In France writer Pierre Assouline is a literary star. He has a weekly column in the daily paper, LeMonde where he also writes the most popular literary blog in France. He has published well received biographies (Cartier-Bresson, Simenon, Gaston Gallimard) and four novels. His best-selling novel, Lutetia, about the legendary left bank hotel, won the Prix Maisons de la Presse, last year.
But when he came to read from Lutetia at the Author’s Festival (there was an English translation addition to the French), Assouline was a foreign language novelist whose book was not available in English.
That could change soon. When I met Assouline in Paris at the lobby/bar of theHotel Lutetia, where the entire novel takes place, he had just come from signing a contract – the book will soon be made into a motion picture in France.
It’s not hard to imagine it as a film. Narrated through the voice of a hotel detective, Lutetia begins in the l930’s, when wealthy regulars would arrive with their trunks and stay for a month. Then the guest list turned sinister, as the Abwher, the Nazi counter intelligence unit, took over the palace on the left bank, as the hotel is called. In Paris most grand hotels were occupied, but after the war only the Lutetia was given the chance to cleanse itself – it was designated the main receiving station for concentration camp survivors, who received medical treatment, identity papers, food and clothing.
Assouline had long wanted to write a novel about a grand hotel.
“It has everything – you eat and sleep there, you can shop, there’s a post office, a fitness centre, you can buy newspapers – it’s a whole world”, he said, sitting in a red plush chair, nattily attired in a suit with a silk pocket handkerchief.
“The book is really a biography of the hotel”, he explained.” But with a novel you can express things you can’t in a biography. With a novel you are free to describe the madness of an epoch, of people.”
Assouline was trying to decide which grand hotel he’d write about – the Ritz, the Crillion – when something clicked. “I stopped and thought, this is crazy, the hotel I know best, the one I go to the most because it is the rendez vous of French writers and publishers, artists and actors – it was there but I couldn’t see it. “
The Lutetia, the only grand hotel on the left bank, has long been a hangout for creative types. Hemmingway used to drink at the bar, Matisse and James Joyce slept there. As if on cue, Assouline pointed to a blond woman sitting at the other end of the lobby/bar.. “Do you know who is the actress Catherine Deneuve?”
He chose the war years because he has been obsessed with that troubled time from the age of l8, when his late father showed him books about the German Occupation. Volunteering from Algeria, he fought with the Free French in Italy, and the book is dedicated to him. His son went on to read for decades on the subject. “This is the synthesis of all my research into that time,” he said.
Assouline is archive-obsessed – even when he writes a novel that takes place in the present he researches every detail. “It’s a sport, a hobby,” he grinned, his large expressive eyes softening. For the first part of the book, he looked into vintage l930’s Hermes luggage, and was delighted to find a book on the topic. He wanted to know grand hotels work, and was drawn to archives of various hotels because there was no book on the subject.
For the second part, the Nazi Occupation of the hotel, he researched not only the Abwehr, or counterintelligence unit that occupied the hotel; he located the concierge who was there at the time, who in turn gave him a precious gift, a memoire of l5 handwritten pages written by the then sommellier. It included the inventory of all wines in the cellar. Comparing the list before and after the war, Assouline discovered that the Germans drank mostly champagne. “All the wines in my book – the year, the cru – are all true, so when you read this book you drink real wine,” he added, chuckling. While he did create the moral dilemmas of the hotel staff forced to serve the Nazis ( “I have to be a novelist sometimes “), Assouline did not invent the oenophile’s act of resistance – the best wines were hidden behind a false wall.
It’s the third part of the book, the return of the skeletons, as he called them, that is the most anguished and that has drawn the most praise from readers. Assouline interviewed numerous survivors of the camps. They told him about people who insisted on wearing their stripped concentration camp garb, and about how the doctors treated them (some were extremely sensitive, others were visibly repulsed). “There are books on this period but I preferrred to listen to the people,” he said, “ to see the look in their eyes..their words still ring in my ears.” This is the first time in his life as a writer that he cried while writing. “When people write to me saying they were in tears while reading the book, I write back saying there were tears in my eyes while writing it”
The book includes some unexpectedly happy endings, like the staunch mother who arrived in front of the hotel, bragging about her 21 year old son, and insisting he would arrive soon. At that moment, the book recounts that 21 year old Georges Charpak, ex Dachau inmate, stepped off the bus. Almost fifty years later, in l992, Charpak won the Noble Prize in Physics.