intellectual culture.
Walsh is excellent at drawing out the uncanny nature of hotels - how these buildings invite us to make ourselves at home and yet are not home, are not anything like home. She writes about the comings and goings in lobbies and the care gone into creating hotel libraries - libraries designed to make us feel at home and yet, whose home has a library? ‘A library is not something usually found at home […] The books in the library do not matter. It only matters that the books are there.’ In the first hotel she takes us into, Walsh explores how in hotel rooms we are encouraged to feel comfortable and yet at the same time the unfamiliarity of the room leaves us feeling like we might be transgressing or breaking some unspoken rule: ‘Hotel bedrooms are invitations to failure.’
One of the most interesting aspects of Walsh’s Hotel is her analysis of how in hotels we are on display while seemingly being secluded; that ‘hotels are for those who understand performance.’ There’s a link here between the way women exist in the public space - like hotel guests women are on display in public life, we are the gaz-ee to the gaz-er, the spectacle or passante to the flaneur. Women grow up knowing how to perform for the male gaze, we ‘understand performance’. Yet, at the same time, women are brought up not to take up space - we are encouraged to confine ourselves to the domestic or private, leaving the public to men. So women share that duality with the people populating hotels - we are both on display in public space, and yet we are uneasy in public space. Just as in hotels, we are aware of performing while feeling that we are transgressing; that we are one spillage or smash away from breaking those dreaded unspoken rules.
As a hotel reviewer, hotels have become work to Walsh - an inversion of our usual experience of hotels, which should be an escape from the daily grind, a holiday. In an overtly feminist section of the book, Walsh explores the home work expected of her (and women) as a wife - the work she must do to create a home, work that is not expected of her husband and yet required of her. Here, we once again see the relationship between women, the gaze, and public and private space:
‘Home work is work done behind closed doors. […] for your part, you liked to look on and approve. […] You liked to see me look after them. You allowed yourself this look, no doubt with the best intentions, with the intention of looking on my home work approvingly. If I didn’t do the home work right your look changed. You could hardly help yourself, but it was awful to be looked on, even when your look was approving.’
Throughout the book, Walsh guides us through Freud’s famous hysteria case: Dora. She explains how Dora and her father were staying at a hotel when ‘Herr K’, the husband of Dora’s father’s lover, kisses Dora and she is struck dumb - otherwise known as aphonia. The case gave Freud the chance to look at the unheimlich or the uncanny - which literally translates as un-homelike. This makes it the perfect case to explore in relation to hotels which are both home and not home, and in relation to Walsh’s marital breakdown, the unravelling of what was home to not-home.
Dora’s case is apt in another way too. Her hysteria signalled itself by silence - by a loss of language, and Freud believed that she just needs the right words to reach recovery. Walsh writes:
‘[Freud] thought that, though she didn’t complain, she had a complaint that could be cured by new words, by a talking cure. A disease of language, then?’
In hotels we develop a new language - we talk in set phrases, thank yous and requests. In hotels we are wrapped up in silence too - which Walsh discusses via a mispronunciation from a hotel manager that turns ‘guests’ into ‘ghosts’ who move wordlessly from rooms to lobbies and from there, to beyond.
However, there is another loss of language explored in the book: within Walsh’s break-up. She describes going to a therapist which her partner refuses to speak to; she compares the words she and her ex don’t say to each other in person with the words they send to each other when apart. Relationship breakdowns often feel like a loss of language and through her interlinking of Dora, hotels and the end of her marriage, Walsh subtly and succinctly brings to life those silences that accompany an ending.
On her writing process of the book, Walsh told me:
"When I started writing Hotel I put everything I had on the table: not only all the material--my notes, my recollections of those Hotel years--but everything I thought I could do with structure, with voice, as well as every form I thought I’d like to write in, plus a few more I’d not considered before. Do I regret writing Hotel over a few intense months? Not at all. I couldn’t be happier with the book if I’d written it over years—and to tell the truth it did take years: years of thinking, of reading, of remembering, years of keeping silent like Freud's Dora, and finally years of learning how to write it down."
The break up in the book is very much about Walsh’s own experience. And yet, as I read it, I found myself increasingly recognising my own life and my own experiences in her writing. It was at times frightening; this sense of reading my own life. And to me, that was where so much of the power lies in Hotel. It is a specific experience and yet it is universal too.
There is so much more to write and explore in Walsh’s hotel - the appearances of Garbo, Groucho and Oscar Wilde; the delving into sickness and health and hotels; the trickiness of misspoken words and twisted jokes; the physicality of her writing on the female body and sexuality. Just as Hotel defies genre in its moving between essay, meditation and memoir, its subtle and slippery content can’t be contained in a single review. Each reader will take something different from it, relate to a different experience or nod to a different allusion. Hotel is a clever little book that packs a punch, and Walsh is a writer whose sparse prose and contained voice endlessly surprises.