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

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

A middle-aged Dutch writer checks into a hotel in an unnamed Italian city, seeking to rebound from a failed love affair and “regain control over 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” to try to alchemize his affair with Clio — an art historian from an aristocratic family — into a novel. The hotel’s cast of eccentric characters includes a North African bellboy with a painful refugee past; an erudite and philosophizing scholar; a “militant feminist” poet; the new Chinese owner, bent on modernizing the place for Asian tourists; and the mysterious, Miss Havisham-like former owner, ensconced in a room Ilja cannot find, “alone with her art and her memories.”

The hotel evokes the mannerliness and beauty of premodern European life, its gilt frames and Chesterfield armchairs moving the narrator to swoony retrospection. But his enchantment is undercut by his great preoccupation and bugbear — “the phenomenon of mass tourism,” in all its manifold awfulness. “Grand Hotel Europa” depicts a Europe overrun by hordes of visitors consuming a travesty of the past and turning the continent into their “fantastic historical park.” The narrator himself is an inveterate traveler, but his peregrinations are presented as a push toward enlightenment; in contrast, the tourist’s ceaseless quest for unique experience — and impressive social media posts — leads to obscenity and farce, as when a tour operator touts night orienteering in Cambodia and asks Ilja if he’s looking for “Vietnam, napalm, Tour of Duty, that kind of thing.”

One can’t help being impressed by how many narrative balls 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, plus an art-heist mystery (centering on the final days and paintings of Caravaggio). And that love story. Pfeijffer’s prose, bravely translated by Michele Hutchison, is as multifarious as the novel itself — now elegant and baroque, now blandly reportorial, now bawdy (some readers may cringe at his lusty descriptions of sexual encounters). What to make of a style that calls to mind Nabokov, Tom Wolfe, Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Wes Anderson and a UNESCO position paper? The novel wantonly mingles the erotic and the esoteric, the hilarious and the hectoring, the antic and the academic.

Pfeijffer’s characters tend to spout lectures: on immigration policy, on the inequities caused by Airbnb and the sharing economy, on George Steiner’s concept of Europeanness. The occasional longueur is relieved by a lively, even virtuoso invective, cued by tourists who “blubber along in all their idleness … like cholesterol inhibiting the city’s circulation and causing infarctions.” A merry misanthropy animates the novel’s academic reflections, as Ilja entertains florid fantasies of alleviating the tourist glut via terror attacks or medieval torture methods — and at one point, hurls a German tourist off the 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 Clio organizes, on the future of museums, features the real-life art historians Eike Schmidt and Jean Clair. Pfeijffer melds these workaday realities with the fictional and fantastical. Clio, of course, is the muse of history; as for the identity of the hotel’s mystery ex-proprietress, that comes clear in a spectacular denouement involving what one could call a funeral for Europe.

There is a higgledy-piggledy quality to the novel that suggests a writer taking all the oddments on his desk and sewing them together with metafictional and autofictional threads. Not everything works, but in the end, “Grand Hotel Europa” is like its garrulous narrator, whose flaws and excesses you readily forgive because you enjoy his company. Not even the book’s caustic and at times dismal take on contemporary European realities can dampen its incorrigible high spirits.

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

GRAND HOTEL EUROPA | By Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer | Translated by Michele Hutchison | 560 pp. | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | $30

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