David Leavitt's wonderful novel “The Two Hotel Francforts” is, on one level, about a love affair –– a hopeless, doomed, tragic, and even slightly ridiculous one –– between two married men, Pete Winters and Edward Freleng. The book is also about the world in which the men live, a world lurching and capsizing during wartime, and so Pete and Edward's confusion, passion, and jarring emotions mirror perfectly the Lisbon of 1940 they and their wives find themselves in.
The Portuguese city is a politically charged, tense waiting room of “counterfeiters, alchemists and impostors” –– as Pete puts it –– as the two couples and many others wait for the steamship Manhattan to take them to New York and to safety from the encroaching Nazi threat.
For Leavitt readers, the canvas couldn't be more different than the gay-themed novels and short stories, like “Family Dancing” and “The Lost Language of Cranes,” that made his name in the late 1980s and 1990s, all set in modern times. Later novels like “While England Sleeps” and “The Indian Clerk,” Leavitt's biography of Alan Turing, and now “The Two Hotel Francforts” evoke the lives and loves of gay men in less open and equal times.
Leavitt's rendering of war-unnerved Lisbon is so crisp, romantic (in the fullest sense of that word), and immediate that the novel succeeds both as a unflinching observation of love, marriage, and desire, and also as a well-researched and piercing portrait of a larger historical moment.
David Leavitt counterposes chaos, storytelling precision in tale of faltering love in 1940 Lisbon
The main swathe of action takes place over a week, but feels so much more epic. The air of all-pervading confusion Leavitt creates so effectively is enshrined in the title: the two couples — Pete and his wife Julia and Edward and his wife Iris — both in their early 40s, have rooms at two hotels with the same name. They meet when, sitting outside their favorite café, Pete and Julia are dive-bombed by pigeons and Edward helps Pete retrieve his broken glasses and a deck of suddenly dispersed playing cards belonging to Julia.
From this moment on, Leavitt cleverly makes Pete –– the narrative voice –– more and more discombobulated by the events unfolding around him. He cannot see properly, feels ill and nauseous, always seems outwitted by Edward or at odds with Lisbon, his wife, and the Frelengs as a couple. Most pointedly he is unmoored by his sudden love for Edward and the ramifications of this for his own marriage. Before they have sex for the first time, Edward removes the glasses from Pete's face “so that you can truthfully say you never saw what was coming.”
Those readers hoping for a romantic gay love story will be frustrated. When they are finally about to have sex in an indoor setting –– a brothel –– Edward abruptly leaves Pete in the nude and locks the door from the outside (naturally, afterwards, Pete punches him). Their time together always has a third character in attendance, “a mute witness” as Pete calls her –– Daisy, Edward and Iris' dog, as lovingly and carefully characterized as the humans around her. “May you caper forever in that paradise where good dogs are sent,” Pete wishes for Daisy later (Leavitt is clearly a huge dog lover). The men want to be together and cannot be, and that seems right.
For all they desire each other, Edward regards himself as destructive, while Pete, smitten, desperately tries to imagine a future together for them –– but cannot, because like Edward he also sees his future with his wife. Leavitt writes beautifully and fluently, his scenes studded with precise detail –– such as the sand that falls off Pete long after he has sex with Edward by the sea (a gorgeously sexy scene in itself), or the blooming of a peacock, like “a thousand tiny white birds casting off into the sky.” That would be perfect enough, but then Leavitt has Daisy barking and “the feathers unfolded, like masterfully shuffled cards,” which echoes, in the reader's mind, the relentless games of Patience Julia plays with herself.
Neither man's marriage is conventional. Julia appears fragile (Pete later refutes this) and thinks she keeps seeing relations of hers on the streets of Lisbon; Iris, fully aware of her husband's desire for men, is manipulative and believes she can control Edward's relationship with Pete for her own advantage. But her desire to control masks a fear of losing Edward.
Leavitt unpeels the two couples’ far-from-predictable stories. The Winterses have arrived in Lisbon from Paris, frustrated not to have fully lived the emigré life. The Frelengs, bohemian, arch, and all-knowing, are also itinerants, with a life scored by disappointment and failures, now heavily camouflaged by a practiced worldliness. Both couples have suffered well-concealed tragedies. Just as there are, confusingly, two Hotel Francforts, so there are many contradictory layers to Pete, Julia, Edward, and Iris, to Lisbon and its nervous residents –– all exacerbated in the heightened atmosphere of wartime.
Throughout the book Pete and Edward desperately try to find places to have sex and be intimate, but are constantly frustrated by random bystanders and their own contradictory desires. Dust swirls around them. Iris befriends Julia, feeling a genuine kinship with her, which she knows also offers her more leverage. The cafés and hotels, the secret car trips and walks, the passion and intrigue lead Pete –– and the reader –– into a maze of clever and disturbing disorientation. Will the men's affair be revealed? Could they be together? Will they leave on board the Manhattan in time? Everything –– the couples' deep, complicated marriages, the city, and beyond them the whole of Europe and the world –– is in transition. Everything in the characters’ lives feels impossible, not entirely fulfilled, under-nourished, on borrowed time, mismatched.
Toward the end the book suddenly shifts to a breezy, fiction-within-fiction telling of what happens next to the characters. This feels odd, unwelcome even, but another perspective is perhaps needed to tell a key part of the story happening around Pete. Then his voice re-emerges, and in doing something wholly unexpected, Pete suddenly finds purpose. It's a bracing ending, proving Leavitt as much a master of clarity as he is of confusion.
THE TWO HOTEL FRANCFORTS | By David Leavitt | Bloomsbury USA | 272 pages | $25
Tim Teeman (timteeman.com) is a writer and journalist whose first book, “In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood and the Private World of an American Master” comes out in November from Magnus Books.