Friday, July 15, 2011

the third-last book I read

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner.

Edith Hope, writer of romantic fiction "under a more thrusting name", has come to the eponymous lakeside hotel in Switzerland to escape a scandal that she has been involved in back home in England. But what can it be? Some sort of Nazi S&M child-murdering thing? A billion-pound financial fraud? Bonnie and Clyde-style bank jobs with the shooting in the air and escaping in an old Model T to the sound of frantic banjo music afterwards? Well, no. It turns out not even to be the torrid affair that Edith has been engaging in with a married auctioneer called David, but rather the subsequent less exciting liaison with fat stolid Geoffrey, the acceptance of his offer of marriage and her subsequent jilting of him at the altar.

Here she is, anyway, and in a bid to add a bit of interest to the somewhat genteel and sterile surroundings in which she finds herself she starts doing a bit of people-watching: there's skinny Monica, who seems to divert most of her food into the small dog she takes everywhere with her, elderly Madame de Bonneuil who acts slightly deaf and batty but may see and hear more than she lets on, Mrs. Pusey and her daughter Jennifer who are on a permanent shopping spree financed by the late Mr. Pusey, and the urbane Mr. Neville, who in turn takes an interest in Edith. Edith jots down her observations in a series of letters home to David, though it's not entirely clear whether any of these are ever sent.

Mr. Neville persuades Edith to join him in escaping the hotel for a bit and going for a few leisurely strolls to some local caf├ęs, where they engage in some sparring about their respective lives - Mr. Neville's wife has apparently left him in rather humiliating circumstances and he has decided that living more selfishly is the answer, a strategy he urges Edith to adopt in her life as well. After a few more of these exchanges he goes one step further and proposes marriage - a marriage strictly of social convenience, needless to say; both parties being free to conduct whatever affairs they wish to, provided it's all discreet.

All Edith really seems to want out of life is some space to write her books and do a bit of gardening - things it appears she would have been obliged to give up had she gone through with marrying Geoffrey - so she is tempted by the offer, but some reflection and an unexpected late-night encounter with Mr. Neville in the hotel corridor give her cause to change her mind.

So we end up, in other words, pretty much where we started - Edith is setting up to return to England to try and slot back into her former life, which may or may not include picking up the pieces of her relationship with David. So what have we learned? Well, that there is a balance to be struck between accommodating the needs and feelings of others and following one's own course; that constant living in hotels and going shopping is a bit of a shallow and unrewarding existence, erm......

The problem with all this is illustrated by Edith's constant upward revision of Mrs. Pusey and Jennifer's ages during the course of the book: I would, if I had been required to guess, have put Edith's age at maybe mid-fifties. I wasn't required to guess, though, as we're told quite specifically that she is thirty-nine, i.e. (rather regrettably) younger than me. This seems odd given the desperate repressed emotional pinchedness and stiltedness on display, even allowing for these being upper-middle-class English people, indeed it seems extraordinary that an offer such as Mr. Neville's could plausibly be made in a novel with a contemporary setting (it was published in 1984). It's like feminism never happened! And yet Edith is presumably not a complete stranger to sexual desire, as evidenced by the talk of weekends in bed and afternoon fry-ups during the heady days of her relationship with David. It's all very odd, despite being beautifully written and observed in that archetypal British-female-novelist-of-a-certain-vintage kind of way. John Crace's Digested Classics column in the Guardian nails these oddities far more vividly and concisely than I do, as always. It's perhaps not a coincidence that when the BBC adapted the novel for television in 1986 they deemed it appropriate to cast Anna Massey in the role of Edith, Massey being, with all due respect, a fairly old-looking 49 at the time.

Anyway, Hotel Du Lac won the Booker Prize in 1984, and thus becomes, perhaps slightly surprisingly, only the second Booker winner in this list, after John Berger's G. (the 1972 winner). There is a real Hotel Du Lac, apparently, which was supposedly the inspiration for the one in the novel: it's in Vevey, on the shores of Lake Geneva, here.

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