Maine's "Grand Hotel" Syndrome
The classic 1932 film Grand Hotel, set in Weimar-era Berlin, opens and closes with a fatalistic character played by Lewis Stone declaring glumly:
"Grand Hotel. People come and go. Nothing ever happens."
Which is ridiculous on the face of it, because within the compressed time-frame of the story, every manner of human drama, from the tragic to the farcical, seems to play itself out. And yet in the end you do feel there's some sense in it: after so much Sturm und Drang, the world has not budged from its stubborn, steady orbit. Life goes on more or less exactly as it did before, and probably always will.
It's possible, with historical hindsight, to see the film as somehow foreshadowing the rise of Nazism (Hitler would be named chancellor of Germany within months of its release), but I think for American movie-goers in 1932, with the Depression in full swing and a presidential election approaching, it must have seemed merely a glimpse of an exotic, luxurious world, glittering on the surface though often grubby underneath. Two hours of frenetic bustle and then back to real life.
So it goes with summer in Maine. People come and go. Every kind of drama unfolds. Visitors from exotic places bring a bit of flash and glamour to the old hometown. It's impossible to plan anything with friends because everybody's schedule is upended. A simple run to the grocery store becomes rife with uncertainty, as even the locals' driving habits become a tad bizarre.
We sail into summer with high expectations that are somehow never fulfilled. Grand projects languish (my son Tristan's tree house has not yet gotten off the ground), ambitious timetables are allowed to slide, and suddenly it's mid-August and nothing really has gotten done.
No, that's not true, either. No blanket statement about summer in Maine is ever true. The weather is not completely awful, nor completely wonderful. The traffic is not worse than it's ever been. There are not more slugs in the garden than at any time in human history. Above all, the days are not flying by more quickly than they did last year. It's always been like this.
"Summer is an island," reflects a character in my favorite John Cheever story. Which I think is a good way to look at it. In fact it is a very small island, with its own peculiar customs and a distinct cultural insularity. We always look forward to getting here — we spend the rest of the year thinking about it — yet when we actually arrive we find it a bit disorienting. What are we supposed to do now, exactly? The same things we did last year, I suppose. Ask the kids: they'll remember.
Grand Hotel is remembered as the film in which Greta Garbo proclaims, again and again, "I want to be alone" — though of course we know that, as a diva and a narcissist, that's not what she wants at all; it goes against her fundamental nature. I think many of us share this kind of ambivalence. What we think we want from summer — I'll climb that mountain! I'll make it all the way through Proust! — is not, in the event, how we truly wish to spend our time. Summer does not turn us into dramatically different people — more athletic or industrious or motivated — any more than a brief stay at a luxury hotel makes Garbo a nun. If anything, it nudges us in the opposite direction. Not only do I fail to finish Proust, I nod off halfway though the plodding movie adaptation, Swann in Love.
We love summer, though. We love leaving the windows open and spending hours poking around in the garden (to little effect). We love having the kids at home. We even love — though we seldom admit this — all the strangers and tourists and black-clad sophisticates and backpack-toting students and "guest workers" from Eastern Europe riding wobbly bicycles along busy roads. We don't even mind the busy roads as much as we claim to.
Above all, I think, what we love about summer is getting lost in it. Other seasons are laid out as clearly as the terrain on a map; events follow one another in a predictable way. Summer, in contrast, is uncharted territory — a dizzying succession of days through which we pass in a peaceable blur. We revert, you might say, to a more primitive mode of living, ruled less by the calender than by the clouds and sun, subject always to the inscrutable whims of our clan-mates.
Yes: it's summer in Maine. People come and go. Nothing ever happens.