maria leitner

Recovering a lost modern classic: Maria Leitner’s 1930 novel Hotel Amerika

Maria Leitner
Maria Leitner

By Rachel McNicholl

Some of my friends know that I’ve been tipping away at Hotel Amerika by Maria Leitner for a number of years, offering it to English-language publishers with a sample translation and all that goes with it. So far without success, though a few recent developments (and Love German Books II) might help change that!

Hotel Amerika is a forgotten modern classic by an author who was one of the first to have her books burned in Nazi Germany, who died trying to get out of Vichy France in 1942, was Jewish, Communist, and a very intrepid journalist and novelist to boot.

The novel was published in Berlin in 1930 and is set in late 1920s New York. Leitner based it partly on direct experience of working “under cover” in menial jobs so that she could report on conditions in the USA to left-wing journals she wrote for back in Germany.

The plot unfolds over twenty-four hours. The main actors are the hotel’s “downstairs” staff; the “upstairs” world is represented by an assortment of permanent residents and some guests who have checked in for a celebrity wedding. The hotel is a microcosm of society:

“The hotel towered above them like a giant box, all lit up, crammed with countless people and countless fates; people from every class and corner of the world; the rich and the poor, the happy and the miserable. It’s all here, piled high– hell and heaven, sorrow and joy, illness and arrogance.”

(Chapter Eighteen)

The main character is laundry maid Shirley O’Brien, an Irish immigrant, and the stations of her working day take the reader through every level of the hotel’s architecture and hierarchy. Shirley’s co-workers, portrayed with humour and compassion, are mostly immigrants from other European countries, and Black Americans. Their stories are told as the narrative moves through the hotel’s various floors, almost like scenes in an expressionist film.

As I’ve said, I’ve been pitching the novel on and off for a few years, without any definite interest. I suspect that for some publishers the book is too much of an unknown quantity, written by a virtually unknown (and dead) author. Also, given my lack of connections to commissioning editors in UK and US publishing houses, I too am a fairly unknown quantity. I have better connections within the Irish publishing scene, but inward translation is still very much a minority sport on our island. As a result, this project has spent a while in the doldrums – but there is a hint of a fresh breeze now, thanks to a couple of developments.

First, the renowned Reclam Verlag re-issued Hotel Amerika in its Klassikerinnen series this spring (2024). 

This means that Maria Leitner is rescued from obscurity and now up there with the likes of Jane Austen, Maria Edgeworth and Virginia Woolf, to mention just a few of the English-language writers in the series. Publication by Reclam gives Hotel Amerika an imprimatur that a little indie press (more below) or Project Gutenberg (fab resource that it is) cannot. Which may now make it easier for me to bring the book and a translation proposal to the attention of an English-language publisher.

Another boost for the book, on foot of republication by Reclam, was a substantial article in DIE ZEIT (27 March 2024), titled “Was geschah mit Maria?” (Whatever Happened to Maria?). The article explores why she was forgotten and charts Leitner’s biography and fate under the Nazis, her failed attempts to get a visa to the USA, and ultimately to her tragic death in Marseille in 1942. Such an article in the Saturday Feuilleton (arts supplement) is a big deal – it introduces a book/author to a much wider readership in the German-speaking world and carries weight with publishers and foreign rights agents globally. The author of the article in DIE ZEIT, Volker Weidermann, has previously published a book about the works that were burned on 10 May 1933 and what became of the authors.

I first came across Hotel Amerika in an edition published in 2013 by a small Austrian press called Edition MoKKa. A couple of other small presses also republished some of Leitner’s work around that time, as she had come out of copyright in 2012. A shout-out here to indie presses and literary journals, who are so often the first to champion emerging or forgotten authors. A shout-out to translation colleagues too, as they are often the first to draw one’s attention to a book or author in their language that might be of interest. In my case, it was translator and publisher Karen Nölle who pointed me to a stand around the corner from hers at the Leipzig Book Fair in 2014 (or was it 2015?). Browsing some recently re-issued works by Maria Leitner there, I read that Hotel Amerika has an Irish protagonist, so of course I had to order the book!

Despite some re-publication of Leitner’s work after 2012, and despite her being mentioned on significant anniversaries (e.g of women’s suffrage or the book burnings), she had been virtually forgotten in the German-speaking world. Continuously in print in the GDR, she fell out of print in both parts of Germany after reunification, possibly because she was associated with the GDR canon, possibly because her staunchly socialist outlook didn’t go down well in post-reunification Germany either. In the English-speaking world I’ve only seen Leitner mentioned in secondary literature, usually in the context of travel writing or Weimar Republic journalism. None of her works has been published in English in its entirety. I’m hoping to change that – interested publishers can reach me through V&Q Books. Do get in touch if I’ve whet your appetite!