Saturday, 5 May 2012

Hotel Room In Chartres

A short story published in Story 5 (September 1934) Pgs. 53-58.

The short story was originally intended for a collection to have been called So We Live Forever Taking Leave of interconnected stories set in Europe. The partly autobiographical story is based on a trip Lowry and Jan Gabrial made to Rouen in 1934 during which time they visited Chartres. The trip was intended to reconcile their differences after Lowry read Jan’s diaries in Paris weeks after they had married. Gabrial says that Lowry had been thinking of returning to sea in response to the discovery of her diaries (Jan Gabrial Inside The Volcano Pg. 57). However, they were reconciled; “To us Rouen was to become a symbol, the place where we began the healing process and licked each other’s wounds.” (Jan Gabrial Inside The Volcano Pg. 57). Though the trip to Chartres was preceded by an argument, which was incorporated into the short story.

The story concerns an unnamed bosun – a character that Lowry uses several times in his work. Lowry uses a theme which runs through his work during this time – the sailor who gives up the sea for his lover but who desires to return; “he had left the sea, no longer able to endure the pain of its reality, as now without the presence of that reality he could no longer endure the pain of its illusion” (Psalms Pg.19).

The story opens with the bosun looking out over 
Alésia in Paris comparing the industrial landscape of smoking factories to the “forlorn pain of the sea” with its fog and rain. The lovers have been quarrelling and the bosun reflects on the “the sweetness of that farewell” before he went to sea. The bosun struggles with the urge to return to sea or return to Chartres, where they were once happy. He decides to return to Chartres catching his wife off guard and she refuse to go with him. He then makes his way to the station contemplating why he wants to go to Chartres by himself; “ he asked himself why he should want to go Chartres, of all places, alone, when Chartres was where their own life had already come into being. They both knew that, Chartres was his wife, his very blood, to him”. Thus Chartres comes to reflect the symbolism of Rouen noted by Jan Gabrial. His wife appears at the station just as he is about to leave on the train. Her appearance arouses tenderness in him, which subdues the “brute” in him. He suppresses his bitter thoughts that she has staged a dramatic reconciliation at the last minute. He buys her a ticket for them to go to Chartres together. The tension between the lovers does not immediately subside, as they remain silent in the compartment. He fears that his occasional desire to hurt his lover, like an angry ocean, will cast their relationship onto the rocks and he will lose her. 

Four sailors singing in the corridor of the train break his contemplation. His wife realises that the former bosun would prefer to be going to sea with them rather than being with her. The tension increases again as the sailors' intrusion opens up the old wound of his desire to return to the sea. The sailors pass around a copy of a magazine called Seduction reading out the adverts from women such as ‘Velvet Eye’, ‘Modern Eve’ and ‘Butterfly’ looking for partners/lovers/husbands. 

The sailors’ camaraderie leads to the bosun thinking of all the times he has travelled on trains to ports to begin new voyages. These thoughts lead to an angry outburst; “Yes, I do wish I were back with them.” His wife leaves the compartment crying. The bosun joins the sailors in a drink but he gives the bottle back when his wife returns. The bosun reiterates his desire to return to the sea. He explains that the dangers sailors face leads to a kind of comradeship. The bosun wishes the sailors a good voyage when they part company at Chartres. The couple then discover that the sailors are going home and not to sea. The both laugh at their mistake and the irony that their quarrel has been caused by a misunderstanding. The story ends on a positive note as did Lowry’s and Jan’s trip to Rouen; “And up in the only room in the world they were folded together in each other’s arms crying with joy that they had found each other once more.”

The short story is important for revealing Lowry’s reading at this stage of his creative development. The story has overtones D.H. Lawrence; “ The moon drew softly the outgoing tide of the woman towards the calming sea of the man”. More importantly for Lowry’s creative development is the reference to Baudelaire’s “forest of symbols” which later became an important allusion for Under The Volcano; “Why aren’t you more like Father Neptune? He was asking himself – when the four sailors who had been in the corridor entered the compartment. He gave his wife a triumphant look: See how the word is a forest of symbols-“ Lowry is referring to the first quatrain of Charles Baudelaire’s sonnet “Correspondence” (See Patrick McCarthy Forest of Symbols Pgs. 44-45).

Lowry uses a refrain from a French song "Il était un petit navire" (There was a little ship) is a traditional French song that is now considered a children's song, despite its macabre tone. Lowry gives the lyrics Ohe Kalo etc a hidden meaning as the lie in the text – “a forest of symbols”.

Lowry uses sea and ship imagery to map out the landscape both real and imagined in a similar manner to of his other works e.g.; the Eiffel Tower is likened to a lighthouse, “the quay’s gray womb”, “like a ship letting off steam in her winches”, and “set wet iron, freshly leaded”. The story is littered with nautical references similar to other early stories as Lowry invests his time at sea into his creativity; voyages, open sea, in the doldrums, in irons, he assigns roles to the sailors - bosun, lamptrimmer, carpenter, able seaman, fireman, donkeyman who appear in other stories and Ultramarine, wash-down “just square up the after deck”, derricks, coaling the ship, one of the “black gang”. There is also a reference to the Singapore red light district familiar to sailors in the 1930s - “see you in Malay Street”. 

Lowry uses advertisements as in other short stories and novels; electric notice for Sandwiches, Paniers Repas, Provisions and “Passez vos vacances a la mer”.

Lowry mentions several locations in Paris which we must assume he was familiar with as he stayed in Paris between Winter 1933 and Summer 1934; Avenue de Chatillion, Alesia Metro, Montparnasse-Bienvenüe Metro and Paris Montparnasse Railway Station

There are references to several locations in Chartres; St. Piat Chapel at the south door of Chartres Cathedral, Chartres Railway Station, Chartres-Champhol Aerodrome, Grotte Luminaire and the Café Jacques Restaurant Bar du Cinema. Lowry mentions Ruelle de la Demi-Lune, which was actually in Rouen - the real location for the events of the story. He refers to Maintenon and St. Prest where he stayed with Maurice Sachs and Henry Wibbels in 1934.

Lowry also refers to his 1931 voyage to Norway, which is depicted in his unpublished novel In Ballast to the White Sea; the rail journey from Liverpool Exchange Station to Preston (Prester) to join his ship S.S. Fagervik (Suley in the story) and Archangel, the use of the Norwegian word fyrbotere – “one of the black gang”. Lowry also refers sea voyages; one from Birkenhead on the
Mentor (possibly Pyrrhus which Lowry sailed onto the Far East in 1927) and the second from Oslo on the King Haakon – there is no record that Lowry ever sailed out of Oslo.

Lowrt refers to the short story in his notes for Chapter XL111 of his incomplete novel La Mordida; "I shall never write this: I shall never write this: I shall never write this: fumed the train. Memories of other trains: Hotel Room in Chartres, Metal, perhaps. (La Mordida Pg. 291).

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