Tag Archives: Switzerland

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

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. 

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Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner

We have reached the 1980s in the Decades Project. This month’s choice is a prize-winning novel. I read Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner when it was first published in 1984 and went on to read most of Anita Brookner’s 24 novels, She died last year. Hotel Du Lac explores the question asked by the main character, Edith Hope, ‘what behaviour most becomes a woman’?

In this novel marriage is not the answer for Edith Hope. We can note that her circumstances are very different from Lily Bart who featured in the first novel in the decade project: The House of Mirth. Lily had no means of support unless she married, but Edith in Hotel Du Lac has choices, including marriage, which she rejects.

The Story

Edith Hope, a writer of romantic fiction, has been dispatched by her friends to the hotel in Switzerland. Her friends want her to reflect on her disgraceful behaviour and come back more grown up and responsible. For her own part she is determined not to change, but to sit out her exile writing her next novel. She is 39, it is the end of the season and there are only a few guests left in the hotel.

In the hotel she meets Mrs Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, both of whom trade on good looks and extreme wealth to indulge their selfishness. We know this from their shopping expeditions and the attention they demand from everyone. Then there is Monica who is about Edith’s age, and a very tall and willowy woman with an annoying dog. She is at the hotel to sort out her eating problems for she must make herself fit to conceive the heir her husband wishes for. Old Madame de Bonneuil is parked in the hotel during the season for the convenience of her son’s wife, who does not want the deaf old lady at home. The old lady bears this exile in silence, although he is the only thing of interest in her life.

Into this mix of people comes Phillip Neville, a perspicacious man, who sees in Edith the opportunity to acquire a wife so that he is not embarrassed by the loss of his previous wife. His proposal is about as unacceptable as Mr Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. It’s all about him and his knowledge that marriage provides what society thinks women want. There is an irony for Edith writes about traditional romantic ideas in her novels.

It emerges that before she arrived at the hotel, Edith had accepted a proposal from a very kind, gentle but very boring man, and whom she lets down at the last minute.

Despite these examples and choices Edith returns to the secret love affair that has dominated her life for years. She has understood more about the choices available to women, and although changed by her time at the hotel she chooses to return.

The novel

One of the strengths of Anita Brookner’s writing is her description of places. Here is the opening:

From the window all that could be seen was a receding area of grey. It was to be supposed that beyond the grey garden, which seemed to sprout nothing but the stiffish leaves of some unfamiliar plant, lay the vast grey lake, spreading like an anaesthetic towards the invisible further shore, and beyond that, in imagination only, yet verified by the brochure, the peak of Dent d’Oche, on which snow might already be slightly and silently falling. (7)

She has complete control of that very long second sentence, and follows it with another even longer sentence that describes the small town in which the hotel is to be found. A few paragraphs further on Edith, newly arrived at the hotel, contemplates her room.

Turning her back on the toneless expanse beyond the window, she contemplated the room, which was the colour of over-cooked veal: veal-coloured carpet and curtains, high, narrow bed with veal-coloured counterpane, small austere table with a correct chair placed tightly underneath it, a narrow, costive wardrobe, and, at a very great height above her head, a tiny brass chandelier, which, she knew, would eventually twinkle drearily with eight weak bulbs. (9)

Anita Brookner is famous for her controlled prose, but she includes humour and daring, for example when she in describes the bedroom as veal coloured.

She also sketches characters with deftness, so that even if they are mysterious, or something is not yet explained, one sees the individual emerge. Here is Madame de Bonneuil taking tea in the salon.

The pug-faced lady was eating grimly, her legs wide apart, crumbs falling unnoticed on to her lap. (17)

Again humour lurks underneath Anita Brookner’s sentences. Frequently it is her choice of words: the slightly and silently falling snow, the costive wardrobe, the veal, eating grimly. And here is Monica with the coffee pot: she poured it out largely and carelessly. (70)

There are advantages to containing the action of a novel within a hotel, and it is a device used by other writers. I blogged about this in a post called Five Novels set in Hotels: here.

A novel about the single woman

Edith Hope (novelists get to decide the names of their characters) chooses the single life, not because she is desperate – she has rejected two offers of marriage. It is because she is honest and this novel celebrates the quiet courage of the single woman, as do so many of Anita’s Brookner’s novels. For more on this idea see the appreciation by Christina Patterson: Anita Brookner’s subversive message – the courage of the single life deserves respect.

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984) Penguin.184 pp. Booker Prize Winner in 1984

Note: A tv adaptation was made of the novel in 1986 by the BBC.

The Decades Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I select a book from every decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here.

Previous posts in the Project

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 1990s

I will be reading The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (published in 1993) in October for the decade of the 1980s. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 2000s (November) and 2010s (December).

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