Brookner, Anita. Hotel du Lac.

NY: Pantheon, 1985.

Brookner is one of those authors (far too many of them) of whose growing reputation I have been aware for years but whom I have somehow never gotten around to reading. Since this not-long novel won the Booker Prize, it seemed like a good introduction. I’m glad I made the effort.

Edith Hope is a middle-aged English lady, the respectable author of respectable romantic novels, who lives alone in a small, comfortable London house with a garden where she relaxes in the evenings after writing all day. All very ordinary, you think. But Edith has recently committed a very public lapse in judgment, the nature of which is not revealed until much later in the book. (It has to do with suddenly waking up and changing her mind.)

Her friends, embarrassed for her (and by her), convince her to take a break from everything by going into exile for a month at a hotel on Lake Geneva which is famous for its discreet lack of fame. It’s a comfortably gray place, set against a gray background and gray weather, and offering a haven to select guests of traditional style and vintage. “It was assumed that they would live up to the hotel’s standards, just as the hotel would live up to theirs.” The place is so quiet, the sound of her own feet on the raked gravel paths leads her to walk on the verge instead. There aren’t many guests, either, late September being the off-season, and since Edith is alone anyway, and feeling a bit awkward going down to tea by herself, she finds herself (always an author) observing the others and making up lives for them.

And there are several who interest and even fascinate her. The widowed Mrs. Iris Pusey (who, she later discovers, is nearly eighty, though she looks fifty) is so absolutely greedy, so completely self-satisfied, so thoroughly self-absorbed, Edith sees her as a sociological subject, “presenting her with the opportunity to examine contact with an alien species.” Mrs. Pusey is insistent on being the center of everything, wherever she happens to be. “She would not be still or be quiet until she had captured the attention of whomever she judged to be necessary for her immediate purpose.” And she’s grooming her vacuous, adolescent-seeming daughter (who is Edith’s own age) to take over the throne from her.

And there’s Monica, an anorexically beautiful, slightly younger woman, who has a title but not as much money as Mrs. Pusey. Each of the two women therefore has a reason to look down condescendingly on the other, using Edith as a “buffer state” and subjecting her to “a certain amount of balkanization.”

Then there’s the only male guest, Mr. Neville, who knows her true identity, and who takes her out for walks and expertly probes her obvious boredom and dissatisfaction with herself. An “intellectual voluptuary of the highest order,” he urges her to learn to live entirely for herself. “Within your own scope you can accomplish much more. You can be self-centered and that is a marvelous lesson to learn.” Love only gets in the way of true contentment, he says. What Edith needs is not love, but marriage.

The protagonist isn’t such an inoffensively spinsterish person as she seems to her friends, though. She has a lover (married) to whom she writes long letters describing her quiet adventures and observations. And this allows the author to show us, and interpret for us, what she sees from several different vantages — a clever narrative technique.

Brookner is very much an artist of the language, in her elegant descriptions and in her dryly witty style. At Heathrow, not wanting to be completely alone, Edith joins “the most reliable set of people I could find, knowing, without bothering to ask, that they were bound to be going to Switzerland.” She writes a certain type of romance for a certain type of female reader, she says, in which it’s the “mouse-like unassuming girl” who gets the hero. “The tortoise wins every time,” which she admits is a lie compared to real life. It’s the hare who always wins — but “Aesop was writing for the tortoise market.” And there’s Neville’s observation, aimed at her, that “good women always think it’s their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.” But she also has insightful things to say about people in general and women in particular. Especially “ultra-feminine” women (not feminists), “complacent consumers of men with their complicated but unwritten rules of what is due to them.” I’m going to be looking closely at the rest of Brookner’s extensive oeuvre.

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Published in: on 27 June 2015 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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