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Welcome to the Hotel Montparnasse

Karren Alenier

Hotel Montparnasse: Letters to César Vallejo  by John Bradley is bewildering in the way George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo is with its cast of dead people interacting and discussing historic details. The Steiny Road Poet asks: is Hotel Montparnasse a book of poetry masquerading as correspondence written on hotel stationery? Given its extensive anachronistic list of "Residents of Hotel Montparnasse (During the Period Vallejo Was a Guest)", maybe Steiny should ask if this is a play. Or, since the letters are presented in Chapters 1 through 7, should Steiny be asking if this is a novel?


But yes, of course, it is poetry in the camp of Gertrude Stein, where her novels, plays, libretti, portraits are classified as poetry, poetry that tinkers with language and disorients or wakes up the reader.  The container that the words are in—play, letters, novel, whatever—does not keep the work from being poetry.

Did Steiny mention Gertrude Stein is part of the cast of residents and while the official list says she is "director of entertainment," she is referred to (p. 115) as Vallejo's lawyer in a letter signed by Orwellian George (a.k.a George Orwell, hair stylist).


In this letter, Vallejo is interrogated for ripping out page 64 from the hotel library's poetry books.

After your room was scoured
and they found this poem
in a shoe, torn from a book:

    In this living world
    the body I give up and burn
    would be wretched
    if I thought of myself as
    anything but firewood

    Which, I'm pleased to say,
    bears the number 49 (not 64)
    in the upper right corner.

After they interrogated you
for three hours in the wine cellar
you unzipped and zipped
your fly several times, I'm told.

A sign of deference and respect
argued your lawyer, Gertrude Stein.



Many of the characters from real life in Bradley's hotel list are associated in some way with Surrealism, taking a  nod from Vallejo. Just for the record, Gertrude Stein went out of her way to distance herself from the French Surrealists like Jean Cocteau (also on the hotel list). On the other hand, Guillaume Apollinaire (listed as hotel electrician), considered a forefather of Surrealism, was an important friend of Stein's. Steiny believes Tender Buttons, a one-of-a-kind work by Stein, was influenced by Apollinaire who had his life cut short by the 1918 pandemic flu. In Hotel Montparnasse, Guillaume, the electrician, returns a lamp to Vallejo saying it is "working much better now" and Vallejo tips him generously but comments that it had worked fine which Steiny takes as a tempered metaphoric nod that Apollinaire lit the way to Surrealism.

Here, Dear Reader, you might be wondering what is surrealism? Maybe you are familiar with Jean Cocteau's film Beauty and the Beast where inanimate objects like teapots work and talk like humans in the Beast's castle? A proper definition reads surrealism is an avant-garde movement of the 20th century which plumbed the unconscious mind and encouraged irrational juxtapositions of images. It might present as dream like.

Many threads can be followed in the letters of Hotel Montparnasse—the incendiary role of Madame Defarge, the fictional character of Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities; real world political intrigues that include such despicables as Adolf Hitler; the importance of Charles Baudelaire's Paris Spleen that innovated the prose poem; the curious roles that resident guests as Saffron, the parrot or Louis, the iguana play.

Steiny got hooked on Bradley's work when she was involved with publishing Love-in-Idleness:The Poetry of Roberto Zingarello, which won The Word Works Washington Prize in 1989. In the Zingarello book the main character, a fictional Italian of World War II speaks to his geranium named Isabella and hobknobs with Vallejo. In Hotel Montparnasse's appendix, a poem cut from Love-in-Idleness has been found "inside the rooftop pigeon coop with a razor blade taped to the bottom of the second page." How did Steiny identify this poem (pp. 134-136)? It is marked with a Z and the appendix end notes say, "Some speculate Z is an obscure Italian poet named Roberto Zingarello."  The irony is the excised poem is about cutting:


It cuts. It cuts and it cuts and it cuts
It know who to cut, where to cut, knows
the streets that crease, streets that cut and shear.


Gertrude Stein would approve of Bradley keeping his published and unpublished work working for him.


Welcome to Bradley's version of "Hotel California," the song created and made famously popular by the rock band the Eagles, particularly for its last lines "You can check out any time you like/ But you can never leave." Bradley's imaginative and poetic scenarios get into the recesses of one's mind. Hotel Montparnasse—which stands in for the Montparnasse Cemetery where Vallejo is buried—makes Steiny want to read not only Vallejo but others like Cortázar, but why stop there? Bradley isn't name dropping, he is promoting artists of various metiers: musicians (saxophonist Dexter Gordon), visual artists (Leonora Carrington), actors (Jeanne Moreau). Yup, Bradley's work has staying power.

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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2021 Karren Alenier
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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