ANITA BROOKNER Hotel du Lac. Reviewed by Folly Gleeson
Hotel du Lac is a small classic that won the 1984 Man Booker Prize for Anita Brookner.
When I found Hotel du Lac recently on my shelves I was amazed to realise that it was a different book from the one I read in the 1980s – or rather, I was a different reader. I had thought that it was a love story, and in a way it is, but so much more.
Edith Hope is a writer of romantic fiction who has been coerced into going to a solidly respectable Swiss hotel on Lake Geneva to think about her behaviour and to get back into a settled life pattern. She has recently committed an indiscretion, not revealed until later in the book, which has so shocked her social acquaintances that they have collectively pushed her towards this interlude.
She arrives at the hotel, which is on the verge of closing for the winter, moves into her room, ‘the colour of over-cooked veal’, and hesitantly goes down for dinner to mix with the other guests. She is emotionally fragile but extremely acute in her observations concerning the hotel and her fellow guests. How I love the description of the veal-coloured room. And Lake Geneva, ‘spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore’.
Edith describes the guests in letters – unsent – to her married lover, David: there are Mrs Iris Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, self-indulgent shoppers; Monica, the aristocrat with an eating disorder; and the Comtesse, Mme de Bonneuil, sadly neglected by her son. They are all joined by the enigmatic Mr Neville, who is there after returning from a conference.
The circumambient tone of the novel is an all-pervading sense of loneliness and paralysis.
Edith’s indiscretion had come about because of her growing isolation and unsettledness. She is very much in love with David but sees him only rarely. Brookner describes their first sexual encounter with breathtaking subtlety and there is no doubt that he is the most important person in Edith’s life. Envying David’s family life and fearing a future alone, she had arranged to marry Geoffrey, but had deserted him on the day of the wedding. So now, at the Hotel du Lac, she tries to come to terms with her life and identity.
Rereading the novel I realise how skilful Brookner is. The perfect measured prose, the witty observations and the carefully constructed flow of events lead me to see it as a little gem, but also as a proto-feminist story. Although Edith says she is not a feminist, Brookner maps out an exhaustive model of many of the painful positions women can occupy, positions created by the zeitgeist. For example, the Puseys, rich, self-satisfied and self-glorifying, live a life of vapid inauthenticity, notable for its empty display and mindless comfort:
Across the room, in midnight blue lace, small diamonds sparkling in her ears, the glamorous lady who had demanded tea for her daughter stood hesitantly in the doorway; then having assured herself that her presence had been noted and indeed would be welcomed, she advanced graciously to her table. Her daughter, in a sleeveless black dress, followed after, smiling from left to right, as if to gather up the bouquets.
And Mme du Bonneuille: old, arthritic and deaf, she has been dumped at the hotel, and other pensions during the year, by her son, whose wife will not share the house, although it belongs to the old woman. Another portrait of the unfortunate places women can inhabit. Madame has a certain gallantry, however.
And ‘Lady X’, Monica, tall and beautiful, is also rather tragic. She has an eating problem and gives her food to her little dog. Edith writes to David:
Her noble husband in urgent need of an heir, has dispatched her here with instructions to get herself into working order; should this not come to pass, Monica will be given her cards and told to vacate the premises so that Sir John can make alternative arrangements. Naturally she sulks. She eats cakes as others might go slumming. But she is very sad for she too longs for a child and I don’t think she will ever have one.
Edith reflects on her mother as well, who had been disappointed in her marriage and became a cruel and sad harridan. Most of the characters epitomise some form of frozen emotional trap that Edith carefully delineates in the unsent letters. Even Edith, so smart, so in love with David, is lonely and has no real female friends.
One of the great joys for me in this story is the way Brookner so sharply and acutely describes her characters. The opulence of the Puseys and the restless elegance of Monica are wonderfully expressed and Edith’s finely-tuned, acerbic but fair personality is very clear. Edith takes no prisoners.
Throughout the story Edith occasionally hears a door closing somewhere when she is half asleep. While this is a splendid metaphor for her own emotional state, as she feels that her shady love affair will preclude a dignified and comforting future life, it is also an important part of the coming climax, which arrives very close to the end of this short but perfect novel.
Mr Neville is a businessman who is looking for a compliant, intelligent and compatible wife; his last one has left him. He does have a certain charm and is quite perceptive about Edith’s needs. He makes her an offer that is very tempting but I can go no further in retelling this tale. Sufficient to say that that closing door does have an impact on Edith, and definitely affects her subsequent choices.
Like most of Brookner’s novels, Hotel du Lac has an almost claustrophobic quality but we are party to an understanding of Edith’s pain and confusion and we gain a respect for her unflinching honesty. The novel is a small classic, so carefully balanced between an almost sculptural form and a wonderful clarity of characterisation.
Anita Brookner was born in 1928 and died in 2016. She wrote many novels (over 20), almost one a year for some time after finishing her academic work. She was the Professor of Fine Art at Cambridge and also taught at the Courtauld Institute, specialising in the work of French artists Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Jacques-Louis David. In 2009 Mick Brown interviewed her for the Telegraph (UK) where she is revealed as a character as complex and intense as those she has created in her novels.
Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac Penguin 1994 (first published 1984) PB 192pp $22.99
Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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