Saturday, 8 May 2021

Martin Dressler, Steven Millhauser

While there's something reassuring about a hardbacked work of fiction, nice stubby size, thickish paper, single name title, once you're a few pages in, Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser, with its onward drive of early capitalist expansion, is almost mechanical, chilly. The tale of an american dreamer, is the subtitle, the humble lad who goes from cigar stand to café to chain of cafés to hotels ever more considered and eventually disturbing. There's nothing emotional about it. Progress is self-evident. A paradigm. The eponymous Martin Dressler is a demonstration, in an ably evoked Manhattan of 120 years ago, of onwardness and upwardness, of the relentless drive of a city to outdo itself, once the like of Martin Dressler set their sights on the future.

Expansionism, expertly managed with all the new turn of the century skills, like advertising, leads Martin Dressler towards hotel as cosmos, as replacement for the rest of the world, but ultimately so empty he has to employ actors to sit about behaving normally. Somewhere along the way he marries a ghostly Caroline, her sister Emmeline is his business associate; and there's a mother to the sisters who sits about in one hotel after another (Martin Dressler's own parents vanish from the picture early on) as well as architects, managers, a vast staff he stays in touch with, occupying as much of his empire as he can, his attention only deflected by the shadowy sisters, a chambermaid called Marie, and memories of a pure girl child who gave him a lock of her hair back in the day, and a few women in the house of the rattling door he frequented in his twenties, called Gerda the Swede, and the like.

Martin Dressler reverts to the real world in the final pages, having established an actor to play his own role in the failing Grand Cosmo (is that what actors are really for?). He goes for a walk in the sunshine, and thinks about starting back with a cigar stand. He knows a lot about cigars. But no hurry, now. 

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