Hotel du Lac

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Anita Brookner belongs to that distinctively British line of women authors whose work, while maintaining a certain emotional distance, is distinguished by writing so clear, careful, and uncompromising that it is both witty and critical without ever descending to the deliberate venom of satire. Brookner has often been compared to Barbara Pym. Hotel du Lac is dedicated to Rosamond Lehmann; its protagonist resembles Virginia Woolf only physically—she is far too humble to claim any other similarity. The line begins, naturally, with Jane Austen. In Hotel du Lac, Brookner echoes Austen’s carefully limited cast, small social compass, and restricted setting. Thus she is able, for her own ironic purposes, to lull readers into sharing the characters’ Austenite presupposition that a single woman of a certain age has very few cards to play and that a presentable man with a respectable income must be in want of a wife.

Both premises may indeed be accurate, but the conclusions Brookner draws from them quite adequately demonstrate that hers is a novel of the late twentieth century rather than the late eighteenth. (Jane Austen’s considerable influence on contemporary women’s writing may well be related to the fact that Austen lived in an age when intelligence in women was at least marginally permissible, before the domestic ideology of the nineteenth century took full hold.) The situation in Brookner’s novel is that Edith Hope, thirty-nine years old, industrious, dependable, self-reliant, single, and moderately successful as a writer of romance novels, has gone for a month’s retreat to a Swiss resort hotel. The book unfolds slowly as she observes her fellow guests, writes letters to her lover, and, in carefully controlled doses, gives readers some information about her personal and emotional history.

In a novel so deliberately constructed to avoid passion and excitement, the emphasis falls on style. Leisurely sentences soothe the reader with their careful precision, while the devastating implications slowly creep up from behind. For example, Brookner describes the Hotel du Lac: It is dignified and traditional; its patrons are well-to-do, prudent, and respected. The hotel features quality furnishings, excellent service, and avoids vulgar amenities such as saunas, hairdressers, or even scenic guided tours. The austere bar discourages lingering. There is no attempt to provide entertainment. After two pages of similarly restrained detail selected to establish the hotel’s high standards, noncommercialism, and respectability, the last essential piece of information appears equally factual and nonjudgmental: The Hotel du Lac isguaranteed to provide a restorative sojourn for those whom life had mistreated or merely fatigued. Its name and situation figured in the card indexes of those whose business it is to know such things. Certain doctors knew it, many solicitors knew it, brokers and accountants knew it. Travel agents did not know it, or had forgotten it. Those families who benefit from the periodic absence of one of their more troublesome members treasured it.

Like many contemporary novels, the book has a writer as protagonist, thus letting the author create a central character who can observe, explain, and see in ways that might not otherwise be plausible. Edith Hope’s specific occupation allows for much of the book’s irony, explains her particular bias in observation, and adds delight to the final resolution. She is, as Brookner puts it, “a writer of romantic fiction under a more thrusting name.” Her writerly inclination gives her an excuse to study her fellow guests at the hotel. It is also a device to keep her feelings disengaged, a means of living in the head that allows her to see reality in a fashion that sometimes obscures actuality.

Edith Hope begins her stay as an observer, taking interested note of her fellow guests. The most fascinating are Iris Pusey, a radiantly glamorous woman apparently of middle years, and her daughter Jennifer, a pudgy, naïve, and as yet undeveloped copy and loving companion of her mother. Edith’s attraction to this pair suggests the way she has used observation and intellect as barriers to self-examination. She believes they interest her as a writer. In observing Iris Pusey’s painless self-gratification and her...

(The entire section is 1765 words.)