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Posted on 16 Jul 2019 in Fiction |

DOMINIC SMITH The Electric Hotel. Reviewed by Jeannette Delamoir

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The early years of cinema in Paris and US infuse this new novel from the Dominic Smith, author of The Last Painting of  Sara de Vos.

Dominic Smith loves historical settings. His previous book, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, featured a fictional 17th-century Dutch painter, and an earlier one – The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre – imagined the life of historical figure Louis Daguerre and his development of photography.

His new novel, The Electric Hotel, takes place against the volatile background of early motion pictures. The protagonist, film director Claude Ballard, is a fictional creation. Unlucky in love, his narrative traverses historical, emotional and geographic ground. In the process, it incorporates real-life elements: film entrepreneurs from those early days, their ruthless business tactics, and the newsreel propaganda in World War I.

As in The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Smith intertwines different time periods. The Electric Hotel takes place largely around the turn of the 20th century, with framing scenes set in the early 1960s. That’s when PhD candidate Martin Embrey’s interest in ‘innovation in American silent film before 1914’ leads him to Ballard, at that stage living in obscurity and managing the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles.

The dynamism of early cinema generates much of the book’s energy. Smith conveys the awe of the earliest audiences by placing Ballard at the world’s first glimpse of projected motion pictures, presented by the Lumière brothers in Paris during December 1895. Ballard is strangely moved by these ‘shimmerings of existence’, his response deepening with every new vision on the screen:

In each Lumière view, every inch of the screen was alive, and it was the background of fluttering leaves, or rippling waves, or drifting clouds that captivated the eye as much as the foregrounded subject. … in the span of ten minutes, in a hotel basement, the still image and the projected slide had become the slow-witted cousins to this shimmering colossus.

Consequently, the young man becomes a globe-trotting showman before settling in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Smith’s research is sound: Fort Lee was one of many film-making centres before Hollywood established its dominance. DW Griffiths made films there, as did Thomas Edison’s company.

Smith also draws on history to tell of the cut-throat competition between entrepreneurs. The Lumières had an early advantage because their camera was also a projector. This formed the basis of a canny business in which their roving ‘concession agents’ – like Ballard – exhibited Lumière films while photographing and sending back exotic new scenes. As Smith puts it:

They wanted to hire a small army of concession agents to proselytise the cinématographe into the far corners of the world, a grand tour of sorts, to beat Edison at his own game of colonising human appetites and curiosities.

But Edison lodged many patents for superior camera mechanisms, dispatching private detectives to snoop on filmmakers, and suing anyone copying his improvements. He tightened control even further in 1908 by initiating the monopolistic Motion Picture Patents Company.

Ultimately, the fictional Ballard is defeated by Edison, who forbids theatres to show The Electric Hotel, Ballard’s feature-length masterpiece. Edison communicates this in a sinister letter:

At the bottom, it was signed Thomas A. Edison, the left side of the T thrown up and over the other letters like a bullwhip uncoiling through the air.

In the 1960s sections of the story, researcher Embrey’s interviews uncover the events in Ballard’s unpredictable life.

Finally, Ballard reveals that The Electric Hotel, long believed lost, is in fact stored in a room at the Knickerbocker Hotel:

Martin kneeled beside the trunk, his breath thickening. 

– Christ, we all thought it was lost. In the film history books, they call it your lost masterpiece.

– Hogwash. It’s never been lost. It’s just that no one has ever asked to see it.

The characters’ detailed backstories greatly enrich this book. Frenchman Ballard, for instance, is from Alsace, a survivor of a smallpox epidemic that killed his mother. The disease led to lifelong eye problems – an ironic and poignant characteristic for an author to bestow on a cinematographer.

Bespectacled young Ballard begins his career as a still photographer at La Salpêtrière asylum in Paris, a job revealing the troubling intersections of science, photography and surveillance:

… it was his task to fix [i.e., capture] images of their behaviour. A team of neurologists wanted to uncover patterns and characterise the phases of hysteria and epilepsy.

Other characters have equally detailed backstories with connections to history. Ballard chooses French stage actress Sabine Montrose to star in his productions, and falls helplessly in love with her. Her own demons mean their relationship is fraught.

In creating Sabine, Smith draws on real-life stage actresses of the era, like Sarah Bernhardt. Before joining Ballard’s company, a cross-dressed Sabine performs Hamlet on stage; in real life, Bernhardt played Hamlet in 1899 and two years later enacted his duel for the camera.

Young Australian Chip Spalding – who has escaped a violent father and makes a living by setting himself on fire and diving into Sydney Harbour – becomes Ballard’s stuntman. Ballard’s producer and publicist Hal Bender comes from a family operating a Brooklyn amusement parlour full of Edison’s individual viewing machines. Even the interactions between Ballard, late in life, and post-graduate student Embrey have their own well-crafted trajectory.

Smith’s imagery is beautiful. On the opening page, for instance, the elderly Ballard is introduced as a man searching for mushrooms in the wild mountains around Los Angeles:

This morning – a crisp sunny day in December of 1962 – he’d also foraged up into the hills and canyons and now sat in his usual chair, leaning over a coffee table with a pair of nail scissors, trimming the stems of oyster mushrooms and the lacy fronds of wild fennel. He wore a threadbare glen plaid suit with Swiss mountaineering boots, a crumpled white handkerchief flaming like a moth from his breast pocket.

There are some minor instances, however, where it seems the search for the perfect image conflicts with historical accuracy. For instance, a 1914 scene includes a reference to ‘Cecil B DeMille on the set of an epic’ – well before DeMille had made any epics. In this lovingly detailed recreation of an era, anachronistic words also jar. Chip Spalding, burning and falling, creates ‘a contrail of smoke and fire’; but ‘contrail’ relates to jet airplanes of a much later decade.

Nevertheless, Smith’s multi-layered narrative, vivid language and lively recreation of earlier times combine to offer an enveloping and unexpected literary experience.

Dominic Smith The Electric Hotel Allen & Unwin 2019 PB 464pp $32.99

Jeannette Delamoir is a Queenslander and former academic who is passionate about writing, reading, culture and food.

You can buy The Electric Hotel from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.