Written by Victoria
It’s the summer of 1940 and Lisbon in Portugal is bursting at the seams with people desperate to leave mainland Europe and the march of the Nazis. Our focus is, perhaps unexpectedly, on two couples who are superficially floating high on the tide of humanity swelling the city. Our narrator Pete Winters and his wife, Julia, have been forced to leave behind a beautifully appointed apartment in Paris – one photographed by Vogue no less – in order to seek passage to their native America. Whilst Edward and Iris Freleng, more accustomed to being exiles in life, have also been obliged to await the sailing of the SS Manhatten, and its promise of safety. The accident of birth has left both couples in a better position than those around them, and they have money, as well as rooms in two local hotels, but that doesn’t free them from the demons and desires that a wartime evacuation provokes.
‘Now it seems churlish to speak of our flight,’ Pete writes in some distant future, ‘which was as nothing compared with that of the real refugees – the Europeans, the Jews, the European Jews. Yet at the time we were too worried about what we were losing to care about those who were losing more.’
This is certainly true of Julia, who is living off suppressed rage and nervous tension, obsessively playing games of Solitaire with her special packs of miniature cards. Many years ago, Pete rescued Julia from her troubled past, and while the marriage has been only a qualified success, he has kept Julia in France where she wanted to be. Despite the fact that she is Jewish, Julia would do anything to remain in Europe. Naturally uptight and demanding, the journey south has been a nightmare, with her refusing to squat in the fields like all the other travellers and reduced, therefore, to eating almost nothing. Now in Portugal she is still exerting all the pressure she can on Pete to find a place to rent outside Lisbon.
When Edward Freleng happens to stand on Pete’s glasses and break them, Pete is relieved beyond measure to find a congenial couple with whom he can dilute his claustrophobic incarceration with Julia. The incident leads first to a friendly drink together at the Café Suiça, then dinner and then a great deal more. From the outset, Edward’s interest in Pete has been more than friendly, his conversation often inappropriate, his body language flirtatious. In the first twist of this surprising novel, the amour fou that becomes the central story in amidst the relentless, normal tragedies of the refugees, takes place between the two men.
But the love affair is a strange one, troubled from the start by the peculiar relationship that binds Edward and Iris. On the surface they seem a much happier couple than Pete and Julia, both more easy-going and less neurotic, doting on their elderly dog, Daisy and writing successful crime fiction together under the pseudonym of Xavier Legrand. Nothing is as it seems, however, and their past is also tainted by a difficult marital history, with secrets that they are compelled to try and hide. Edward is also a much more complex and disturbed individual than he appears, and before long, Pete is forced to realise that he has fallen into a perverse marital game, and what he thought of as his salvation may yet destroy them all.
We learn in the opening pages that Julia does not survive the events of Lisbon and so the reader inevitably has this in mind as the narrative progresses, watching the violent love affair unfold between Edward and Pete and becoming blinded, inevitably, by the pull of orthodox storylines. David Leavitt cleverly uses the interpolated back stories of his characters to add twist after twist to the plot, so that our expectations are repeatedly thwarted until we no longer know what to expect from our four main protagonists. And even so, the extraordinary reversals of the ending took me entirely by surprise. Forget Gone Girl; this intelligent piece of literary historical fiction shows how a twist can add depth to characterisation, rather than undercut any hope of plausible identities.
David Leavitt’s novel is a most unusual piece of craftsmanship; beautifully written and carefully researched, it feels contemporary in its exploration of hidden gay histories, and unexpected in its staging of a middle-class love affair in the midst of overwhelming world events. It’s a risky venture in all sorts of ways, but somehow Leavitt manages to pull it off and when you turn the final pages, the novel feels clever, coherent and satisfying. Historical fiction might never look the same again, though.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
David Leavitt, The Two Hotel Francforts (Bloomsbury, London, 2014). 978-1408843215, 272 pages, paperback.