In which I review Hotel du Lac, Anita Brookner’s 1984 novel about a romance novelist holidaying at a Swiss hotel, in exile from a failed relationship.
What it’s about: Geneva, Switzerland, the 1980s. After jilting her fiancé at the altar, Miss Edith Hope, a middle-aged Englishwoman and writer of romance novels, takes a holiday at a hotel near Lake Geneva. In a series of letters composed to her married lover David, she describes the fellow inhabitants of the hotel: Mrs Pusey, a wealthy, self-satisfied widow and her vacuous daughter Jennifer; Madame de Bonneuil, an elderly woman exiled to the hotel by her neglectful son; and Monica, an unhappily married society wife with an eating disorder. Edith reflects on her relationship with David, whom she loves, and recent, disastrous attempts to marry a dull, well-meaning neighbour. Edith meets Mr Neville, a hard-headed businessman who offers to marry her, sneering at her romantic notions and persuading her that marriage will improve her social status. Depressed and demoralised, Edith decides to accept his proposal. She writes David a letter, explaining that she loves him but will never see him again. While going to post the letter, she sees Mr Neville leaving Jennifer’s room, presumably after a night-time liaison. Edith tears up the letter, books the next flight to London, and sends a telegram to David saying “Returning”.
Why it’s a classic: Hotel du Lac was Anita Brookner’s fourth novel, and her fourth book in the space of four years, since her debut A Start In Life in 1981. Brookner came to writing fiction comparatively late – she was 53 when A Start In Life was published – after a distinguished career as an art historian and academic at the Courtauld Institute. (Random fact: Brookner’s mentor at the Courtauld was Anthony Blunt, who was later revealed to be a spy for the Soviets and the recruiter of “Cambridge Five” spy Guy Burgess, who defected to Russia in the 1960s. Blunt reportedly had Brookner visit a fellow spy in hospital and report his conversations, which she did unthinkingly, not realising she was being used as a go-between until Blunt’s secret life was revealed).
By the time Hotel du Lac came out, Brookner’s style was already well-established. Her heroines were meek, well-educated, cardigan-wearing women, usually the only child of European immigrants, who lived in genteel flats in Kensington, went unwillingly to cocktail parties, had unsatisfactory affairs with unavailable men, and typically locked in private existential struggles between the desire to be happy versus the need to be a good person. Her literary inspiration was Balzac, who covered much the same territory in post-Revolutionary France, and who was similarly interested in the success of bold and selfish people over the meek and virtuous.
Unsurprisingly, the largely male literary establishment labelled her “the mistress of gloom” or assumed that her works were autobiographical – the confessional outpourings of an embittered spinster whose books were a surrogate for the husband and children she never had. (Admittedly, this was something Brookner said about her own work). She also had her fans, who thrilled to the precision and forensic detail of her prose style and her satirical skewering of the nouveau riche – qualities that earned her much comparison with Jane Austen. Brookner bridled at this, often commenting that she “didn’t get on” with Austen, presumably because Austen gives her heroines a Cinderella finale with a rich, handsome and loving husband. Happy endings are fairly thin on the ground in Brookner’s writing: her heroines’ reward is usually (hard-won) self awareness and possibly a bit of dignity.
Hotel du Lac was respectfully reviewed, but only became a bestseller after Brookner unexpectedly won the 1984 Booker Prize, in one of the more interesting literary upsets of recent times. Critics and bookies had widely predicted J G Ballard would win for his autobiographical World War II novel Empire of the Sun, which had the epic scope, graphic violence and male perspective normally expected of a Serious Award-Winning Novel. Brookner’s book was, somewhat condescendingly, viewed as a “miniature”: beautifully written and rather stylish, but not radical enough to win a prize that was trying to shake off its Anglocentric associations and highlight more post-colonial and experimental fiction. Despite being a 6:1 outsider, Brookner won. The judges described the novel as “a work of perfect artifice” (which I assume was meant to be a compliment), “written with dry humour, minutely observed and always at a very low key”, giving it the “elegance and apparent simplicity of the 18th century”. Fellow nominee and pseudo-friend Julian Barnes recalled the night in a piece for the Guardian, published after Brookner’s death: “When [Brooker] won, she went up to the dais, received the cheque, turned to the audience with immaculate poise, and began: “Usually, when I stand up, I go on for about 50 minutes” – then a pause of perfect length, before she added – “with slides.“
Hotel du Lac went on to become one of the best-selling British novels of the 1980s, and was turned into a successful TV film for the BBC in 1991, starring Anna Massey as Edith and Denholm Elliott as Mr Neville. Massey sensibly purchased the rights to the novel herself, shortly after it won the Booker, and was note-perfect in the role, later winning a BAFTA for her performance.
Brookner died in 2016, leaving behind an astonishing bibliography (25 novels, produced at the rate of nearly one book a year, and several well-regarded art history texts) and a fortune of just over £1 millions, most of which she left to Médecins Sans Frontières. In her will, she requested that there not be a funeral, which felt typically Brooknerian: her heroines never liked anyone making a fuss, and were allergic to showing emotion in public. That said, I’m rather sorry that Brookner wasn’t around to read the glowing tributes published at her death, by which time she’d been recognised as one of Britain’s finest literary stylists. One of her more unlikely fans was Jilly Cooper, the author of 1980s bonkbusters, who paid tribute to Brookner’s “wonderful lucid prose”, which I think Brookner would have rather enjoyed.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A bouquet of lavender from Edith’s garden. I adore this novel (truth be told) have read it before) and am forever recommending it to friends who are interested in good writing. Despite the Booker win, she’s not nearly so well-known as she should be, though given her persistent interest in romantic disappointment and accepting one’s lot, she’s perhaps a harder sell in this age of Go Gettem post-capitalist feminism.
What struck me on my first reading was how economical her prose is – there’s not a word out of place, and every sentence feels beautifully weighted, though not in a laborious writerly way. Having since read her previous three novels, it’s clear that Hotel du Lac was something of a breakthrough for Brookner’s style. She abandons the somewhat overbearing third-person omniscient narration of her hero Balzac and adopts a much leaner and more accessible style, closer to mid-period Henry James but with much more manageable sentence length. We follow Edith’s point-of-view closely, peering over her shoulder as she pens her witty letters to David (one assumes her handwriting was exquisite), and feel a conspiracy with her as she silently decimates the silly women in the hotel salon.
Edith’s (and Brookner’s) insights are often breathtaking – she’s a writer of deep unsentimentality, with a steely determination to face ugly truths about human nature that’s pretty rare for novelists of any gender. Though their subject matter is totally different, one writer I often thought of in relation to Brookner was Joan Didion – the same cool, forensic observation, the same insistence on one’s intellect and self-awareness being the most important things to maintain at all cost.
Brookner is also very very funny, in a subtle, wry (and yes, Austenian) way. She knows, as Austen does, the enjoyment that can be had poking fun at people while still remaining a polite and morally attuned person, and she’s bitingly severe on what she sees as the grasping qualities of the selfish and self-satisfied nouveau-riche of 1980s Thatcherite Britain. Mrs Pusey is a comic masterpiece along the lines of Mrs Elton in Emma, a woman buffeted by her own unfailing self-confidence, totally uninterested in anyone else’s opinion, and therefore clueless as to what’s actually going on.
Hotel du Lac is an especially satisfying think, I think, because Brookner lays out her cynical world view about the realities of an intelligent woman’s lot (being overlooked, romantic disappointment) and then allows Edith a possibility of escape. Shortly before her banishment to Switzerland, her editor Harold takes her to lunch and says that the marketplace for romantic fiction is changing. “It’s sex for the young woman executive now”, he explains. “[S]he wants something to remind her that being liberated is fun…. She wants something to reflect her lifestyle.” Edith’s response, for lack of a better expression, is masterful. “Harold”, she says, “I simply do not know anyone who has a lifestyle.” She goes onto explain that in her books, “the mouse-like unassuming girl” gets the hero, while “the scornful temptress… retreats baffled from the fray”. After doing battle with a piece of kiwifruit on her plate, she adds a stern corrective: “This is a lie, of course…. In real life… it is the hare who wins. Every time” and that only tortoises read her books because they are “in need of consolation”.
As the story progresses, Edith the self-declared tortoise becomes progressively more frustrated by her subordinate status. Her critique of her fellow guests are, we realise, motivated more by envy as disdain, and she grows to admire Mrs Pusey, “a woman so gentle, so greedy, so tranquil, so utterly fulfilled in her desires that she encouraged daring thoughts of possession, of accumulation, in others.”
Finally, Brookner sets Edith the supreme test: a potential husband in the form of Mr Neville, a man as cynical and brutally realist as she is, who admires her defences while seeing through them. More importantly, he offers her a bloodless transactional relationship, free from love but also free from illusions, in which she’ll attain social status, financial security, a comfortable home and possibly companionship, with someone who shares her sober clear-eyed view of the world. It’s to Brookner’s credit that she can present Mr Neville as plausible match for Edith, while also signalling that he’s a sadist and a bit of a bastard (“I cannot bear to see a woman cry; it makes me want to hit her”) with whom she’d undoubtedly be miserable. And so, once again, Edith runs away from conventional marriage and back to David, a man who will presumably never leave his wife for her but whom she truly loves. It’s an astonishingly romantic ending for a character (and an author) who insist on the material reality of the world, and all the more moving for being so underplayed. Brookner doesn’t waste our time showing Edith and David’s reunion – with characteristic economy, she conveys everything we need to know with Edith’s one-word telegram: “Returning”.
One of the other things that struck me when I first read Hotel du Lac was how unfashionable Brookner’s characters were, especially within the rapacious climate of Britain in the 1980s, and how out-of-time her nicely-dressed English ladies seemed – generations or even centuries away from “the girl with the executive briefcase’. Edith in particular strikes me as the kind of woman who’s almost entirely missing from most contemporary fiction: a resolutely single middle-class woman of independent income who doesn’t drive, still dresses for dinner and doesn’t believe in “lifestyles” or self-improvement mantras. She’s quite possibly a woman who doesn’t exist anymore, or who has an entirely different set of concerns to Edith. It’s also fair to say that Brookner’s world now feels rather dated: a slower pre-digital age where people smoked in restaurants, took travellers’ cheques on holiday and wrote in diaries with fountain pens, and where unhappy women were expected to “pull themselves together” in off-season hotels rather than seek treatment in expensive clinics.
Hotel du Lac isn’t for everyone – given the amount of time that’s gone by, younger readers might view Edith with the same distant anthropological interest as Isabel Archer or Eugénie Grandet. But to assume that Brookner has little to tell us about the way women (and men) live now is quite wrong. She’s alertly, thrillingly alive to what it is to is to be human: to have desire and experience frustrations, and the many ways in which we protect ourselves from the world’s cruelties with wit and perception. “[H]opes and wishes are what should be proclaimed, most strenuously proclaimed,” Edith muses, “if anyone is to be jolted into the necessity of taking note of them, let alone the obligation to fulfil them.” Though Edith doesn’t ever manage to proclaim her hopes and wishes, she finds her way towards some version of a life she can live with. In Brookner’s tragicomic world, self-knowledge is the goal, and to some extent the reward, for her disappointed heroines – while that knowledge doesn’t always attend happiness, it brings her readers a very subtle and grown-up satisfaction.
Quotable Quote: “Women share their sadness, thought Edith. Their joy they like to show off to one another. Victory, triumph over the odds, calls for an audience. And that air of bustle and exigence sometimes affected by the sexually loquacious – that is for the benefit of other women. No solidarity then.“