Happy 83rd birthday, Anita Brookner, and Happy International Anita Brookner Day to the rest of you – surely the most publicised literary event of the past decade, courtesy of Thomas (and Simon is co-hosting). Having intended to read Brookner for a number of years, this seemed like the perfect time to give the old girl a whirl. And so I duly took down her 1984 Booker Prize winning Hotel du Lac off my shelf, and have just finished reading it.
And oh dear, it is not in the spirit of the thing, but… this might be something of a lukewarm post. Thomas did warn us several times that Hotel du Lac, although Brookner’s most famous novel, is not her best – and I did listen to him – but it felt expedient to read the novel I had on my shelves already. So I shall judge merely Hotel du Lac; I will not try and extrapolate beyond that to Brookner as a writer.
Hotel du Lac is set in a hotel by Lake Geneva, and we see it all through the eyes of romance novelist Edith Hope. She describes herself thus:
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.
And the hotel itself
seems to be permanently reserved for women. And for a certain kind of woman. Cast-off or abandoned, paid to stay away, or to do harmless womanly things, like spending money on clothes.
Amongst these women, and the most interesting characters in the novel, are mother and daughter Mrs. Pusey and Jennifer. Edith spends most of the first half of the novel revising the ages she considers them to be, from 40s and 20s to, eventually, 70s and 40s. They are rather desperate, and lonely, and put on false cheer. But, to be completely honest, they have already flown from my mind a little. Their portraits were painted a little too thinly, on too unstable a canvas.
Amongst these women there is only one man of note – Mr. Neville. I couldn’t describe the relationship between Edith and Mr. Neville as romantic, still less a love story, but he does offer opportunities for some interesting views from Edith, which are refreshingly neither old-fashioned nor modern, but an honest path between the two.
“My idea of absolute happiness is to sit in a hot garden all day, reading, or writing, utterly safe in the knowledge that the person I love will come home to me in the evening. Every evening.” “You are a romantic, Edith,” repeated Mr. Neville, with a smile. “It is you who are wrong,” she replied. “I have been listening to that particular accusation for most of my life. I am not a romantic. I am a domestic animal. I do not sigh and yearn for extravagant displays of passion, for the grand affair, the world well lost for love. I know all that, and know that it leaves you lonely. No, what I crave is the simplicity of routine. An evening walk, arm in arm, in fine weather. A game of cards. Time for idle talk. Preparing a meal together.”
And so the novel continues. Now for the negative.
What makes me a bit cross is that Hotel du Lac made me respond in a way I hate – using responses from which I would normally run a mile. I can’t stand it when critics sneer at ‘nothing happening’ in a book, or about boring heroines. The sort of ridiculous statement Saul Bellow made of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, that ‘I seem to hear the tinkle of teacups’ – which ought really to be a compliment. I wish I could have heard the tinkle of teacups in Hotel du Lac! But nothing felt vital or vivid to me. Edith is quite a boring person, but that wouldn’t matter if she had not also been a boring character. Austen’s Mr. Collins is boring; Mrs. Palfrey is pretty boring, if it comes to that, but neither of these are boring characters, because of the vitality with which their dry lives are evoked – one for humour, and the other for empathy. Edith Hope simply fades, fades, fades into a pretty backdrop.
You know me, I love books without much plot. I love novels which look gently, calmly, slowly at the ways in which people interact. I thought I would love Anita Brookner, but I certainly did not love Hotel du Lac. Which is not to say I hated it – more than anything, I was disappointed. There seem to be so many novelists who ‘do’ this sort of book rather better – E.H. Young, E.M. Delafield, even Richmal Crompton to a lesser extent. Brookner’s writing in Hotel du Lac is never glaringly bad, and is occasionally perceptive. She has a knack for using unusual adjectives or adverbs which unsettle (‘”I hate you,” she shouted, hopefully’) but… overall, I was not blown away by her style, or compelled by her prose. Often my eyes slipped to the end of the page, without taking in what had I had read. It all felt tolerable, I suppose, but…
Yet I will not let my lukewarm response to Hotel du Lac put me off. I shall remember that I was warned it wouldn’t be Brookner’s best. I will read the other reviews which will doubtless pop up around the blogosphere today. And I will wait a few years, and given Anita another go.