Sunday, July 15, 2012

Review: Hotel du Lac

Just finished the 4th of AB's 24 novels as I re-read them all in chronological order. This reveiw originally appeared on My Porch in honor of the first anniversary of International Anita Brookner Day on July 16, 2011.
…it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market…Hares have no time to read. They are too busy winning the game.
There is no denying that Anita Brookner found her fach and stuck to it. On my first read through all of her 24 novels, I often noted that I had a hard time telling one novel from another. But for some reason over the 14 years that it took me to read all of her novels, it always stuck in my head that the Booker Prize-winning Hotel du Lac was one of my least favorite Brookners. Having now re-read it, I am at a loss to understand why I felt that way. Granted, plenty of you haven’t liked it, but I think that may have had more to do with a general dislike for Brookner rather than anything specific to Hotel du Lac. Although I class myself as a rabid Brookner fan, something intensifying as I re-read her catalogue, I can understand why she is not everyone’s cup of tea.
But for those of us who do like her…

Brookner sets Hotel du Lac is in an unnamed Swiss town along Lac Leman/Lake Geneva in the waning days of the fall shoulder season as the town and the hotel look to close up for the winter. Edith Hope is a romance novelist who has done something scandalous that forces her to escape London until the furor dies down. Being a woman of means, one has to wonder why Edith installs herself in a rather lackluster, grey location with “unemphatic” scenery and poor weather, instead of travelling to some other more pleasant, dynamic location. Perhaps it is because a more interesting destination wouldn’t have provided the proper penance and reflection her acquaintances in England felt she needed. And frankly it also wouldn’t have suited a Brookner character very well. They tend to thrive, if it can be called that, on quiet and gray. True, Edith isn’t a typical Brookner character in some respects. Indeed she takes several decisions, including the one that caused the scandal and the one that ends the book, that belie the usual inertia of a Brookner heroine. Still, in Hotel du Lac we have plenty of compulsive walking: “…she carried on [walking] until she thought it time to be allowed to stop.”

In many ways Hotel du Lac is a treatise on the roles of women in society—at least as Brookner saw them in the early 1980s. It may not cleave to the tenets of traditional feminism, but it most definitely can be read as a gentle, quietly satirical screed against those social conventions that keep women playing to type and being defined solely by their relationships with men. We’ve all met Mrs. Pusey:
On those rare occasions when Mrs. Pusey was sitting alone, Edith had observed her in all sorts of attention-catching ploys, creating a small locus of busyness that inevitably invited someone to come to her aid.
Then there is Mrs. Pusey’s daughter Jennifer, outfitted like a queen (pink harem pants and an off the shoulder blouse—oh the 1980s) who serves as a kind of lady-in-waiting to her mother, while they both wait for the day when a suitable gentleman—someone interested in being the third in their mother/daughter sandwich—comes along to marry Jennifer. And then there is Monica, an eating-disordered woman about to be abandoned by a husband desirious of an heir that she is unable to produce. And Edith’s friend Penelope back in London who insists that a man is needed to legitimize Edith's existence. Even Edith’s romance novel readers, the tortoises, all waiting for the world to turn upside down and reward the slow and the meek.
Many times I reduce Brookner’s characters to caricatures of people who find it impossible to do anything about their lives. I don’t think Edith is that same kind of character. But I do think that the decision she makes at the end of the book--the right decision no doubt--may put her on a trajectory to be one of those people. I think that few of us are truly victims of circumstance. Instead we are victims of our own decisions. As I approached 40 I made some decisions that I thought would keep me from a certain kind of professional future. Now, five years later, I realize that despite having a bit of an enjoyable whirl and liking what I do at the moment, I am back on the professional trajectory that I thought I left for good at 38. The difference is my place on the trajectory is much less secure than it was back then. I could blame it on the bad economy and the short sidedness of the Tea Party, but in the end I made the decisions that led me to this place. I think Edith is rightly changing her trajectory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if she ended up where she started.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Review: Hotel du Lac

The latest review of Hotel du Lac come from Rachel at Book Snob. HdL isn't my favorite Brookner, but I think I liked it more than Rachel did. Still, I am up for any intelligent review, whether positive or negative. I will be re-reading HdL soon in my quest to re-read all her novels in chron order. I am curious to see what I think of it about 12 years after reading it the first time.  In the meantime, take it away Rachel....

Last summer, while I was still living in New York, Thomas hosted International Anita Brookner Day on his blog. I didn’t take part, but I was intrigued by the reviews I read and made a mental note to look out for her titles in future. A couple of weeks later, on a stiflingly muggy, thunderous evening, I was walking from Union Square over to 1st Avenue to catch my bus back to Harlem when I stumbled across a thrift store on a side street. The books were all $1, so I quickly scanned the shelves, looking for treasure. I spotted a pretty hardcover; Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner. How timely! I checked my purse; yes, there was a crumpled dollar bill inside. A sign! I dusted it off and took it to the desk, handing over my dollar just as the heavens opened outside. I shoved Anita into my bag, leapt out into the street, and ran with my friend, laughing to the bus stop as the rain poured down, bouncing off the pavement and soaking us to the skin. Typically, as soon as we got to the bus stop, the rain storm passed. I never ceased to be amazed at how sudden and violent New York rain storms were; and also, how they never ‘cleared the air’, but made it even hotter, causing the sizzling sidewalks to emit steam and increasing the already unbearable humidity. Needless to say, even after all that trouble to get hold of a copy, I never managed to get around to reading Hotel du Lac in New York. When I opened it up on a Greek beach a couple of weeks ago, I smiled at the slight damp stains at the corners and at the thrift store bookmark I had left inside. I’m glad I waited to read it; it was lovely to be reminded about that rainstorm, that night, that magical summer. It’s hard to believe that it was a year ago already.

Anyway, I digress. To the book! It’s probably telling that I found it more pleasurable for the memories it invoked of where I bought it than for the actual story, but that’s not to say that I thought it a bad book. Far from it, actually. Edith Hope is a mildly successful author of romance novels. In her mid thirties, she has a passing resemblance to a dowdy Virginia Woolf and lives a seemingly colourless existence that revolves around her cats and her courtyard garden. However, this is far from the truth; Edith has secretly been up to no good, for quite some time. After committing a terrible faux pas- left unexplained until the middle of the novel – her friend has sent her packing to a luxurious yet old fashioned hotel on a Swiss lake for a month while she ‘comes to her senses’. Edith arrives at the hotel just as it is about to close for the season. It is unostentatiously palatial; a relic of a former age, the owners refuse to acknowledge that its heyday has passed and only accept guests ‘on recommendation’. As the summer is almost over, the clientele has reduced to a small band of discerning regulars; the rich and glamorous widow Iris Pusey and her devoted daughter Jennifer, the painfully thin, beautiful Lady Monica and her dog, and Madame de Bonneuil, an aged countess who has been kicked out of her home by her selfish son’s wife. Edith gradually gets drawn into all of their lives, finding herself surprised at what she discovers under their respectable exteriors. The self absorbed Puseys are not as young as they look, and the love they have for one another is not quite as sweet as it initially appears. Lady Monica’s disdain hides a desperate unhappiness, and the crumpled remnants of Madame de Bonneuil hide a broken heart.

All of these women teach Edith something about what it is to be a woman, and make her reflect on her own life, the mistakes she has made, and what she wants for the future. They are all trapped in the hotel, pinned there, in a way, by their state as dependant women. Their lives are dictated by the men that are or were their partners, and they have no real independent existence. The atmosphere is stifling; the boredom and frustration palpable. There is nothing to do, nothing to see – the holidaymakers have gone, the shops are shut; normal life has resumed for the locals, leaving the remaining guests at the hotel stuck in a strange limbo. When Mr Neville appears on the scene, there is a flurry of activity, of excitement; he cuts through the sickly sweet feminine atmosphere of the hotel, and soon sets about ingratiating himself with his fellow guests. However, he is not what he seems either, and he will unexpectedly force Edith into becoming the active rather than passive agent of her own life.

Not a lot happens in this novel; it is character rather than plot led. Brookner’s powers of observation are excellent, and her prose is intelligent, insightful, well crafted and stylish. It was somewhat reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, with its elegiac, rather depressing undertone, and claustrophobic setting. I loved the characters, especially the Puseys; their somewhat sinister relationship was absolutely fascinating to watch unfold on the pages. However, overall, it left a bit of an odd taste in my mouth. The novel felt a little bit off centre, somehow. It was like reading a second rate Barbara Pym novel, but one set thirty years too late. Like Hotel du Lac itself, everything about the characters and plot feels out dated, old fashioned, tired. The characters don’t ring true to their time period, and there was a mean spirited undertone that I found disconcerting. It is certainly not a pleasant novel, and the limited and reductive portrayal of women’s lives left me feeling cold. However, Brookner’s writing is brilliant, and there are many passages and sentences I re-read with delight, in awe of how she had chosen just the most perfect blend of exquisite words to bring a character or scene to life. Hotel du Lac might not have quite come together for me, but I certainly haven’t been put off Brookner as a novelist. I’m keen to try something else; any suggestions?