Despite Anita Brookner winning the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, and her publishing a literary novel once a year – sort of like Woody Allen with movies, except in Brookner’s case the quality rarely falters – and excellent reviews, there still remains a view of her fiction that it is not quite literature. That is a false criticism and applied only because she doesn’t ‘do’ brick-sized, sprawling Franzen-type fiction. She’s also criticised for publishing the ‘same’ thing each time – true only in the sense that she always explores certain distinct themes certain – as do most of literature’s best novelists.
And then there’s the tiresome refrain that her middle-class female characters are too ‘minor’ to sustain a fiction or its hold on you as a reader. Again, not true: they are fully realised, complex, always true to life and well-drawn.
These contentions, all of which seem absurdly unjustified, remind me of the type of pejorative remarks you get about Austen’s and other female writers’ work as being lightweight and usually from those who’ve either read only Austen’s Mansfield Park (atypical of her oeuvre) or none and hence based on nothing but a sort of blinkered tenacity to insist on what is not evident at all.
So let me reassure you that if you do take the time out to enjoy her fiction, you should be rewarded. She is superb at capturing the quiet, troubling, complicated patterns and moments of women’s lives, of feelings often unspoken but pervasive, of psychological depths to her characters and the closed world environments that they at times struggle within but none the less manage stoically.
You can expect from her the delicate, fine touch of a miniature portrait artist, rather than the broad brushstrokes of some modern fiction, and an appreciation of her style that is intelligent, reflective, understated and elegiac in tone, with a pervading sadness that runs throughout the story and its characters’ lives – arguably points which could apply just as well to most of Anita Brookner’s oeuvre.
Hotel du Lac is a charming and thoughtful novel focused on Edith Hope, a successful middle-aged novelist of romantic fiction (though a realist about the world of the living, she never denies her heroines the mythical joys of true romantic journeys and endings), who comes to stay at the genteel, select Hotel du Lac, an old world establishment in Switzerland, to reflect on recent events in her life.
Through the course of the novella, Edith comes to engage with the hotel’s other residents, all beautifully drawn. There’s Monica, with her tiny dog that she passes her hotel food to (she has an eating disorder, and focuses mainly on cakes, coffee and cigarettes to keep her going), while vaguely thinking about her marriage that has come to an impasse.
There’s the relentlessly self-obsessed, rich, always-on-display and well-dressed, elegant Mrs Pusey and her shadowy daughter, Jennifer (acting as a short-form silly Greek Chorus to Mrs Pusey’s endless exclamations about her own life and opinions).
We have stalwart, sad, alone, Mme de Bonneuil, dumped by her only son to live for part of each year at the hotel; and Mr Neville, charming, devilish, always insightful, but without sentiment or love.
He intrigues Edith and is her catalyst to consider making radical changes in her life. He does this by questioning her way of living, and the way she thinks about love, relationships and self – but from his self-interested yet disinterested viewpoint only (such that he proposes marriage but would never declare love).
Faced with a pattern and routine in her life that Edith finds both comforting and sad, including her affair with a married man, Mr Simmons, and for which she is typically pigeon-holed, she is seen by her friends and others as less than she really is in terms of character and depth.
These conflicts act as triggers that, combined, conspire to a decision that ultimately leads her to the Hotel du Lac.
The dialogue and characterisation are consistently rich, entertaining and often provoke the reader into reflecting on her or his own approach to love and a life worth living, and what this says about ourselves.
At the end of the story, Edith’s decision and next step reflect her complete self-awareness and the options available to her, including that of taking a radically different, perhaps more positive (self-interested) approach to her life.
Her decision is very much feminist in spirit and likewise in action: it is solely her own and she is true to whom she is and what she needs in her life.
A thoughtful, moving meditation on personal choices, love and life-changing decisions and ways of living. If you haven’t read Brookner before, this is a great place to start and, I hope, you’ll enjoy it as much I did enough to read some of her later work.