Review: “Grand Hotel Europa”, by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer

GRAND HOTEL EUROPA, by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer | Translated by Michele Hutchison

A middle-aged Dutch writer settles into a hotel in an unnamed Italian town, seeking to bounce back from a failed romance and “take back control of my thoughts”. So begins “Grand Hotel Europa”, the sprawling new autofiction by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer, a Dutch novelist, poet and scholar who has long resided in Italy.

The narrator, also named Ilja Pfeijffer, has arrived at the “sumptuous…and once magnificent hotel” in an attempt to alchemize her affair with Clio — an art historian from an aristocratic family — into a novel. The hotel’s quirky cast of characters includes a North African hunter with a painful refugee past; a learned scholar and philosopher; a “militant feminist” poet; the new Chinese owner, decided to modernize the place for Asian tourists; and the mysterious, Miss Havisham-like former owner, housed in a room Ilja can’t find, “alone with her art and memories”.

The hotel evokes the manners and beauty of pre-modern European life, its gilded frames and Chesterfield armchairs bringing the narrator to swooning retrospect. But its enchantment is undermined by its great concern and scarecrow – “the phenomenon of mass tourism”, in all its terrible horror. “Grand Hotel Europa” depicts a Europe invaded by hordes of visitors consuming a parody of the past and turning the continent into their “fantastic historical park”. The narrator himself is an inveterate traveler, but his wanderings are presented as a push towards enlightenment; in contrast, the tourist’s relentless quest for a unique experience – and impressive social media posts – leads to lewdness and farce, such as when a tour operator touts night orienteering in Cambodia and asks Ilja if he’s looking for “Vietnam, napalm, Tour of Duty, that sort of thing.”

One can’t help but be impressed by how many narrative bullets Pfeijffer keeps in the air. The novel combines a comedy of manners with travel journalism, political and cultural commentary and reflections on European identity. Oh, no longer an art-heist mystery (focusing on the last days and Caravaggio’s paintings). And this love story. Pfeijffer’s prose, courageously translated by Michele Hutchison, is as multifaceted as the novel itself – sometimes elegant and baroque, sometimes bland reportage, sometimes bawdy (some readers may cringe at his vigorous descriptions of sexual encounters). What about a style reminiscent of Nabokov, Tom Wolfe, Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Wes Anderson and a position taken by UNESCO? The novel shamelessly mixes the erotic and the esoteric, the hilarious and the harassing, the buffoon and the academic.

Pfeijffer’s characters tend to deliver lectures: on immigration policy, on the inequalities caused by Airbnb and the sharing economy, on George Steiner’s concept of Europeanness. The occasional length is soothed by lively, even virtuosic invective dictated by tourists who “groan in all their idleness…like cholesterol inhibiting city traffic and causing heart attacks.” Cheerful misanthropy drives the novel’s academic musings, as Ilja entertains flowery fantasies of relieving the glut of tourists through terrorist attacks or medieval torture methods – and at one point throws a German tourist from Rialto and into the Grand Canal in Venice.

Pfeijffer’s autofictional gambits begin with a scene of the narrator promising his publisher a novel about tourism, then incorporate the author’s own itineraries, such as his jaunt to Skopje, Macedonia, for a literary festival. A conference organized by Clio, on the future of museums, brings together real art historians Eike Schmidt and Jean Clair. Pfeijffer merges these everyday realities with the fictional and the fantastic. Clio, of course, is the muse of history; as for the identity of the mysterious ex-owner of the hotel, it becomes clearer in a spectacular outcome involving what one could call a funeral for Europe.

There’s a jumbled quality to the novel that suggests a writer takes all the odds and ends on his desk and sews them together with metafictional and autofictional threads. It doesn’t all work out, but in the end, “Grand Hotel Europa” feels like its talkative narrator, whose flaws and excesses you gladly forgive because you enjoy his company. Even the caustic and sometimes gloomy view of the book on contemporary European realities cannot dampen its incorrigible good humor.

Rand Richards Cooper is the author of two books of fiction and a contributing editor for Commonweal.

GRAND HOTEL EUROPA | By Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer | Translated by Michèle Hutchison | 560 pages | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | $30

Previous France's futility continues as Croatia and Modrić score historic victory
Next The Best Travel-Friendly Sports Kits