Hotel du Lac (1984), elegantly written, intelligent and witty, won the Booker Prize and brought considerable fame for its author, Anita Brookner. This, her best novel, is set in a luxury hotel, out of season, in the pristine setting of Lake Geneva and the towering mountains in French Switzerland. The six vividly portrayed and contrasted guests—five English and one French, five women and one man—have personal problems with their mothers and sexual problems with their husbands or lovers. At the end of the novel the characters have not solved their crippling difficulties and remain in the same perplexity and unhappiness as they began.
Anita Brookner doesn’t explain, until two-thirds of the way into the novel, what dreadful act has led to the banishment of Edith Hope, the autobiographical heroine. She writes commercially successful, formulaic romances under the slyly comic pseudonym of Vanessa Wilde, which not only uses Virginia Woolf’s initials and the name of her sister, but also recalls the notorious homosexual life of Oscar Wilde. Edith’s fictional heroines always get their desirable men, but their success does not reflect her own life. A keen observer of human frailties, she is shabbily dressed and self-effacingly shy: “a mild-looking, slightly bony woman in a long cardigan, distant, inoffensive, quite nice eyes, rather large hands and feet, meek neck.” She is compared to Woolf, not the stunning young Virginia, but the mature, rather awkward and drab Bluestocking. But Edith lacks the six essential qualities that established Woolf’s reputation: distinguished father, physical beauty, adulation by the Bloomsbury Group, devoted husband, mental illness and suicide.
Very like Brookner in appearance and character, Edith is well-educated, brilliant and amusing, but rather plain. She’s had lovers and refused marriage, remains independent, has her own flat and earns her own money. She writes the same kind of predictable novels and refuses to change them by adding sex scenes to suit contemporary taste. In her Paris Review interview (1987) Brookner, dedicated to her writing, called herself, with considerable exaggeration, “one of the loneliest women in London.”
Edith’s friends think she has a pitiful existence, can’t imagine she has a secret lover and so try to improve her life. But she’s quite content with her quiet independence, her loyal agent, her successful novels and her gratifying garden. Despite her old maidish appearance, she manages to attract three impressive men. She’s in love with David, a married auctioneer who cannot see her very often, and satisfies him sexually.
Nevertheless, Edith accepts the proposal of the kind, comforting and dull Geoffrey Long, who is still grieving for his recently deceased mother. He gives Edith his mother’s opal ring, precious to him, meaningless to her. She loves her garden but will lose it and won’t have another one if she moves into his house. She lives alone to entertain her secret lover, and drives to the Registry Office wedding alone, instead of with the usual companion. En route she suddenly changes her mind and tells the chauffeur to drive on. Though usually kind, she cruelly jilts and humiliates Long on their wedding day. She voluntarily goes to Switzerland, not as a punishment but as a place for reflection.
The old, widowed and lonely Countess Bonneuil has been exiled to the hotel. She longs to be with her son, but his wife has excluded her from their villa across the lake and he dutifully visits her only once a month. She weeps when they part, but is stone deaf and rude to the other guests. Grossly obese, she eats greedily and sloppily.
The self-indulgent Iris Pusey vulgarly and ostentatiously displays the wealth she inherited from her late husband. He insisted that only the best was good enough for her, and she’s become a compulsive and compensatory shopper, wanting to acquire everything for herself, even if there isn’t enough left over for anyone else. She overwhelms her adult daughter Jennifer with affection, keeping her fixed in childish behaviour and childlike dependence. She sees the handsome Swiss waiter bringing breakfast to Jennifer’s room, falsely accuses him of making sexual advances, and is pleased to get him slapped and fired by the manager. In a rare rebellious moment Jennifer, who wears harem pants, escapes from her mother’s domination for a brief sexual encounter: a frantic tumble and a sad farewell.
Beautiful, elegant, upper-class Monica is married to “Sir John.” She’s a terrible snob, calls her husband “a jumped-up ironmonger” and despises everyone who’s “in trade.” Monica suffers from bulimia, secretly gorging on chocolate cakes and feeding the hotel meals to her incontinent lapdog Kiki. Both Monica, who constantly smokes forbidden cigarettes to suppress her appetite and keep her pencil-thin figure, and the overstuffed dog, sick up their food. Monica’s aristocratic birth and beauty are nullified by her infertility, and if she can’t produce a male heir after this rest cure at the hotel, her husband will give her the push. She desperately wants to have a baby, and Kiki is a pathetic substitute for the baby she can’t have.
The names of the characters are revealing. The surname of Edward Pusey, a severe 19th-century Anglican clergyman and Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, is absurdly inappropriate for the vulgar shopper. Monica’s name is connected to the Greek word for “solitary” and “alone”; her spoiled lapdog Kiki is named after a notorious prostitute in Montparnasse. The name of Neville, who pursues and proposes to Edith Hope, is nearly an anagram for “villain.” While Neville is coldly courting her, Edith, a hopeless case, must learn to abandon her hopes. She shouts, “ ‘I hate you,’ hopefully,” hoping she’ll have the courage to reject him. The first name of Edith’s London lover David echoes the last name of the French artist David, the subject of a work by Brookner. (When not writing novels, she was a distinguished art historian.)
Edith meets the worldly and attractive Philip Neville, the prosperous owner of a successful electronics company, in the Hotel du Lac. He has been emotionally wounded by his ex-wife, who ran off with her younger lover and remains surprisingly happy with him. Edith’s ambivalent analysis of Neville’s character finds reasons both to accept and to reject him: “He is even good-looking: an eighteenth-century face, fine, reticent, full-lipped, with a faint bluish gleam of beard just visible beneath the healthy skin. A heartless man, I think. Furiously intelligent. Suitable . . . a wealthy man in his fifties, fastidious, careful, leisured, attractive in a bloodless sort of way.”
Neville’s harsh, egoistic beliefs are antithetical to Edith’s more humane values. He adopts personal gratification as an emotional defence and tells her: “You have no idea how promising the world begins to look once you have decided to have it all for yourself. And how much healthier your decisions are once they become entirely selfish.” Like the greedy Iris Pusey, Neville wants to have everything. He proposes marriage with the cold understanding that, unlike his first wife, Edith “will not shame me, will not ridicule me, will not hurt my feelings.” Though not glamorous or attractive, Edith is a safe choice for his next wife. She tries to persuade herself that, for a woman in her unenviable position, his strange conditions are a reasonable basis for marriage.
Neville frankly criticises Edith, but proposes a loveless yet comfortable arrangement in which they would both be free to discreetly take lovers. He pressures Edith, soon after they meet, to make her life-changing decision in only a few days. She reluctantly accepts, but changes her mind—even though she’s agreed he can have lovers—when she sees Neville leaving Jennifer’s room after their furtive sexual encounter. Just as she’d backed out of marriage to Long, she now realises that she prefers love with the often absent and unattainable David to a wealthy but loveless life with Neville.
There are excellent contrasts between the crude eating habits of the Countess and of the exiguous Monica; the appearance and attitudes of the imperious, beautiful Monica and the humble, plain Edith. Edith makes a laughing stock of Geoffrey Long; Neville’s wife has made a laughing stock of him. Jennifer’s mother falsely accuses the handsome waiter of having sex with her daughter; Neville has sex with her and gets away with it. Since Edith can’t have David, the man she loves, who “never knew of her empty Sundays, the long eventless evenings, her holidays cancelled at the last minute,” she accepts two proposals and then rejects both.
Edith’s “idea of absolute happiness,” impossible to achieve with David, “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.” Edith realises that David doesn’t love her, that he would never leave his wife and children for her. But she now has a greater understanding of her life, and accepts her limited but satisfying role with the man she still loves. She accepts loneliness, the absence of her lover, her lack of social position and children. She’s an object of pity and failure in the eyes of her friends, though not in her own.
In the Paris Review Brookner said, “The contrast is between damaged people and those who are undamaged,” but in Hotel du Lac all the people are damaged. She also explained, “Edith Hope twice nearly marries. She balks at the last minute and decides to stay in a hopeless relationship with a married man. As I wrote it I felt very sorry for her and at the same time very angry: she should have married one of them—they were interchangeable anyway—and at least gained some worldly success, some social respectability.” But Neville is much livelier and more interesting than Long, and they are not interchangeable. Though she identified with Edith, Brookner disingenuously spoke as if she had no creative control over her own fictional characters, as if they had to go their own way despite her wishes, and follow the constraints of the novel.
Brookner uses pictorial and literary allusions, her essential technique, to evoke the scenes and create moods, heighten the style and alert the reader, enhance the interest and meaning of the novel. Slade Professor of Art History at Cambridge and Reader at the Courtauld Institute, she alludes to but doesn’t identify the artists or titles of the nine paintings and one film. Here is a list of these allusions:
–“a picture of men lying splayed in a cornfield under a hot sun” (49).—Pieter Brueghel, The Harvesters (1585) was Edith’s first childhood exposure to art when her father took her to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
–“Turkish baths. A tiled hammam, its walls bright with coins of light reflected from the water” (56).—J. A. D. Ingres, The Turkish Bath (1862). In this work and in Delacroix, Edith enters David’s world by imagining the luxurious and sensual pictures that he is auctioning off in his Rooms. She admires the beauty of art; he emphasises their material value and doesn’t discuss aesthetic qualities with her.
–“silent servants in gauze trousers bringing sherbet . . . in whitewashed houses shuttered against the heart of the afternoon, a dreaming, glowing idleness, inspired by Delacroix” (56).—Eugène Delacroix, Women of Algiers (1834).
–“that portrait of the Duke of Wellington that was stolen from the National Gallery” (81)—by Francisco Goya (1814) reminds her of Neville’s eighteenth-century face. It was stolen in 1961 and returned by the thief four years later.
–“this garden of earthly delights” (107)— Hieronymus Bosch (1515). Pusey’s lavish birthday party is ironically compared to the painter’s earthly pleasures.
–pictorial representations: Ship of Fools (160)— Bosch (1500). In a gloomy mood on the lake steamer, Edith recalls that ships often ferry souls to Hades. Bosch’s allegory from Plato’s Republic (Book VI) shows stupid people out of control and sailing blindly into chaos and oblivion.
–“slave ship” (160)—J. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840) and his next work portray disasters at sea in spectacular colours.
–“shipwreck” (160)—Turner, The Shipwreck (1805).
–“the crowd began to struggle down the steps, reminding her of a sequence in some early masterpiece of the cinema. . . . She was prepared for shots to ring out, fatalities to occur” (130).—Sergei Eisenstein, the Odessa steps in his film Battleship Potemkin (1925). The most brilliant allusion compares Edith driving past her wedding guests to a famous sailors’ revolt on a Russian warship in 1905.
–“Time Revealing Truth” (88)—by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1750), shows what Edith learned about love and herself in the course of her punitive exile.
The next two allusions are ironic.
–“see waiters speeding to their command” (61)—John Milton’s poem, “When I consider how my light is spent” (1673): “Thousands at his bidding speed / And post o’er Land and Ocean without rest.” The hotel waiters wittily replace God’s racing angels.
–“The woman with the dog” (173)—Anton Chekhov, “The Lady with the Dog” (1899). The remote and icy Monica is compared to a married woman’s adulterous affair with a Moscow banker in Yalta.
The following two allusions are titles of Edith’s romantic novels.
–“Beneath the Visiting Moon” (17, 24, 51)—Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (1607).
—The Sun at Midnight (74, 89) and Le Soleil de Minuit (150). The English and French titles of Edith’s book are a variant and a translation of Geneviève Laporte’s memoir of Picasso, Sunshine at Midnight (1974).
The other allusions illuminate Edith’s literate and sophisticated character.
–“a mother who handed down maxims on tablets of stone” (104)—God gives Moses the graven Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, in Exodus 19:20. Edith disliked her unstable mother, and wishes she had been a strong, moralistic and godlike guide.
–“Through the silent garden, through an iron gate” (20)—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden (1911) refers to Edith’s precious garden and the threat of losing it.
–“A cold coming I had of it” (10)—T. S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi” (1927) ironically notes her comfortable but unwilling journey from England to banishment in Switzerland.
–“Not drowning, but waving” (10)—a witty reversal of the poem by Stevie Smith, “Not Waving, but Drowning” (1957). Edith’s friends think she’s drowning in a wasted life, but she’s actually surviving and waving positively to them.
–“Doomed for a certain term to walk the earth” (22)—Shakespeare, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father (1603), expresses Edith’s gloomy mood when she first arrives in her reluctant rustication.
–“what news from Cranford?” (114)—Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford (1853). David’s lighthearted question alludes to Edith’s ordinary life and uneventful world.
–“they order things better in Swindon” (98)—Laurence Sterne, A Sentimental Journey (1768): “they order this matter better in France.” Edith sharply refers to Neville’s provincial factory (actually in more desirable Marlborough) after he’s mocked her limited life.
–“A beautiful night, pleasant, calm” (77)—William Wordsworth, sonnet (1803): “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free.” In contrast to the earlier quotation from Hamlet, this allusion expresses her happier mood as she adjusts to the promising life in the hotel.
–“the Wild Boy of Aveyron” (94)—The French feral child, found at age nine in 1797, is an extreme example of Edith’s acknowledged naiveté.
–“Like the meek who are going to inherit the earth” (28)—Psalms 37:11. Edith’s character contradicts the false biblical promise. She’s meek but doesn’t inherit anything.
–“the way of the world” (167)—William Congreve’s play, The Way of the World (1700) confirms Neville’s cynical advice to “behave as badly as you like.”
–“the world well lost for love” (98, 166)—John Dryden, All for Love, or the World Well Lost (1677) suggests the theme of the novel. Edith remains true to her love and loses the worldly gifts promised by Long and Neville.
–“I am, as Swann said of Odette, not your type” (180)—In Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way (1913), Swann’s obsessively and painfully pursues Odette though he doesn’t really like her. Proust expresses Edith’s bitter disillusionment as she remains faithful to the elusive David.
–“the Lady of Shalott” (30)—Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1833), comes closest to Edith’s character. Imprisoned in a tower and with a curse upon her, the sad Lady escapes by boat, floats down to Camelot and dies before she reaches her goal. Matthew Arnold’s lines apply to Edith’s quest: we have, “After the knowledge of our buried life, / A thirst to spend our fire and restless force / In tracking out our true, original course.”
Jeffrey Meyers, FRSL, has had thirty-three of his fifty-four books translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets and published on six continents. He’s recently published Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love (2015). Alex Colville: The Mystery of the Real (2016) and Resurrections: Authors, Heroes—and a Spy (2018).
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