Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review: Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner

It’s funny how some books land on a person’s radar. This novel, which won the 1984 Booker Prize, caught my attention after I read a recent essay about it by U.K. literary critic Mark Lawson. In his piece, Lawson discussed how he couldn’t stand Brookner’s work as a younger man (he found Hotel du Lac especially galling to read) but he has since ‘grown’ into her writing as he has gotten older. He had some pretty curt things to say about this novel, which, paradoxically enough, made me want to pick it up.

Lawson is bang on when he says that nothing much happens in Hotel du Lac. It tells the story of aging spinster romance writer Edith Hope and how she has fled London to a hotel on a lake in Geneva after abandoning both her groom-to-be at the alter and the married man with whom she’s been having a listless affair. Her time at the hotel is supposed to be a kind of ‘probation’ for her, but the mousy, self-absorbed, frayed cardigan-wearing Edith cannot help observing the other guests at the hotel and creating long, ruminative narratives for them in her head. These guests include the uber-materialistic Mrs. Pusey and her daughter Jennifer, as well as the mysteriously alluring Mr. Neville, with whom Edith strikes up a queerly anemic sort of romance. This is a quintessential ‘novel of manners’, with its narrative voice quietly analyzing and judging everyone’s words and actions. It’s slow-paced and dry, with most of the ‘action’ – though I hesitate to call it that – happening at an internal level.

For a book so short (just 184 pages) and so withered, there was a lot in Hotel du Lac to both impress and annoy this reader. There’s no doubt that Brookner can write beautifully and deeply about female psychology and the small, subtle undulations in a conversation between women who have their own agendas and biases. There is some great aphoristic writing in Hotel du Lac (“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything”) and some beautifully rendered descriptions of the lake and of the hotel. What’s more, for an author whose writing has been accused of excessive austerity, Brookner is capable of pulling off some subtly humourous bits. I’m thinking specifically of the scene in which Edith, prior to fleeing to Geneva, has lunch with her literary agent, Harold. In this passage, it’s almost as if Brookner is openly addressing those who would criticize her writing’s approach:

"Now you will notice, Harold, that in my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has had a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie, of course … In real life, of course, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market. Axiomatically,’ she cried, her voice rising with enthusiasm. ‘Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game. The propaganda goes all the other way, but only because it is the tortoise who is in need of consolation."

I must have read this excerpt a half dozen times, chuckling a bit more forcefully with each pass. I think it’s the “axiomatically” that gets me, every time.

Still, Lawson is right to point out the numerous flaws in Brookner’s writing that are on display in Hotel du Lac. She has numerous clumsy sentences and a penchant for redundancy and repetition. I mean, how many times does she alert us to Mr. Neville’s ‘ambiguous smile’, or repeat some five-dollar word she’s plucked from the thesaurus? Worse, most of her characters come off as more of an embodiment of ideas and biases rather than real flesh-and-blood people. This is no more true than with Mr. Neville himself. He seems to exist for the sole purpose of challenging Edith’s perceptions of herself and the world; he seems to hold no other agenda. Perhaps Brookner wanted to raise him up as a paragon of low-grade misogyny, especially with quotes like this one, of him speaking to Edith:

“You are not the sort of woman of whom men are afraid, hysterics who behave as though they are the constant object of scandal or desire, who boast of their conquests and their performance, and who think they can do anything so long as they entertain their friends and keep a minimal bargain with their husbands.”
“Women too are afraid of that sort of woman,” murmured Edith.
“No,” he said. “Most women are that sort of woman.”

Alrighty then. If alluring Mr. Neville, with his ‘ambiguous smile’, actually feels this way about the entire female set, then why would I even bother to care whether dried-out old Edith ends up with him?

That, in a nutshell, is my biggest problem with this book, as it is with many so-called ‘novels of manners’. If each character is meant to ‘represent’ something – an idea, a stereotype, or some odious prejudice in the world – rather than be a full-blooded human with all of the concomitant complexities and contradictions, then why should I care about him or her? And if I don’t care, then it won’t matter what happens in the novel, or even if something happens at all, because it will ultimately feel as if nothing important is at stake. That is my biggest criticism of Hotel du Lac: if each character is a wind-up toy set in motion, do I really care what the outcomes will amount to?

Mind you, a book of manners can be done very well. I’m thinking most recently of Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand (read my review here.) Oddly enough, this book was overlooked for this year’s Booker longlist. Ms. Brookner was infinitely luckier with her novel. I am of course too young to know whether Hotel du Lac caused any controversy when it won that prize 26 years ago. But I suspect that there were some critics out there (Lawson among them) who thought that if this the best writing that the Commonwealth could produce that year, then the Commonwealth needs to do better.

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