It’s difficult to imagine a musical work less redolent of Sicilian sea breezes than the apocalyptic peal of Parsifal. Nonetheless it was in Palermo that Richard Wagner completed this opera in early 1882, specifically in the Grand Hotel et des Palmes (sometimes rendered as Albergo Grande delle Palme, sometimes – as in the postcard above – a combination of the two). The hotel, a few streets from the docks where ships arrived from the mainland, was built in 1874 as Palazzo Ingham, a lavish private residence named for the prominent English family which owned it. They also built a secret passageway leading to the Anglican church which still stands diagonally opposite.
The day after Wagner’s pen came to rest on the score of what was to prove his last opera, he was visited by the French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who had already produced many of his most celebrated paintings but still had years of creative fertility ahead of him. The following day he returned for a sitting and in 35 minutes he produced a portrait of the composer, in which Wagner ruefully saw himself as “a Protestant minister” (later adding that it looked like “the embryo of an angel” or “an oyster swallowed by an epicure”). Parsifal premiered in Bayreuth in the summer and the following year Wagner was back in Italy, travelling to Venice, where he died. The street behind the Grand Hotel now bears his name.
In 1907 the hotel received a makeover at the hand of Ernesto Basile, who redid the fusty interiors in modish Art Nouveau, or Stile Liberty as it was known in Italy. Basile was also responsible for remodelling the Chamber of Deputies in Rome, and building Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, Italy’s largest opera house (taking over from his father who died during its construction). The theatre is hosting its first Ring Cycle next year to mark Wagner’s bicentenary and his association with Palermo.
Fifty years after Wagner’s death, French writer Raymond Roussel, an admirer of the composer, checked in to the Grand Hotel. He would never check out.
It’s not clear if it was the Wagnerian association which drew the writer, but the suggestion that Roussel was aware that his end was nearing, or that he was planning to hasten its arrival, is certainly supported by the care he took to get his affairs in order before leaving Paris. He was accompanied by Charlotte Dufrène, a mistress hired by Roussel’s parents who calculated that the appearance of an unwed relationship was a lesser social disgrace than their son’s actual homosexuality.
Roussel’s drug usage was increasingly problematic, such that Dufrène kept a list of his intake. There is something weirdly moving about this meticulous list of drugs with names like Saturnian moons (“Phanodorme”, “Veronidin”, “Sonéryl”), recorded along with their effects (“slept 12¼ hours”, “euphoria all day”, “confused euphoria”). Roussel promised to undergo a cure in Switzerland, but seemed determined not to face a life without barbiturates, exclaiming that he would sooner lose limbs than give up the drugs. He tried to bribe both Charlotte and an employee of the hotel to put him out of his misery. During his eventful stay he overdosed, recovered, had a go at slashing his wrists, recovered, and finally, on this day in 1933, died of an overdose.
As well as a work of non-fiction by Palermo-based writer Leonardo Sciascia which investigated the circumstances of the French writer’s death, Roussel’s terminal occupancy inspired a 1985 novel by Jean-René Selva which shares the hotel’s name. In it the first-person protagonist stays in a “Grand Hotel” on an island named Herazibi (a stand-in for Sicily).
A trickle of clues points to a previous guest at the hotel: the bar serves a cocktail named “Impressions d’Afrique”, the narrator describes the Carnival in Nice (an event which dominates Roussel’s novel-in-verse La Doublure), and there’s a passing mention of another Roussel work Poussière de soleils (and someone more familiar with Roussel’s work could probably pick up many more references). Along with the novel’s original poetic formulations (“the night is the contraband of the day”), there is much Rousselian wordplay.
Finally Ariane, the waitress in the bar’s hotel, mentions a certain “Raymond” who stayed at the hotel the previous year, and the trickle becomes a wave which threatens to swamp the narrator. There’s a transcribed dedication to Roussel from Robert Desnos, a reproduction of a menu representing the gargantuan solo feasts Roussel had daily at home and finally that list of his drug usage, which Ariane calls “le plus beau poème“, is reproduced verbatim.
Ariane (the French form of Ariadne) leads the narrator not out of but deeper into the labyrinth with confounding references to the former guest. At one point she teases his growing obsession: “You know there was nothing in Raymond’s books. A coming and going of pages. That’s all.” Ultimately Grand Hôtel et des Palmes is not a book about Raymond Roussel but a book about someone trying to write a book about Raymond Roussel and thereby exorcise his obsession with an ultimately unfathomable writer and create some space for himself. It remains Selva’s only novel; make of that what you will.
Berlin-based writer Jochen Beyse also uses Roussel’s death as a starting point, in a new book, Palermo 1933, due out in September. “The nocturnal existence of a present-day writer increasingly comes to the fore,” according to the publishers, “roaming through his private twilight zone, looking for ways to finally ally himself with life. In switching between fictional flashbacks, a path through his own life and the realization of pivotal reading experiences, the topography of a literary parade ground emerges.” I’m not really sure what all that means, but evidently Roussel’s writing is once again on the move, infiltrating other fictive domains.