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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Grand Hotel Europa

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer

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To purchase Grand Hotel Europa

Title: Grand Hotel Europa
Author: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018 (2022)
Length: 551 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: Grand Hotel Europa - US
Grand Hotel Europa - UK
Grand Hotel Europa - Canada
Grand Hotel Europa - France
Grand Hotel Europa - Deutschland
Grand Hotel Europa - Italia
Grand Hotel Europa - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Dutch title: Grand Hotel Europa
  • Translated by Michele Hutchison

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyable read; interesting treatment of some big themes

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/7/2022 Rand Richards Cooper
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 10/10/2020 K.Maidt-Zinke

  From the Reviews:
  • "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 (......) The novel wantonly mingles the erotic and the esoteric, the hilarious and the hectoring, the antic and the academic. (...) 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." - Rand Richards Cooper, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In Deutschland wäre das Werk wohl schon aus literaturpolitischen Erwägungen gar nicht entstanden, weil es in keine Genre-Kategorie oder Zielgruppenschublade passt, nach gängigem Maßstab zu viele Themen behandelt, für leichte Unterhaltung zu komplex und für seriöse Gegenwartsprosa zu verspielt ist. (...) Das typisch Niederländische an Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer ist die Unbekümmertheit, mit der er verschiedene Erzählhaltungen und Stilebenen unter einen Hut bringt, und das in einer Sprache, die völlig übergangslos sinnlich und nüchtern, sentimental und ironisch sein kann. Er scheut sich nicht, seitenweise Lehrbuchwissen zu rekapitulieren, und macht sich im nächsten Moment die eigenwilligsten Gedanken; er liefert großartige Beschreibungen und scharfe Analysen und suhlt sich dann wieder hemmungslos im Klischee." - Kristina Maidt-Zinke, Süddeutsche Zeitung

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Grand Hotel Europa is narrated by 'Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer' -- identical, for all intents and purposes, with the author, down to his being the author of, for example, La Superba. It opens with his arrival at the Grand Hotel Europa of the title, an old-style traditional grand hotel that time seems to have passed by. Once it was a grand destination -- "all princes, counts, ambassadors and big industrialists" -- but now it's a somewhat sleepy place. The very old former owner still lives there but has completely retired to her room -- "She never comes downstairs and she doesn't accept visitors" -- and the new owner is a Chinese businessman, Mr. Wang, who has grand, modern ambitions. He's fixing up the place again, with his own ideas of what's authentic and would attract the clientele he's targeting -- such as re-doing the old faux 'Chinese room', "decorated according to the typical European orientalist taste of the late nineteenth century with imitations of Chinese paintings on the wall and a number of authentic Chinese vases", as a true (i.e. perfectly faked) English pub.
       Ilja has come to the Grand Hotel Europa to get over a break-up, determined to forget by working through it:

If I really wanted to forget Venice and everything that had happened there, I would first have to recall everything with the greatest possible precision.
       The novel then moves back and forth between the time of his stay in the hotel, and his recollections of his time with Clio, the woman he had been in love with, and had moved to Venice with.
       Like the author, a trained classicist and longtime resident of Italy -- living slightly off the worst of the well-beaten tourist track, in Genoa --, Ilja is steeped in Europe's and especially Italy's history. The woman that he became involved with is an art historian -- saddled with the name of the muse of history, no less. Despite her qualifications (and well-connected family background), Clio struggles to find an appropriate position in the sclerotic Italian system: despite the fact that the country, given its artistic riches, should offer opportunities galore ("It all has to be studied, conserved, protected and commodified") it in fact offers very few. Her experience is that: "Italy is being strangled by its past". She and Ilja start a relationship, and when she gets a job offer in Venice that is at least a small step up she can't turn it down, and Ilja -- not tied down to any place as a writer -- goes with her.
       As it eventually turns out, he is only willing to go so far: as we will learn late in his story, it was another job offer and move that lead to the couple's separation (and brought Ilja to the Grand Hotel Europa), but he's willing to experience Venice. The city proves to be an extreme, barely functioning as a normal, residential urban space, but rather as a kind of Disneyland variation, reduced almost entirely to catering to tourists, with which the city is overrun.
       Tourism is a major theme for Pfeijffer in the novel. His characters see not just Venice but all of Europe like this: "Europe has become an open air museum, a fantastic historical park for tourists" -- "the rest of the world's recreation area". It is what Ilja also comes to find at the Grand Hotel Europa as it is transformed by its new owner, with masses of Chinese tourists now coming there.
       Among the smaller side-stories in the novel is that of the teenage bellboy at the Grand Hotel Europa, Abdul, whom Ilja shares the occasional cigarette with. Abdul is a refugee, having escaped horrors in his home country; the contrast between migrants of various sorts, including refugees such as him, and tourists -- the one group much more welcome in Europe than the other -- is also something Pfeijffer makes note of. A very nice twist on this is that Abdul's harrowing story turns out to closely echo a familiar classical one, which causes some problems (or at least raises some questions), a neat mixing of reality and fiction, as well as history and the present.
       There's quite a bit of the polemic to Grand Hotel Europa, with Pfeijffer giving ample room for characters to philosophize and have their say, but it's quite artfully integrated into the fiction, the situations -- life at the changing Grand Hotel Europa, or on (what amounts to) the tourist trail in Venice (complete with a visit to the Biennale and Damien Hirst's 2017 Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable show), Malta, Macedonia, the Netherlands, or Abu Dhabi (with its Louvre Abu Dhabi- project) -- lending themselves to commentary, speculation, and fact-spouting. As is pointed out, Europe's economic dominance from the early nineteenth century to the late twentieth is an historic blip, and, for example, China's reëmergence as a much more significant economic powerhouse is basically just a historical regression to the mean. Elsewhere, as is repeatedly noted, they're not as stuck in the past in the way that Europe is: "The future is the future, not the past. Europe is a peculiar exception". And so also:
In Europe we live and die amid so many concrete traces of history that we start thinking that our past is at the core of our identity. That's both Europe's strength and weakness. Our past is both a millstone around our neck and our unique selling point.
       Pfeijffer has easy fun with the commercialization of the past, in particular, as well as the behavior of tourists (including their search for the authentic -- i.e. non-touristy -- experience) -- with enough variety to his examples, moving easily between the Grand Hotel Europa and various spots elsewhere, to keep things interesting.
       He can get over-explicit in the meta-ness of the novel, as when Ilja explains about the (i.e. this) book he is writing to his (real-life) publisher, Peter Nijssen:
     I don't want to write a book about tourism at all, Peter. Thank you for forcing me to be explicit about this. Tourists are merely the symptom of something larger and more serious, the way guests at a funeral are symptoms of death. That's what I want to investigate in my book. It has to be about Europe, European identity -- which is entangled in the past, and about the way the past is sold off in a globalized market due to a lack of credible alternatives. It has to be a declaration of love to Europe because of what it once was, which, because of what it once was is currently being trampled underfoot by the last, definitive barbarian invasion. It's going to be a sad book about a culture's decline.
       The relationship with Clio is, of course, meant to be central, the narrator now, in the Grand Hotel Europa, haunted by it and its end, but as with Clio's name and expertise, it feels almost too neat for the novel, and Pfeijffer struggles some to convince of the actual passion and connection between the two. Still, Clio is an interesting character, and a game they play, looking for a Caravaggio painting that she is certain exists, makes for an amusing thread that helps propel some of the story.
       This hunt for the missing painting also plays a role in the novel's conclusion -- making for an arguably far too neat one. In fact, however, it's an almost welcome final turn: if so much of Grand Hotel Europa and its characters -- particularly its narrator-protagonist, Pfeijffer's double down to the tie-pin -- are so close to life, the conclusion, in its artificiality, feels like pure fiction -- and that is all for the best at that point. Much of the novel in fact has to do with the question of authenticity, whether of art and culture -- with wonderful examples of the inauthentic strewn throughout the novel -- or of stories themselves (not least Abdul's story), and it's only appropriate that Grand Hotel Europa resolves itself as fiction, with all the appeal that can hold (and, yes, Pfeijffer opts for what amounts to a satisfying happy ending).
       The novel ambles along at a leisurely pace, but for the most part is certainly lively and entertaining. The one American family that figures, for a while, in the story is among the odder bits -- specifically in the figure of adopted teenage daughter Memphis, who comes to Ilja's room with an affidavit in which she swears that she is above the age of consent ("It doesn't matter whether that's true or not", she says, giving him questionable legal advice) in order to have sex with him. It's meant to be a somewhat comic encounter, Ilja trying to play the adult but rather easily outfoxed by the child, and does serve a purpose (or he can tell himself that it does ...): "Her didactic approach was drastic and unusual, but she really did have a point in wanting to make me feel what feeling was". Still, it's a ... not unproblematic episode -- and Ilja/Pfeijffer can't entirely talk himself out of it with the claim that he here felt: "like an unbelievable character in a particularly mediocre novel".
       One can argues some with Pfeijffer's understanding of how history is seen and treated in non-European cultures, but he's on solid ground when writing about Europe, and Grand Hotel Europa is a fine take on (one big part of) the contemporary European condition, as well as on tourism and the question of authenticity (with considerable overlap across all of these). It's a big, fun read beyond that too -- a bit ragged at some of its edges with its large cast of characters (and not least with Ilja and Clio's relationship), but offering good story-telling for the most part.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 June 2022

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Grand Hotel Europa: Reviews: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer: Other books by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Dutch author Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer was born in 1968.

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© 2022 the complete review

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