Steven Millhauser (USA, 1943)
"Edwin Mullhouse" (1972)
"Martin Dressler" (1996)
is a fable that moves through at least three
different levels. Initially it is a simple, tender, photographic reconstruction
of life in the old days. Then it becomes a character study in the style of
Naturalism. Finally, it turns into a metaphysical, Faust-ian allegory.
The novel soars as the plot unfolds. moving from one level to the next.
The weak point is the ending, that does not stand up to the depth of the rest.
Martin Dressler grows up in the humble cigar store run by his father in a humble
neighborhood of New York at the end of the 19th century. A clever and active
boy, Martin finds employment at a nearby hotel, where he is introduced to sex
by a distinguished guest (Mrs Hamilton), is befriended by a premature 10-year
old guest (Alice) and is quickly promoted to higher and higher positions.
In the meantime, he takes over the cigar shop located in the hotel's lobby,
and hires another clever boy, Bill, to run it. With his first savings, Martin
partners up with a friend, Walter, and acquires a lunch room. Martin can afford
to move to a hotel, where he meets Mrs Vernon and her two daughters: the
lively and cunning Emmeline and the simple, fragile and silent, but
attractive, Caroline. They meet on a daily basis and Martin comes to feel that
he is expected to propose to Caroline, the elder, even though it is Emmeline
who best understands his dreams and shares in his enthusiasm.
When he finally turns down a promotion at the hotel and decides to devote all
his time and energies to expand his lunch-room business, Emmeline becomes
one of his trusted cashiers. The business is more and more successful, and
Emmeline proves an invaluable partner. Martin feels compelled to marry Caroline,
but her frigid behavior on the wedding night causes him to visit the cleaning
maid, Marie, and then to complain with Caroline's mother. Even as a married
woman, Caroline keeps living in a state of permanent languor. Martin finds
solace in business and in Emmeline. He sells the chain of restaurants and
purchases the old hotel where he used to work, taking Emmeline with him.
The renovation absorbs him for months, but the result is another success.
In fact, it represents a dramatic change in his life. But Martin is not content,
and begins to plan a high-rise complex of apartments and shops. Emmeline is the
only one to understand and partake of his visions. Martin enjoys her company,
particularly because Caroline shows no interest in his ventures, but their
mother begins to object to the odd situation.
Martin's new building is even bigger and more bizarre, but Martin is not happy
yet, and already plans something even bolder and more spectacular. This feverish
ambition all comes to the expense of Caroline, who eventually goes mad out of
jealousy and tries to shoot Emmeline in front of Martin.
The monumental project, the Cosmo, continues, generating all sort of gossips
and expectations, taking on a quasi-mythical status. Martin is now lonely,
because Emmeline has retired to take care of Caroline. The Cosmo is a world
within a world, but fails to attract customers, and Martin slowly drifts towards
bankruptcy. Rather than give up, he hires actors to impersonate customers, and
even a double to impersonate himself. And he just waits for the end to come.