Hotel du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984. I first read it in the same year. And since I have read many of Anita Brookner ‘s other novels. But then I stopped paying attention, until I wanted to reacquaint myself with her writing in the depth of this winter.
On this second reading I was aware of how this novel features people and things that are putting on a brave appearance but crumbling behind the veneer. Even the comfortable hotel is trying to appear as if it retains its grandeur as the height of the season. This, for example, is the opening sentence.
From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. (7)
In two long and beautifully balanced sentences, Anita Brookner reveals that in late September the fog can obscure the little town and its lake for days. Here is the second sentence, followed by a wry comment that should warn the reader.
For it was late September, out of season, the tourists had gone, the rates were reduced, and there were few inducements for visitors in this small town at the water’s edge, whose inhabitants, uncommunicative to begin with, were frequently rendered taciturn by the dense cloud that descended for days at a time and then vanished without warning to reveal a new landscape, full of colour and incident: boats skimming on the lake, passengers at the landing stage, an open market, the outline of the gaunt remains of a thirteenth-0century castle, seams of white on the far mountains, and on the cheerful uplands to the south a rising backdrop of apple trees, the fruit sparkling with emblematic significance. For this was the land of prudently harvested plenty, a land which had conquered human accidents, leaving only the weather distressingly beyond control. (7-8)
Hotel du Lac
Into this beige, genteel and forlorn situation enters Edith Hope, her name like a needle. We quickly learn that Edith has been exiled to the hotel following an incident of gross social abomination in London, and required to repent, atone and change.
In the airport she had looked in the mirror and seen a woman out of place.
‘Milling crowds, children crying, everyone intent on being somewhere else, and here was this mild-looking, slightly bony woman in a long cardigan, distant, inoffensive, quite nice eyes, rather large hands and feet, meek neck, not wanting to go anywhere, but having given my word that I would stay away for a month until everyone decides that I am myself again. For a moment I panicked, for I am myself now, and was then, although this fact was not recognized. Not drowning, but waving.’ (10)
This is from a letter she sits down on her arrival and writes to David. She signs off.
‘My dear life, as my father used to call my mother, I miss you so much.’ (12)
The sin of which she has been accused, we are led to believe, involves an affair of the heart. The hotel she has been sent to has been carefully chosen by her friend Penelope.
What it had to offer was a mild form of sanctuary, an assurance of privacy, and the protection and the discretion that attach themselves to blamelessness. (14)
Over the next few days she meets the other guests, few in number, at mealtimes, in the public areas, and out an about on walks and in the local shops and café. Each of them appears to Edith as one thing, but over the course of the next few days reveals themselves to be a different person, some more sympathetic than others.
The woman she met as she entered is not a Belgian confectioner’s widow, but a lonely, deaf old countess who has been parked in the hotel by her negligent son and daughter-in-law. ‘A tall woman of extraordinary slenderness’ who feeds many morsels from her plate to her ill-disciplined lapdog turns out to have an eating disorder and to be on notice from her husband to get fit for pregnancy or be abandoned. The rich mother and daughter, always positive, always sweeping Edith into their orbit are less easy to understand. And then there is the urbane and good-looking Mr Neville who makes a proposition to which she finds herself attracted.
I have quoted several times above from the opening chapter to illustrate the careful and precise choice of words and phrases that Anita Brookner uses to describe the scene and to alert the reader to both the façades of the hotel and the people and the human experiences that lie behind all this careful production. Anita Brookner frequently writes long balanced sentences, conveying a sense of nothing awkward or out of place. But Edith feels both awkward and out of place and wants very much to return to her life in London. Of course, by the end of the novel Edith finds her feelings rather than appearances to be the more reliable guide to behaviour.
I am thrilled that my reading group has agreed to read this later this year, so we can discuss the writing and her subject matter together. And I shall be reading and re-reading more novels by Anita Brookner, having appreciated this one again. Any suggestions of which novel of hers I should not miss?
Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, first published in 1984. I used the Penguin edition published in 2016. 184pp. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1984.