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By Stefan Fleischer

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

David Leavitt’s novel, “The Two Hotel Francforts,” cuts in two directions at once: It’s a refugee story with something of the atmosphere of an Alan Furst novel, and at the same time it’s the story of a brief but intense gay love affair, characteristic of Leavitt’s other gay-themed novels.

Starting with the very title (the two hotels, one swanky – the other sleazy, owned by brothers who are mad at each other, with each insisting that his hotel is the legitimate Francfort – a meaningless quarrel), the book set in 1940 Lisbon proliferates with doubles and duplicities of many sorts and varieties.

Leavitt handles complicated material with proficient craft, allowing gaps and unresolved questions simply to be part of the fabric. He’s confidently telling us: This is how it was for two couples sitting at the edge of the European conflagration. They are “safe” for a moment in a place where nothing makes much sense. By means of smooth prose and convincing dialogue (lots of it sounding Noel Cowardish), a reader is calmly invited to witness incongruities or absurdities. This reader, for one, is quite willing to play along. The stuff is strange but always interesting, even intriguing to read.

In the summer of 1940, Europe had already been at war for nearly 10 months and Portugal was one of the few countries ostensibly neutral (although at heart deeply Fascist and sympathetic to the Nazis), accepting refugees, exiles, spies, displaced major and minor aristocrats (people typically broke but pretending to still have wealth and connections and just enough money to bribe an official here and there). It seems that everyone in Lisbon has at least one hidden agenda and often several.

Lisbon at that time was a quintessentially transitional space, overcrowded with people who hoped to be on their way elsewhere. For the rich and the lucky, that meant passage to America. In a novel with numerous specific references and allusions to movies (the “Thin Man” series with the adorable wire-haired fox terrier, Asta; Margaret Dumont of Marx brothers fame; and still more), it’s a testimony to Leavitt’s tact that he avoids any suggestion of a resemblance to a certain café in Casablanca. He leaves it entirely up to the reader to make the connection – or not.

The main narrative covers a week before the largest American ship at the time, the S.S. Manhattan, will arrive to take more than 1,000 people across the Atlantic. One of the many nice touches is the way this historical fiction remains accurately faithful to historical fact. There were, in fact, several voyages of the S.S. Manhattan carrying refugees and others in 1940.

Two couples, Pete and Julia Winters and Edward and Iris Freleng, run into one another while killing time waiting for passage to America. The foursome are all somewhere in their mid-40s – in other words. no longer young but not old, either. They’re old enough to be disappointed with their lives and anxious about how things are turning out, however. Now they’re stuck in Lisbon finding themselves more or less forced into each others’ company. There’s idle chat as they sit in their accustomed places each morning for breakfast and each afternoon for predinner aperitifs at the Café Suica.

There are indolent strolls seeing the Lisbon sights while on the lookout for interesting restaurants to try out for dinner. Edward always acts as the tour guide, suspiciously far too knowledgeable for having been in Portugal for what is at most a week and a few days. He carries secrets with him, as do Julia, Iris and even Pete. The main thing that keeps the reader interested is the gradual unraveling of a number of secrets that lurk behind the mostly inconsequential café chat.

In a typical example, there are two pages or so devoted to how Pete and Julia renovated their Parisian apartment, with much detail about the choice of wallpaper. They’re worried about the fate of their interior decorator, who Julia describes as Jewish. Pete almost adds the word “queer” but thinks the better of it. As many secrets that are revealed, many more remain unresolved. We learn early on, for instance, that Julia will commit suicide. Pete is narrator, and therefore we never learn how or why she does it, but we do get hints.

Then there’s sex: What we get is a long lead-in to Edward’s seduction of Pete and a good deal of the aftermath, a mix of amazed delight at the novelty for Pete along with a characteristic admixture of hand-wringing, tearful regret and confusion at what is a world turned upside-down. If Edward is to be believed, all this is as novel to him as it is to Pete.

From Page 8 we can sense that a smirking double-entendre about the dog Daisy’s “gay tail” (one that curves too much for Daisy to have the proper championship confirmation of a wire-hair fox terrier) will have its full meaning revealed some hundred pages later. It’s all of a piece with Edward’s long-range seduction plans. It should be said that Daisy, although elderly and no longer the stunning beauty she once was, is nevertheless the most charming, even adorable, member of the Winters-Freleng group. In this respect she’s like Nick and Nora Charles’ wire-hair fox terrier, Asta. Daisy accompanies the couples on their strolls through town, well mannered mostly yet honestly pursuing her doggy interests. Unlike Pete and Julia and Edward and Iris, her life holds no secrets.

Pete’s voice and mental furniture at the beginning of the novel is more like that of a George Babbitt rather than one who has been living for 15 years in a sophisticated Parisian arrondissement. Gradually, unobtrusively, Pete’s 1940s slang Midwesternisms disappear. He stops sounding like the feckless alumnus of Wabash College who gets a Buick dealership in Paris thanks to the good offices of his more ambitious, successful brother. He moves to Paris only to please Julia.

On the first page, Pete describes Julia’s life in Paris as being almost perfect: She has escaped her overbearing New York upper-middle class, upper West Side German Jewish assimilated family; she is free to live comfortably and pursue her ambitions as a writer. Paris was her dream, and Pete made that possible, “Yet she was never satisfied, my Julia. I always supposed I was the piece that didn’t fit.”

The novel takes two very surprising sharp turns at the end, compensating for the prior lengthy, going-nowhere quality of the narrative and redeeming the aimlessness of the characters’ lives with its café sitting and visits to the demimonde. Pete does something at the end that, while not construed as noble or heroic, can be seen as something that is unequivocally good. Perhaps Pete has more in common with Bogart at the end of Casablanca than one initially might believe.

The Two Hotel Francforts

By David Leavitt

Bloomsbury

257 pages, $25

Stefan Fleischer taught in the English Department at the University at Buffalo for 39 years. He now resides in Houston.