Anita Brookner – mistress of understatement, crystalline prose and unfulfilled older women – won the Booker Prize with Hotel du Lac in 1984. I read it then and again after enjoying the rather good film of the same name starring Anna Massey who got Edith Hope perfectly.
Edith is a novelist (romantic fiction) who is staying in an old-fashioned hotel on Lake Geneva. The autumnal “fin de saison” ambience reflects her state of mind as she observes and mixes with the other, mostly English, guests. We know from the outset first that she’s been “sent” to Switzerland by friends who are very cross with her and second that she’s deeply in love with a married man. It is a long time before Brookner reveals the precise reason for her exile – and it’s quite an arresting moment because most readers will not have seen it coming.
Meanwhile – with faint echoes of Room with a View there are other guests such as ghastly Mrs Pusey and her almost-as-ghastly daughter Jennifer. Her character – rich, self-interested, cunning, demanding, manipulative, excessive – sits somewhere between James Heriot’s Mrs Pumphrey and Mrs van Hopper who employs the unnamed narrator at the beginning of Rebecca. There’s also a man, Philip Neville, who seems gallant and shows interest in Edith but he’s chillingly manipulative too. In a novel which is full of literary cross-currents his calculatedness reminds me of St John Rivers in Jane Eyre.
So Edith has choices to make and they rattle about in her mind all the time she’s doing very little on the misty shores of the Lake. Should she let her life veer off in a totally different direction or should she simply continue more or less as she is despite the crushing disapproval of bossy friends?
Brookner, who died in 2016, was a miniaturist. Her characterisation is finely observed – and probably enhanced by her day job as an art historian. I love the precision of the uncompromising, grown up language too. She can write elegant sentences such as “Yet it was less Mrs Pusey’s tranquil exhibitionism that worried Edith then the glimpses she had caught of a somewhat salacious mind” with ease. Every word speaks and there is never, ever any waffle. Many modern novels could shed a third of their length and be better for it. Not so Brookner. Hotel du Lac comes in at 184 pages and the succinctness is part of its perfection.
I was struck afresh this time by the title and wondered if there was a pun intended? Hotel du Lack? While Edith is staying at the titular hotel her life lacks everything she has come to be reasonably contented with – which is why she writes passionate letters to the man she actually loves despite having to take him on his own terms. Well never mind the vexed field of intentionalism the central character in this novel certainly uses her weeks by the lac to think about what her life is lacking. And it’s as good a read now as it was nearly 40 years ago when it was first published.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy