Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Stay at Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac

That’s the way I felt reading this deliciously elegant novel by Anita Brookner:  I too in the late fall, out of season, was ensconced in the Hotel Du Lac, observing the eccentricities of the characters staying there and, in particular, those of our protagonist, Edith Hope.  She is a writer of romance novels and she has come to the hotel from her home in England more as banishment than a vacation.  But for what reprehensible indiscretion?  We have to wait until about midway through the novel to find that out and while it’s a surprise, it is totally understandable in context.  Meanwhile, Edith who is determined to finish her next novel while staying at the hotel becomes more tangled with the few other people staying there at the end of the season, each with reasons for their own for self-exile.  In fact if anything stands out in the novel, particularly for Edith, it is a sense of estrangement.  But as her own life becomes involved with the lives of the others there on the increasingly frigid misty shores of Lake Geneva, Edith is changed, seeing herself in a different light.

If one had asked Edith before, she would have prided herself on her independence, but, now, she is no longer sure how independent a woman should or can be.  After all, one returning visitor there, Mrs. Pusey, and her middle aged daughter, Jennifer, come every time of this year with the singular purpose to shop.  “And she was enabled to do this by virtue of the fact that her late husband had prudently deposited certain sums of money in an account in her name in a Swiss bank.”

Edith is a writer, so Mrs. Pusey “presented her with the opportunity to examine and to enjoy, contact with an alien species.  For in this charming woman, so entirely estimable in her happy to desire to capture hearts, so completely preoccupied with the femininity which had always provided her with life’s chief delights, Edith perceived avidity, grossness, ardour.”

As these brief quotes attest, there is a 19th century quality to the writing, even 18th century.  Consider what Edith remarks in a letter to her lover, David (married, unlike Edith), back home when imagining the kind of man Mrs. Pusey’s daughter, Jennifer, would ever marry: 

I wonder if Jennifer is ever to marry. On which outsider will descend the supreme accolade of becoming an insider? How will he be recognized? He will have to present impeccable credentials: wealth equal to theirs, or, if possible, superior, a suitably elevated style of living, an ideally situated residence, and what Mrs. Pusey refers to as "position". All these attributes will come before his physical appearance, for Jennifer might be led astray by that into making a hasty judgment. My feeling is that the chosen one will be agreeably but perhaps not emphatically masculine; he will be courtly and not too young and very patient and totally indulgent. He will have to be all of these things because if he is to be a match for Mrs. Pusey's vigilance he will have to spend a great deal of time with her. With them both. In fact I see Jennifer's married life as being an extension of her present one; simply, there will be three of them instead of two. The only rite of passage will be the wedding, and as this will be seen primarily as the pretext for buying more clothes its ultimate significance will be occluded. This man, Jennifer's husband, will occupy a position equidistant between the two of them, on call in both directions. He will perforce be the man of the family, but he will not be a Pusey. And in any event, were they not perfectly happy before he came along? Were not their standards of excellence confined to themselves? How could he possibly justify any suggestion of change?

Isn’t this something almost out of Jane Austen?  But of course, this is a 20th century novel, and men do figure differently in the equation, particularly for Edith, who has a long term dalliance home in England (is David the reason she has been banished to the Hotel we wonder?) and at the hotel she meets her match (intellectually), Mr. Neville, with whom she spars as the novel progresses.  He figures in a double surprise ending, one we sort of suspect and the other we do not.  Can’t say much more about the characters here or spoilers would be self evident.  But I will say one thing, the solitary women there at the hotel, Monica, Mme de Bonneuil, as well as Mrs. Pusey, are there, one way or another, because of men.  And so is Edith.

Brookner displays tightly woven prose, almost like a short story, each word carefully chosen and measured.  It is elegant and it glitters throughout her work.  I especially enjoy when writers write about writing.   And Edith Hope is ironically a writer of popular romance novels, one she herself recognizes is not about the real world.  She’s working on a new novel, Beneath the Visiting Moon, one she imagines she’ll make great progress on while at the hotel, trying to keep to a daily schedule of writing, “[bending] her head obediently to her daily task of fantasy and obfuscation.”

But she is mired now in the lives of the people at the hotel, and as determined as she is to keep up the daily grind, she has difficulty.  She imagines she’ll have to read fiction to restart her creative juices:

Embroiled in her fictional plot, the main purpose of which was to distance those all too real circumstances over which she could exert no control, she felt a weariness that seemed to preclude any enthusiasm, any initiative, any relaxation. Fiction, the time-honoured resource of the ill-at-ease, would have to come to her aid, but the choice of a book presented some difficulties, since when she was writing she could only read something she had read before, and in her exhausted state, a febrile agitation, invisible to the naked eye, tended to distance even the very familiar. Words became distorted: 'pear', for instance, would become 'fear’.  She dreaded making nonsense of something precious to her, and, regretfully, disqualified Henry James. Nothing too big would do, nothing too small would suffice. In any event, her attention was fragmented.

No small coincidence that Edith mentions Henry James as Brookner writes with a similar style and interest in the complexities of human psychology.  Hotel Du Lac deservedly won the Booker Prize in 1984.  I’m glad I visited the hotel!  I can also recommend Strangers, another Brookner novel I read a few years ago.  Among other topics, I wrote it up briefly here.