People have been telling me for years that I need to read Anita Brookner. In fact, it seems like everyone I know who had read Anita Brookner has told me that I need to. I specifically. So a few years ago I got myself a copy of her 1984 Booker prize winner, Hotel Du Lac, and put in on my shelf. There it sat until Thomas and Simon announced their International Anita Brookner Day, coming on July 16, 2011, Brookner’s 83rd birthday. To celebrate, they’re asking folks to read one Brookner book sometime before July 16.
Of course after picking up a bunch of new books at BEA last week, perverse me wanted nothing more than to read something a little older, something that has been tested and recommended by others, something that has stood the test of time. So Hotel Du Lac came off the shelf.
It didn’t take long for me to see why people have been recommending Brookner to me all these years. It’s not just because her central characters tend to be spinsters; it’s because they’re cynical (or perhaps realistic) spinsters—or at least Edith Hope, the central character in this book, is. Here, Edith, a romance novelist, sounds off to her editor about the myths people cling to, singling out the story of the Tortoise and the Hare:
‘People love this one, especially women. Now you will notice, Harold, that in my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, which the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course,’ she said pleasantly, but with authority. ‘In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically,’ she cried, her voice rising with enthusiasm. ‘Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation. Like the meek who are going to inherit the earth,’ she added with a brief smile. After a pause, she addressed herself to what was left on her plate, ate it in one dismissive mouthful, and leaned back, still lost in her argument.
Edith’s confident declarations, said with a smile and not a grimace, made her instantly appealing to me. If she’s unhappy about the state of romance in the world, she’s not going to let it show. She’s stating the facts as she sees them.
In reality, Edith has every reason to be bitter. When she has this conversation, she’s just getting ready to go to the titular Hotel Du Lac in Switzerland to recover from some sort of scandal that her friends feel she must distance herself from. The exact nature of the scandal is not clear at first, but it probably has to do with David, the man Edith writes long letters to while at the hotel.
At the hotel, Edith meets other women who have also been sequestered from society for one reason or another. Monica has an eating problem and hasn’t been able to give her husband an heir. The Puseys, a mother and daughter, have nothing to do but spend money on lavish clothes. Mme de Bonneuil is old and doesn’t get along with her son’s wife. Edith drifts from guest to guest, almost seeming to try on different ways of living and eventually finding each wanting. The whole dance of these friendships cracked me up. There’s Edith’s desire to be noticed, her pleasure at being noticed, her eventual dislike of the ones who’ve noticed her, her desire to extricate herself, her unwillingness to say no, and so on. It’s funny and kind of sad and maybe a little mean.
As confident as Edith may have sounded when talking to Harold, at the hotel, she feels unsure and unsettled inside. Her new “friends” aren’t helping much either. The one person who does offer advice, the hotel’s lone male guest, Philip Neville, is not necessarily trustworthy. But he does seem interested in Edith, when her friends at the hotel are mostly interested in themselves and her friends back home are mostly interested in propriety. Who’s looking out for Edith?
Eventually, Edith has to decide what kind of life she’s going to have. I’m not going to tell you what she decides, but I will say that I found the ending oddly triumphant and terribly sad all at once. The ending actually saved the book for me. I was liking it well enough, laughing, nodding, and groaning in recognition sometimes; but my mind was also drifting frequently. (I blame the slight cold I’ve had the last few days.) I liked the writing and the witty observations about men and women (even if I didn’t agree with all of them), but I wasn’t into the story. But in the last pages, I realized that Edith’s choice did matter to me. I cared.
Hotel Du Lac is a short book, not quite 200 pages, and it rewards a slow read (preferably not when you’re not worn out and sick). I’ve gone back and reread a lot of it since finishing it a couple of days ago, and I think it would benefit from multiple readings. And I imagine there will be more Brookner in my future.