By Chryssa Marinou
Elizabeth Bowen’s 1923 short story entitled “Salon des Dames” offers a view of the hotel space in the aftermath of World War I, characterised by abandonment and a sense of the morbid. The story begins with a distinct focus on the space of the unnamed Swiss hotel, by and large devoid of guests, building up a feeling of absence that alludes to the lost soldiers. On the same note, the ghost of the Great War pervades the dining room in the form of a “spectral void”, while the hundred vacant bedrooms are depicted as potentially concealing corpses rather than sheltering visitors:
For the last week there had been no arrivals. In the enormous salle-à manger many tables made a brave and glittering show of expectancy, but their number diminished; the visitors dined together in a group by one window, inevitably huddled, starting at the echoes of their voices in the spectral void. The third and second floors were closed, not a slit from any doorway lightened the long perspective of the corridors. Each of the hundred bedrooms with their shuttered windows might have held a corpse, rotting in humidity beneath the glacial swathings of the bed. In the lounge, a mist perpetually filmed the mirrors; the wicker armchairs gathering sociably around the glass-topped tables creaked at one another in the silence, so that now and then an apprehensive human head would bob up from over a writing table or the back of a settee. The rain was always audible on the glass roof of the verandah. (Bowen 29-30)
The living guests of the hotel, the “forty useless mouths” (Bowen 34) awaiting to be fed by the chef, seem to be surrounded by the death and desolation that the war has inflicted, while the hotel space itself is projected as morgue anticipating Walter Benjamin’s link between hotels and crematoriums within the context of the decline of dwelling: “Today […] dwelling has diminished: for the living, through hotel rooms; for the dead, through crematoriums” (220-1).
Benjamin, Walter, and Rolf Tiedemann. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press, 2002. Print.
Bowen, Elizabeth. The Bazaar and Other Stories. Ed. and introd. Allan Hepburn. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. 29-34. Print.
Photographer: Elliott Erwitt/Magnum Photos via https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/10/24/elizabeth-bowen-master-hidden-things/ (Banville, John. “A Master of Hidden Things.” The New York Review. October 24, 2019).