The Written Image: The Hotel

From the November/December 2021 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

For three weeks in 1981 the French writer and artist Sophie Calle worked as a maid at a hotel in Venice, Italy. Between straightening mussed sheets and scrubbing the sinks, she studied the most intimate lives of the guests of the fourth floor, documenting what she observed and surmising the narratives of their lives—always herself unnoticed. Photographs (including the one below) and a written journal record Calle’s findings: the peels of oranges that had sunned on the room’s windowsill, rumpled pajamas and untouched beds, “some progress on the crossword grid started yesterday,” even what she reads in guests’ diaries. Together these photographs and texts compose Calle’s book The Hotel, available from Siglio Press in November. “Calle takes the kind of risks a writer might invent for a character while taking the figurative work of a writer to its most literal realization as she rifles and rummages through the evidence of real lives, observing, inspecting, eavesdropping,” says Siglio publisher Lisa Pearson, who has admired Calle’s nerve since discovering her work Suite Vénitienne, reissued by Siglio in 2015, in which Calle follows a stranger she has secretly been photographing to extraordinary lengths.

Calle herself has been the inspiration for any number of fictional characters, including Maria Turner in Paul Auster’s novel Leviathan (Viking Press, 1992), and her provocative methods have pushed her acolytes to engage new methods of investigation in their art. “But what she does with that information is different than what writers generally do,” says Pearson. “The Hotel asks questions about the limits of our knowledge, how we think we understand the lives of others, how we navigate the known and unknown. It raises such interesting questions about the presumption of privacy and about our curiosity about strangers’ lives, about how we imagine and construct them, even when we really know nothing at all.”