Showing posts with label Anita Brookner. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Anita Brookner. Show all posts

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.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Endeavors

One of the benefits of living on our boat in the summer is being able to finally get to some postponed reading and catch up on local theatre either in Westport or NY and the last few weeks reminds me that so much of what we read or see in the theatre often serves as historical guideposts, snapshots of different periods of cultural change. I recently picked up John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which I first read when it was published in the late 1970’s. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to reread the novel other than I had forgotten much of it and always liked Irving’s quirky self-reflective story-telling, so much about the process of writing itself. I had forgotten how much the role of women’s rights plays in Garp, such a major issue in the 1970s. Irving playfully toys with the issue, satirizing it to a great degree, reminding me of my first business trip to Australia in the 1970’s when a Sydney taxi driver lectured me about the evils of women’s rights and, in particular, the role that Americans had in exporting those dangerous thoughts to Australia. I wonder whether Garp (or Irving) might have agreed with the accusation at the time.

Then a few weeks ago we saw Terrence McNally’s Lips Together, Teeth Apart at the Westport Country Playhouse, portraying two heterosexual couples vacationing at a home on Fire Island, in the middle of a gay community. It is a play that is constantly on an uneasy edge, the problems of the two couples acting out their aberrant behavior contrasted to the high-spirited, better adjusted gay community, off stage. But central to the play is the paranoia of how AIDS was thought to be transmitted at the time, symbolized by the couples’ dramatic fear of going into the pool (on stage) -- an obsession of twenty years ago when the play was written. Nonetheless, the play is still a compelling tragicomic drama and wonderfully staged at the beautifully restored Westport Country Playhouse.

A twenty year leap forward brings me to reading Jonathan Tropper’s Everything Changes. Here is a very contemporary novel by a thirty-something author about relationships between fathers and sons, and male female relationships. Tropper’s idiosyncratic characters (in particular, the protagonist’s father) at times reminds me a little of Richard Russo’s and Anne Tyler’s. Trooper’s writing can be very funny but sensitive at the same time. These are the two paragraphs that grab you and pull you into the novel:

Life, for the most part, inevitably becomes routine, the random confluence of timing and fortune that configures its components all but forgotten. But every so often, I catch a glimpse of my life out of the corner of my eye, and am rendered breathless by it. This is no accident. I made this happen. I had a plan.

I am about to fuck it all up in a spectacular fashion.

It was quite a contrast reading Anita Brookner’s Strangers, perhaps the most interior novel I’ve read in some time, most of it taking place in the mind of the 72 year old protagonist, a retired banker and confirmed bachelor, who feels he may be missing something not sharing his life with a woman. By chance he meets one of his old lovers (he hasn’t had many), now aged and frail, but one for whom he thinks he still has feelings. He also meets a woman on a flight to Venice, younger than he. Much of the novel is a debate (in his mind) of the advantages or disadvantages of being with one or the other or neither. Brookner’s writing is timeless, meticulously exacting, set mostly in London, but a London that seems to exist merely in some recent time. It is also about aging and finding meaning in life after a lifetime of work:

His reading now was confined to diaries, notebooks, memoirs, anything that contained a confessional element. He was in search of evidence of discomfiture, disappointment, rather than triumph over circumstances. Circumstances, he knew, would always overrule. Those great exemplars of the past, the kind he had always sought in classic novels, usually finished on a note of success, of exoneration, which was not for him. In the absence of comfort he was forced to contemplate his own failure, failure not in worldly terms but in the reality of his circumscribed life. He knew, rather more clearly than he had ever known before, that he had succeeded only at mundane tasks, that he had failed to deliver a reputation that others would acknowledge. Proof, if proof were needed, lay in the fact that his presence was no longer sought, that, deprived of the structure of the working day, he was at a loss, obliged to look for comfort in whatever he could devise for himself. His life of reading, of walking, was invisible to others: his friendships, so agreeable in past days, had dwindled, almost disappeared. Memories were of no use to him; indeed, even memory was beginning to be eroded by the absence of confirmation. As to love, that was gone for good. Whatever he managed to contrive for himself would not, could not, be construed as success.

Finally, yesterday, we saw the NYC preview performance of Stephen Sondheim’s great musical, Follies. This is a show I failed to see when it opened in 1971 or any of the revivals and have been waiting, waiting for the opportunity. Sondheim is the last surviving composer of another era. Talk about historical markers. This is Sondheim’s tribute to various eras of Broadway’s past and it has some of his best known songs, too many to mention, including one that is perhaps my very favorite, Losing My Mind.

This new Broadway production, coming via the Kennedy Center, is spectacular, the kind of show no longer written for Broadway. It was Sondheim’s first musical as both composer and lyricist and every line, every word is delicious. The Broadway production includes some of Broadway’s luminaries, Bernadette Peters, Danny Burstein, Jan Maxwell, Ron Raines, and Elaine Page. Each brings the house down with some of Sondheim’s most iconic numbers. The juxtaposition of their ghosts from eras past is particularly evocative. Here is a two and half hour production which seems to pass in minutes, portraying innocent and happier times past, lost loves, regrets and heartbreak.